Once merely a stop on the way to the Grand Canyon, Flagstaff has become a destination in its own right. Cut in half by the cross-country railroad, this southwestern mountain town has plenty to see in its historic downtown, but these days the action’s “south of the tracks,” where lower rents and a slightly more rustic feel have attracted talented chefs and bartenders. The result is a mini-restaurant boom that’s inspired some healthy competition on both sides of the tracks. Here are five of the top spots to enjoy a glass and a bite.
Longtime local restaurant talents chef Dave Smith and bartender Jeremy Meyer have transformed what was a longtime dive bar south of the tracks into a destination for food and drink. Go early and head to the rooftop to enjoy a cocktail while watching one of Arizona’s big sky sunsets; then head down to the dining room for dinner. Arizona peppers star in the southern-fried Arizona hot chicken, while the cavatelli relies on Arizona beef and southwestern chilies for mouthwatering flavor. Southwestern ingredients fill the bar as well, in house-made bitters like ancho-chili with tamarind, and prickly pear–infused spirits. Make sure to try the Penultimate Fizz, a mix of Desert Rain Gin and mesquite smoke inspired by the Arizona desert. The wine list stays mostly local, with bottles from Chateau Tumbleweed in Arizona and Sutcliffe from McElmo Canyon, just over the state border in Colorado.
In a quirky, cozy space squeezed into the point of an odd-angled intersection, Caleb Schiff has gained a cult following for his pizzas. He starts with a wild-yeast dough that ferments for three days before he rolls it out, then tops it with house-made mozzarella or burrata and a select array of local and Italian ingredients. Cooked at 900˚F in a wood-fired oven he had custom built in Italy, the Neapolitan-style pies come out thin and perfectly charred. Schiff’s recipe originates with a bike trek he took up the length of Italy several years ago, gathering recipes and inspiration along the way. He also fell hard for the country’s wine, a passion on display in his all-Italian wine list, which showcases bottles from vintners he’s befriended, like Paolo Bea in Umbria and Mario Zanusso of iClivi in Friuli, as well as a pizza-ready Moretto Lambrusco. Locals have benefited from Schiff’s commitment to Italian wines, too, as it’s increased the availability of harder-to-find wines like Gravner Breg and older vintages of Sacrisassi Rosso.
After stints at Frasca in Colorado and Ubuntu in California, husband-and-wife team Dara and Joe Rodgers set out to redefine mountain-town cuisine at Shift. In a spare, airy space in a historic building in downtown Flagstaff, they find creative ways to present regional ingredients, from the sorrel that’s made into a savory, palate-awakening sorbet, to the spent grains from Flagstaff’s Dark Sky Brewing transformed into crackers for the house-made rillettes. The kitchen’s penchant for experimentation flows into the bar as well. Working with seasonal produce, as well as a host of bar-made bitters and infusions, the bartenders create drinks worth a visit all on their own. Try the Hazel du Monde, a Bourbon-based cocktail that includes hazelnut, lemon and squash.
Brian Konefal and Paola Fioravanti helped spark Flagstaff’s modern food scene when they opened Coppa in 2012, converting a nondescript stripmall space into a little piece of Europe. Konefal, who met his future wife and restaurant partner at culinary school in Italy, presents Arizona ingredients in unexpected guises, like the state’s own heritage grain, Sonoran white wheat, served risotto-style with a clay-baked duck egg, or local dry-aged beef chopped into a robustly flavorful tartare. And locals flock here in the autumn, when the duo forages for mushrooms, and shows off the catch in an array of dishes worthy of a glass of Jacques Lasalle champagne or a bottle of Pio Cesare Barolo. The wine list, like the space, is snug, inviting and nods towards Europe, with a few choice Arizona wines alongside French standbys like Chotard Sancerre, Louis Latour Puligny-Montrachet and Dupeuble Beaujolais.
Late last year, Fred Wojtkielewicz transformed local downtown favorite The Wine Lo into FLG Terroir, a conversation-friendly wine lover’s retreat. The space is warm and expansive, with stone-cut tile, an exposed beam ceiling and an open kitchen. The wine list, which centers around boutique wines from Europe and California, including unusual finds such as Rare Wine Co. Madeiras and Cetonze Frappato along with a few local options, is on full view along the walls. Pull a bottle from the shelf and you can drink it on site for a mere $5 corkage fee. The small plates encourage lingering, with wine-oriented bites like Sherry-braised oxtail over polenta, or a roasted vegetable tamale, not to mention oysters shipped in fresh daily.