It’s not a porterhouse, but rather a powerhouse of eateries stuffed into historic downtown Chandler.
With more than half a dozen privately-owned restaurants within three blocks of each other in Chandler’s core, city officials are trying to create an economic engine that will attract residents and visitors to the historic district.
The presence of independent eateries is "partly by design. We’re trying to stay away from chains to keep a unique character in the downtown," said Dave Bigos, Chandler’s economic development spokesman.
Creating such a haven is important in cultivating a city’s image, an effort that’s taken Scottsdale officials more than five decades to establish, said Harold Stewart, business services manager in Scottsdale’s economic vitality department.
"You begin to develop a unique identity — here’s a place you can come and eat and have choices in style, choices of location, choices of presentation. And you can decide what you feel like eating when you get there," Stewart said.
Becky Jackson, president of the Chandler Chamber of Commerce, said that there’s a growing interest in bringing independent restaurants and retailers into the district.
"What I’ve noticed and had discussions about is that it’s really about trying to make it a unique destination and creating a good experience. It’s really about creating something that is different than you could get anywhere else," Jackson said.
But successful downtowns must be able to bring in a population throughout the day and the week, said Tom Rex, research manager at Arizona State University’s Center for Business Research.
Such areas feature work places as well as shopping and eating outlets that appeal to those on a lunch-hour and visitors looking for leisure and entertainment.
"Most restaurants aren’t going to make it on their own, they will need to have one or the other type of customer base. That’s why typically a city will work very hard on a downtown to attract employers and retail and restaurants," Rex said.
Chandler’s Bigos said the city has taken strides in developing a cadre of restaurants in historic downtown, but admitted it’s a long-term effort.
"We have had some turnover. But anyone who wants to build a successful downtown knows it takes a lot of time. When we do lose a business downtown, very seldom does the space stay empty for long, so we know the interest is there," Bigos said.
Bigos pointed to the district’s newest arrival, 98 South Wine Bar and Kitchen, an upscale eatery with an extensive wine list featuring "eclectic American cuisine."
Owner Ron Wojcicki and his business partner, Wendy Lamer, just opened the restaurant after refurbishing the former location of Razzleberries, which closed in February.
"When I saw the actual site, I fell in love with the downtown Chandler area. I thought we would be a great fit," Wojcicki said.
The pair spent months planning the menu and selecting the decor, which features a large dining area as well as a piano, leather couches, ottomans and red velvet chairs.
"Everyone says that you’re in the restaurant business. But we’re really in the entertainment business," Wojcicki said.
And Wojcicki ought to know; he’s managed Tarbell’s Restaurant and Bar Mouche and was the director of restaurants at Scottsdale’s Sunburst Resort before venturing out on his own.
Wojcicki said he’s ready to "wow" his diners and isn’t concerned by the number of other restaurateurs in the district.
And Scottsdale’s Stewart concurred, pointing out that numerous dining venues in close proximity to each other doesn’t translate into cutthroat competition. Instead, it offers businesses a way to consolidate their strengths and attract a range of customers, some of whom may even stay for an entire meal, Stewart said.
"Because it’s in a compact area, you can dine around. You can go for appetizers, another place for entrees, a third place for desert and finish off the evening with a drink or a little live entertainment at another location," Stewart said.
Independent eateries are also free to explore, which sets them apart from larger rivals, Stewart said.
"The big chains have to respond to their large corporate plans. But the entrepreneurial restaurant can change their menu, change their look inside to give you a different feeling. They can experiment and come up with new items. And come up with the trends," Stewart said.
Scottsdale eateries are moving toward outdoor dining, a trend that is also taking shape in Chandler, where bistro tables are stationed outside several restaurants.
"Owners are opening up the fronts of their buildings and allowing a mix between what is inside and what is outside. Restaurant patrons are a part of the night life and yet, they’re separated from the activities on the street," Stewart said.
That’s one of the reasons why Alexandra and Manny Mora of Chandler had a recent lunch at the sidewalk tables of Flavors of Nature, a gourmet sandwich shop featuring organic foods.
"It’s just really unique and fun. I’m glad they’re developing this area, it’s really nice to get away from all the chain restaurants," Alexandra Mora said.
While such vibrancy and character may be important to a city’s overall prestige, it’s not always an economic necessity, said Marshall J. Vest, director of economic and business research at the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Business and Public Administration.
"With older, high density cities back East and around the Great Lakes, it’s the city that is known for its downtown. It’s part of their identity. But downtowns don’t seem to be such a part of a city’s identity here in the Southwest," Vest said.
And with the Southwest experiencing such population growth, an urban core may not be what new residents are looking for when they relocate, Vest said.
"It’s just really hard to create a downtown and an employment center when you have a town that is low density. You don’t have a transportation node that brings a lot of people to one spot. It’s not Manhattan. Thank goodness," Vest said.