Before we even get into it, the Arizona Inn is very much open for business.
This has been a misconception since the heady months of 2020 whereas the Inn did indeed shut down. A few times, actually. Closing, reopening, then having to close again. When they finally did receive the go-ahead to remain open later that strange year, a lot of us were a little confused as to what was going on.
Can we make dinner reservations? What about a room? Are you open for lunch?
The final word on all of this is a resounding yes.
But there is a hitch in the lovely adobe-hued bastion on Elm Street just east of Campbell Avenue that might pertain to some warranted hesitation: the main dining room is closed.
In current climates of can we and will we, the dining room at Arizona Inn, an elegant space of white pressed napkins that’s also welcoming to those wearing jeans, is roped off. You can still see into it as you make your way to the Audubon Bar & Patio, which is definitely open, and the reason for this particular article.
Some have even gone so far as to think that the Arizona Inn is a members-only union, that since it opened its doors in 1930, the family-owned establishment was only receptive to those of a certain status. Rubbish. Everyone is welcome at the Arizona Inn. Do you think the original owner who was a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt would be so non-inclusionary? Double rubbish.
Others may think that the Arizona Inn is snobbish, unapproachable, and that you need to know somebody who knows somebody to get in and have a drink or nibble. Now, we are getting into territories of the silly. If you want some of the best unsnobbish and very approachable food around, all you have to do is walk through the doors, grab a seat, and go with it. Just be prepared to stay for a while because if you decide to eat in the skylight domed interior, or out on the patio overlooking seasonal flowers and flora, it’s going to be a little rough getting back to any form of responsibility and reality.
Back in August, I started my celebratory list of club sandwiches that I adore here in Tucson. The first to make that list, only because I wanted to play fair by going alphabetically, was the one found at the Arizona Inn.
Chef Aron Fonte-Grushka was more than accommodating to allow me to show up and take photos of their version of my three-tiered obsession that is normally cut into quarters. During my visit, we struck up a conversation as I wondered why such a cushy spot with incredible food and drinks made with potent spirits you’d expect from a dark neighborhood bar wasn’t teeming with guests.
Please read the first few paragraphs as to the reason why.
Chef Fonte-Grushka is a Tucson native who literally grew up working in kitchens. His grandmother ran one of the first kosher catering services in Southern Arizona and he assisted her by peeling potatoes, setting tables, and all sorts of junior sous chef responsibilities. Later, Fonte-Grushka found himself cooking for the long-gone but much-adored Rick’s Café before moving on to the former City Grill. This is where he started to really develop as a chef — skills that were useful during his time at Hacienda del Sol. It was in late 2020, right after the Arizona Inn opened, again, that he was offered the role of executive chef.
Getting to know chef Fonte-Grushka is like getting a direct handshake from his style of cooking. He’s laidback, he loves delicious comfort food, he’s a Philadelphia Eagles fan, and all of those aspects come forth on what you see on the plate. Except for the Eagles deal. That’s just a fun extra bit of information on the man.
The Audubon Bar & Patio is so aptly named because when you’re inside, and with a splendor of natural light beaming in from above, it has that look and feel of a gilded birdcage — a birdcage equipped with a piano that serves far better fare than seeds and grain.
Speaking of cages, the culinary arena of Tucson is both supportive and competitive, as it should be, and the race for the best use of Brussels sprouts has been a long-lasting test of wills. When you order the Brussels Sprouts with Panna Cotta from the Arizona Inn you’ll wonder why the small bitter cabbage hasn’t been paired with a dessert fixture long ago. The herby, garlic pan-fried sprouts match with the goat cheese panna cotta topped with balsamic pearls in ways that still astound to this day.
It’s a favorite of guests both regular and new and is a dish I regularly think about when I am away from it for too long. Spicy, sweet, crunchy, smooth — it's all there and it's all too habit-forming.
Burgers made here in Tucson undergo the same cheerful rivalry as Brussels sprouts, but this time size and audacity come into play. Fonte-Grushka’s Chef Burger is giving some well-established and overly Instagrammed local burgers a run for that meaty trophy. It’s huge, it’s a half-pound of medium-rare Arizona-raised beef topped with bacon, serrano chilis, two varieties of cheeses, and roasted garlic aioli on a house-baked potato bun.
You would think that a burger served in a space adjacent to a fabulous mahogany library with a fireplace meant for Wall Street moguls would have some ration of delicate stodginess. Forget that. Come hungry because the Chef’s Burger is gloriously enormous and delicious.
If something delicate is what you’re in the mood for, go for the Pan-Seared Salmon. The connection between the other components, such as a tomato confit and lemon beurre blanc, dances in a flavor swim reminding you of that trip to the coast where a hidden pub just off the shore, one that locals only know about and keep to themselves, delighted you way past food intoxication. In short, it’s so flaky, lovely, and simply memorable.
Chef Fonte-Grushka also creates seasonal ice creams and the bar is packed with wines, beers, and booze to make it even harder to get up from one of the super cushy couches. An intelligent suggestion is to just get a room during your time dining at the Arizona Inn because after lunch you’re going to need a nap before getting up to do it all again for dinner.
So, heed this bit of Tucson Foodie advice: be open to whatever chef Fonte-Grushka has in store for you because now that you know the Arizona Inn is in fact open it is best to step on in, kick back, and ease into some historically good eats and drinks.
Oh, and there’s a pool. Who isn’t open to that?
Arizona Inn is located at 2200 E. Elm St. For more information and for hours of operation, call (520) 325-1541 or visit arizonainn.com.
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,...