It’s almost as if the place doesn’t exist but, in fact, it actually does. Walking into The Red Light Lounge at the Downtown Clifton Hotel is similar to entering a cozy room lit only by wicked firelight — where one isn’t too sure if this is a bar or a bistro. You’ll be happy to discover that it is indeed both.
It exudes that feeling of some tucked away cafe in a story you once read about in a book by an author you’ve never heard of. It's angular, it's dark, it welcomes whispers and singing alike and, best of all, the food is exquisite and the drinks are definitely on your side.
It's autumn now. Most inventive chefs are dealing with the seasonal haul of the harvest, marking up dry-erase boards with ideas, scribbling in well-worn notebooks, and sopping up coffee spills from late-night laptop sessions. Chef Stacy Vernooy of The Red Light Lounge is no different.
The only exception is that her kitchen mirrors the surroundings of the boutique hotel as it is petite, to say the least, and the lounge itself maxes out at a capacity of less than 50. That’s not counting the few tables outside and along the bar, either in or out.
Having a lengthy menu would be absurd in a spot such as this. Vernooy needs to keep it tight, keep it focused, and keep it delicious with food that she and her guests would want to eat.
Chef Vernooy has rolled out a new fall menu and its newest members are most welcoming. With the help of sous chef Vinny Magana, this menu reflects not just the motives and esthetic of the Clifton but of its close neighbors downtown.
An easy standout on the new menu has to be the BLFT Torta ($12).
Vernooy being a Tucson resident by way of Oklahoma, and this being Tucson and all, having a playfully scrumptious torta is always a good way to celebrate our Southwest home. The B, bacon — crispy and smoky. L, lettuce — organic and locally grown. And now for the FT, belonging to the fried green tomatoes which make this an ode to both Vernooy’s desert and southern roots.
A simply outstanding sandwich; big and bold in stature and execution.
Since they have been gifted a bevy of Sonoran-grown pumpkins, the best way to deal with that fortunate situation is to pickle them. Yes, you heard that correctly. The Red Light Lounge has pickled pumpkins and they are featured quite spectacularly in its new Fall Salad ($12). Sitting proudly with spinach and arugula, a toss of spiced candied pecans, roasted sweet potato, and then mixed with a house maple balsamic vinaigrette, the pickled pumpkins add just that extra autumn aura. Visually and with sapidity, it’s an encompassing hearty meal to be enjoyed by either yourself or shared with friends.
So far, that is the one “critique” from guests that have come to sample the goods from The Red Light Lounge. According to Vernooy, they say that the portions are “too big” or it’s “a lot more than expected from a place like this.” Nothing wrong with that in our humble opinion but be prepared to possibly leave with a to-go box after your visit — before retiring to your room at the Clifton or heading back home.
That can be attested. When the Sonoran Dip ($14) arrived, the immediate impression it boasted was more of a large-capacity chophouse or a deli famous for its ginormous portions. The beef is braised in a verde marinade, sliced thin but piled high, and topped with Whiskey Del Bac caramelized onions. The melted Manchego cheese on the toasted bun really ties it all together.
Then the jus that accompanies the dip is light in body but deep with flavor. It perfectly adds to the whole eating experience.
All of their bread is provided by a local bakery, making each sandwich a thing of soft bun beauty. Although the house-baked Masa Pretzels ($10) are a snacky treat for the ages. Pillowy, salty, and served with wholegrain mustard and Hatch green chili cheese sauce, this was one of the better appetizers that have been sampled in quite some time.
As was the Spinach Dip ($10) that incorporates Brussels sprouts with goat cheese, chilis, cotija, and, yes, spinach mix. It is a very clever and rather rich take on a starter menu staple.
The Red Light Lounge offers pastries in the morning for guests of the Clifton but Vernooy is planning on adding full breakfast items in the near future. For now, as the cool weather begins to show some promise and the city surges with visitors and temporary residents, chef Vernooy and The Red Light Lounge are focused on their new seasonal menu. Expect them to keep this pace of big flavor in a small space and bright fare in a darkened place.
With the flicker of a candle, a proper cocktail within reach, and more than invigorating food arriving soon sounds like the perfect way to usher in the most wonderful time of the year… here in Tucson.
Currently, the restaurant is open daily from 4 - 10 p.m.
The Red Light Lounge at the Downtown Clifton Hotel is located at 485 S. Stone Ave. For more information, visit downtowntucsonhotel.com or follow The Red Light Lounge on Instagram.
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,...