Tucson’s beloved Grill restaurant closes

Tucson Grill
Today marks my second Thanksgiving outside of the US (in Turkey, ironically) and as nostalgic as I am for Pepperidge Farm stuffing and canned cranberry sauce, this week I am missing another important piece of my past: the Grill restaurant in Tucson, Arizona. A landmark of downtown Tucson for decades, Grill (true regulars know to leave off the “the”) shut its doors this week, leaving many current and former Tucsonans distraught and de-caffeinated. Open 24 hours, serving breakfast “until tomorrow,” Grill’s menu offered the helpful tip: “when dining out, insist on food.” If you were to walk by it, you may be forgiven in thinking it was just a diner, but it was much more than that.

Grill was first opened in its current iteration in 1994 by James Graham, a classically-trained chef who made it an amalgamation of a traditional New York diner fare and more haute cuisine. In addition to burgers and fries, an impossible-to-finish short stack of pancakes, and steak and eggs, you’d find surprises on the menu. Toasted and fried “Spanish ravioli” (mysteriously called “depth bombs”). A salad with hearts of palm and fresh mozzarella. Even a big bowl of Cap’n Crunch. Some of those old favorites were left off the menu when James sold it in 1999 and moved to L.A., but his original rules remained in effect: tater tots only available late night and never with cheese. No ranch dressing. Always tip your waiter (that’s just polite).

Beyond the food and coffee, Grill was a haven for many people, with a constant rotation of Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline. Many of Tucson’s eccentrics, artists, and just plain weirdos called it home; it was a hipster hangout before hipsters existed. I spent much of my adolescence in one of the red booths, drinking coffee, smoking illicit cigarettes, doing crossword puzzles, crying over boyfriends, and occasionally studying. Even my father, a downtown-based criminal defense attorney, was a regular for lunch and we’d occasionally cross paths, each slightly embarrassed to see the other in such a sacred space. Bringing a new boyfriend to Grill was in important test: if you didn’t respect and appreciate Grill, it was a personal affront. When I moved to New York in 1998, I had a special named after me: the Meg Lamb Memorial “You’re Gonna Make it After All” Knish Dish.

Grill changed a bit over the nearly 15 years since I left Arizona. The adjoining Red Room was a lounge space in my day, with a much-used photo booth, an assortment of motley board games, and some antique couches where my high school poetry club used to meet monthly. For the past several years, Red Room was a bar and music space separate from Grill. In my last visit in 2007, it didn’t feel quite the same, but the spirit remained the same: an oasis in Tucson’s occasionally desolate downtown, “open later than you think.”

If you go to Tucson now, you can still find a few spots for late-coffee and eats. The perennial goth favorite, Cafe Quebec, is now the worker-owned cooperative Shot in the Dark Cafe. The bikers hanging out at Safehouse are friendlier than they appear. The Hotel Congress is home to the Cup Cafe, in addition to one of Tucson’s best nightlife scenes. Later this year, James Graham will open a new restaurant in Los Angeles: Ba Restaurant in Highland Park, serving French provincial classics, a major departure from diner fare. A growing Facebook group is trying to inspire a new Grill to rise from the ashes. One question remains: how does the next door Wig-O-Rama stay recession-proof?!

Thanks for the memories Grill!

Photo courtesy James Graham, circa 1994.