Rockin’ burgers & decadently delicious bites at Red Garter Bar & Grill

October 11, 2022
By Mark Whittaker
By Mark Whittaker

Off the Eatin' Path

Let’s get one thing out of the way here: The Red Garter Bar & Grill is not a strip club.

The history behind this “longer than you would think” assumption goes back decades and is still sometimes active to this day. Tucson Foodie is all about educating you all, especially about our enduring eateries and drinkeries. So, let us begin with a brief history of your favorite, or soon-to-be favorite, midtown hangout, The Red Garter. Are you ready? Here we go.

Red Garter Bar & Grill (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Picking the perfect name

The original Red Garter opened in 1969 in the space once used for the infamous Smiley’s Rock ‘n Roll Bar by a tried and true Tucson cowboy named Bud Walden. He just wanted to go into business for himself while providing a no-nonsense bar for him and his friends to meet and drink. Although at the time, the bar and restaurant wasn’t called The Red Garter. It was called Gordo’s.

The business was totally fine under that name… for a while, that is. In the late ‘70s, another business opened up under the Gordo’s name, only this Gordo’s was a Mexican restaurant — one of the restaurants claiming to have invented our beloved chimichanga way back when. In fact, on YouTube, you can watch the Gordo’s commercial that ran for years in high rotation here in Tucson. But that’s a whole different story.

To say that Bud and his employees got a little tired of their phone ringing with people asking about Mexican food that didn’t exist in their place is putting it mildly. It grew old really fast. One day, Bud and his crew gathered around a large snifter and each one threw in a piece of paper with a possible new name for their bar.

“Red Garter” was the name they plucked out.

Red Garter Bar & Grill (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Now, here is where the whole strip club identity confusion moves in.

The original logo for the Red Garter was a women’s curvy leg donning a, yes, red garter. When that logo was emblazed on the building, coasters, and shirts, you can see how some people incorrectly perceived the newly named local bar. Plus, this was in the roaring ‘80s when establishments of a certain “cabaret entertainment” were sprouting up all over the southern Arizona landscape.

Trotting into a new location

In the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, the Speedway Boulevard expansion hit. If they didn’t act fast the restaurant would’ve literally been right on the curb. Bud sold the building to the city and moved his bar operation a few blocks east, the same location where is stands today at 3143 E. Speedway Blvd.

Fortunately, in 1989, Bud’s son, Matt, joined as co-owner along with his wife, Tara, who joined in 1990. When Walden’s relocated in 1991, Matt wanted the newly expanded operation to serve food as this was during the popular “three martini lunch” for business meetings. This was not an easy or quick build-out, mind you. It took two years to get the old building up to code, to get the kitchen up and running, and to get customers acclimated to the Red Garter’s new home.

In 1993, the Red Garter reopened, this time with the addition of Bar and Grill brightly lit on a marquee, and a large black stallion painted on the main wall near the entrance.

“To this day, people walk in and ask if we are a strip club,” Tara laughed, sitting in one of their signature western-themed booths. “It’s because there are no windows in the main bar and dining hall, I guess.”

The Club Sandwich at Red Garter Bar & Grill (Photo by Mark Whittaker)
The Club Sandwich at Red Garter Bar & Grill
Bar food at its finest

The Red Garter began as a small bar, with maybe a dozen stools and a few tables dotting the intimate space that did not serve food. Its billiards area even earned them “Best Pool Hall” a few years back.

Another “Best Of” that came their way was for their burgers in 2007, and this is where my history with the Red Garter begins.

Shortly after moving to Tucson in 2006, I was invited to watch the Super Bowl at the Red Garter because, according to my friends and soon-to-be wife, they served the best bar food in town. This was the time right before the smoking ban was initiated, too. Me being a lifelong non-smoker, I walked into a cigarette cloud similar to the fog I experienced while living in San Francisco.

I did not order food that night. Luckily, just a few months after, the interior smoking rule was set and I was finally able to enjoy the Red Garter smoke-free and taste what my friends have been raving about this whole time.

It was well worth the wait.

If you are a bar that serves food and has mozzarella sticks on your menu, they better be at least decent. For fans of mozzarella sticks, the Red Garter is the stadium for your new favorite fried team. The mozzarella sticks are crispy, perfect, gooey, and more than just decent. They are decadently delicious.

While sipping one of the many refreshing draft beers, you’ll also need to have a basket of wings in front of you. It’s like a Tucson tradition to watch the Wildcats win/try as you chew/maneuver saucy wings — not caring that your mouth is now basically a hot blotch of spicy barbecue and cool component ranch.

Pastrami sandwich at Red Garter Bar & Grill (Photo by Mark Whittaker)
Pastrami sandwich at Red Garter Bar & Grill

On a personal note, the Red Garter’s Pastrami sandwich is a definite go-to and has been for at least a decade. It reminds me of the first time I ate a pastrami sandwich in a small café in Los Angeles as a young boy. Other than being huge and full of deli-inspired flavors, there is that hint of childhood joy when I first discovered one of my sandwich obsessions, eating over a tabletop Ms. Pac-Man, and watching “Diff’rent Strokes” on the TV hanging above the register.

Then, yes, there is the burger. Or should I say burgers because they offer many delightful combination varieties Now, I have had my fair share of burgers, and being the food truck/bar food/diner guy here at Tucson Foodie, I have had some incredible, and some so-so, burgers during my time, all of which have had to stand up to the ones cooked at the Red Garter.

Andy's Junkyard Burger at Red Garter Bar & Grill (Photo by Mark Whittaker)
Andy’s Junkyard Burger at Red Garter Bar & Grill

It is a burger that is so tasty, no matter what amazing aggregate tower of toppings it has, I normally have to set it aside for special occasions; birthdays, holidays, before or after seeing my favorite band play, if the cat did something cute that afternoon, etc. If I didn’t limit myself I would be there all too regularly.

The point is the food at the Red Garter, beyond being really yummy, is consistent, consistently generous, and consistent with its approach since the beginning. Both Tara and Matt have barely changed the menu since they reopened the bar, along with their kitchen, almost 30 years ago.

Chef Salad at Red Garter Saloon (Photo by Mark Whittaker)
Chef Salad at Red Garter Bar & Grill (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

This is what drives their business and the attention of their regulars or those new to the restaurant. Now that Bud is no longer with us, they honor his legacy with that consistency we have all come to love, embrace, and appreciate.

The Red Garter rules. You either already knew that or now you do.

I just have to say this one more time though: This is not a strip club.

Red Garter Bar & Grill is located at 3143 E. Speedway Blvd. For more information, visit or follow Red Garter on Facebook and Instagram

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Article By

Mark Whittaker began his journalism career in San Francisco around 1997. It was for a small Northern California music magazine that segued into contributing to numerous magazines, websites, newspapers and weeklies throughout the 90’s and early 2000’s. Mark interviewed bands,...

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