In 1978, Janet Seidler opened Blue Willow as a restaurant and bakery. She envisioned a restaurant with house-made food made from fresh ingredients, offered seven days a week.
Seidler also wanted to sell inexpensive posters and greeting cards, so she added an iconic, entry point gift shop in the restaurant.
"The gift shop began as a poster shop," said Rebecca Ramey, co-owner and daughter of Seidler. "It was created in the seventies as a way for students and locals to purchase fine art in print form at a time when it was pricey and not easily accessible."
Nowadays, the gift shop is a go-to spot for locals and tourists.
It sells one-of-a-kind coffee mugs, over 20 different lines of greeting cards, magnets, jewelry, and many Tucson-specific items. It's an eclectic combination of the varied offerings from sources such as a museum gift shop, Spencer's, and Urban Outfitters.
"A lot of our items provide good humor which everyone could use more of," Ramey said. "It's fun to hear guests laughing out loud as they read and share funny quotes from mugs and books."
The feel-good vibes extend to the food as well. Eating at Blue Willow genuinely makes you feel at home, especially with the cozy fireplace.
"The Blue Willow is known for serving wholesome meals that I would define as comfort food with a regional twist," she said. "Many of the hearty soups and our very popular beef chili were my grandmother's recipes that [I] use to this day."
Although tradition is one of the defining features of Blue Willow, they recently began including some regional items as a nod to their Tucson heritage.
"We were excited to learn of the UNESCO World City of Gastronomy designation and looked for ways to add local ingredients to round out the menu that already included classics like huevos rancheros and green corn tamales," Ramey said.
Additional key components of Blue Willow's dishes are the generous portion sizes and scratch-made preparation for the entire menu.
"Scratch cooking and baking is what set us apart from any other restaurant when we opened in 1978," Ramey said. "Other restaurants served canned or frozen vegetables and pre-made sauces. It was important to my mother, who grew up idolizing Julia Child, to provide that same quality from scratch recipes she always loved making at home."
The restaurant also serves several vegan and gluten-free items, including vegan chili, breakfast burritos, oatmeal, and sandwiches, and gluten-free huevos rancheros, scrambles, and hummus. Blue Willow is also a bakery, which offers a wide range of pastries and quiches.
"We have a fantastic in-house baker Patty Miller-Aceto," Ramey said. "She does everything from creating new recipes to baking our famous chocolate sour cream cake, to making special pies and chocolates daily. She keeps the front desk stocked with cookies, bars, and brownies."
Blue Willow takes special orders on bakery items, which is another element that sets them apart from neighboring restaurants.
Although the bakery is gaining popularity, they're most known for their breakfast and brunch.
Among the long list of breakfast items on the menu, standout items include the French Toast ($7) with whole wheat cinnamon raisin bread or egg bread, and the Eggs Benedict Blue Willow ($10.25) which is a toasted wheat English muffin with grilled ham, poached eggs, and cheese sauce. A veggie version is also available, as well as a Tofu Breakfast Stir Fry ($10.50).
The Blue Willow Special ($10.25) is a scramble of eggs, chicken, green chiles, tomatoes, and corn tortillas, topped with cheddar, salsa, and sour cream. The restaurant also offers thirteen different omelettes ($9.75), many of which offer Southwestern twists such as sour cream, green chiles, and avocado.
"The Blue Willow Special is our most ordered dish and was on the original 1978 menu," Ramey said.
For lunch, the salads are by far the fan favorite. The Apple Salad ($11.50), also offered during dinner, is prepared with organic greens, organic apple slices, handcrafted Sonoma goat cheese, and spiced pecans. Drizzled on top is an apple cider vinaigrette — made in-house, of course.
Blue Willow also offers a Chicken Salad Stuffed Avocado ($12.50). The stuffed salad is accompanied with fresh fruit and cottage cheese.
"One can easily find influences from around the globe on our lunch and dinner menus, from Asian to Italian to French, and of course, hearty American meals," Ramey said.
"We are known for breakfast, but I am equally proud of our dinner service, where we hold the passion of Julia Child true to heart," Ramey said.
For dinner, one of the more popular entrées is the Pecan-Crusted Fresh Idaho Rainbow Trout Filets ($15.50 half portion, $18.50 full), served with lemon parsley butter, mashed red potatoes, sautéed broccolini, and lemon wedges on the side. The trout — crisp, light, and moist — flakes off easily. The mashed potatoes are creamy and the lemon wedges provide an extra zest of flavor to the dish.
Similar to the trout, the Spice-Rubbed Fresh Atlantic Salmon Filet ($21) is also popular. The salmon is served with a cucumber and yogurt tzatziki sauce in addition to roasted Yukon Gold potatoes and sautéed vegetables. All seafood, including the salmon, at Blue Willow is provided by family-owned Blessings Seafood.
"I always like to mention the meatloaf," Ramey said. "It's made with locally-raised grass-fed beef from Double Check Ranch."
The popular Blue Willow Meatloaf ($15) is served with mashed red potatoes, sautéed fresh vegetables, and your choice of mushroom gravy or barbecue sauce. The meatloaf is also offered at lunch.
In addition to the regular menu items, nightly specials are also offered.
"Guests can enjoy their same, favorite dishes that they've enjoyed for years, or can venture to new fare," she said. "Menu additions for our dinner crowd exemplify our passion for pushing the Tucson food envelope forward for us, as well as our guests."
Blue Willow also serves a large selection of beer and wine, as well as margaritas, bloody marys, and mixed drinks.
For drinks, try the Prickly Pear Margarita or the Arizona Sunset with Skyy Vodka, pineapple juice, orange juice, and grenadine.
"Our mixed drink menu is unique in that we offer premium liquors, and guests choose from a list of mixers to create their own cocktail," Ramey said.
But at a comforting place like Blue Willow, it's hard to forget about dessert.
Behold the cherry-filled dome-shaped chocolate cake Cherry Bomb. The moist and rich chocolate cake is covered in chocolate ganache and stuffed with cherry pie filling.
Additionally, Blue Willow offers pies, cake, ice cream, and chocolate crepes.
If you're waiting for a new Blue Willow location to open closer to you, it's probably best to not get your hopes up.
"We’re a small, family-owned business with 55 employees," Ramey said in a previous interview. I think we’re happy with just one location."
History is also one of the key characteristics of Blue Willow. The restaurant's main dining room is in a 1940s adobe house that previously served as a rental building for the University of Arizona, a mechanic garage, an antique shop, and a preschool.
"The adobe building is historic, the patio is hard to beat, Ramey said. "We’re comfortable where we are."
With Blue Willow recently reaching its 39-year anniversary, Seidler's dream has become a Tucson staple.
Blue Willow Restaurant & Gift Shop is located at 2616 N. Campbell Ave. and is open 7 a.m. - 9 p.m. weekdays and 8 a.m. - 9 p.m. weekends. For more information, call the restaurant at (520) 327-7577 or visit bluewillowtucson.com.
[This article was originally written on January 18, 2017 and most recently updated on January 17, 2019]