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As I turn onto Roosevelt, I see the throng first.
It’s 10 p.m.on a sultry September Friday night in downtown Phoenix. A clutch of twenty- and thirtysomethings are gathered on the corner in front of the red and white building. A few guys are in pork pie hats, a few girls are sporting pink- or blue-dyed hair. There are a fair number of visible tats and flips flops on both sexes. One couple is standing in the street kissing.
The Welcome Diner is not the kind of place your hotel concierge is likely to tell you about. And your friend who lives in Scottsdale isn’t likely to know about it, either. The Welcome Diner is the kind of place you learn about from your pedal-cab driver or your bunkmate at the hostel down the street. Or you might see its 4½-star rating on Yelp.
If you click on the “Map” tab on the Welcome Diner’s website, you’ll read that it serves “comfort food in a snug retro setting.” That’s accurate: There are nine turquoise-upholstered stools and a red laminate counter inside its tiny confines. When I sit down I can see the perspiration glistening on the grill cook’s forehead. Hip hop is pumping. High fives and fist bumps are exchanged with locals like Dennis, who is headed to Vegas to celebrate his 22nd birthday.
But the Welcome Diner is much more than a greasy spoon with colorful clientele. There’s history here—and history being made.
Built as the Valentine Diner in 1945 in Wichita, Kan., it was moved to Williams, Ariz., in 1955, where it welcomed Route 66 travelers for 25 years before being trailered to its current location in 1980. It had been shuttered for years when Phoenician artist Sloane McFarland renovated and rechristened it the Welcome Diner in 2004.
Fast forward to 2013, when Michael Babcock and Jenn Robinson joined McFarland as partners. The timing dovetailed nicely with the burgeoning urban popularity of the Garfield neighborhood.
I moved from the South to the Southwest in 2011 and had all but given up on eating a flaky biscuit this side of the Mississippi. But this joint is known for its soulful Southern edge and a farm-to-table ethic, sourcing from local purveyors such as Superstition Farms Dairy, Hayden Flour Mill, McClendon’s Select and Schreiner’s Sausage. Local culinary celebs Payton Curry and Matt Pool have also logged time here.
Assistant manager Wayne Coats is doubling as bartender on this night. I ask him if they use lard in the biscuits. They don’t, but they make them fresh daily. I order the Bumblebee—biscuit halves sandwiched around a generous slab of fried chicken that’s drenched in honey, slathered with house-made mustard and topped with B&B pickles. It takes two hands and I still can’t jam the Bumblebee completely into my mouth. It is reduced to a crumbly, sticky mess on my plate, but the salty-sweet concoction still satisfies.
The toothsome watermelon and tomato salad—with piquant pickled watermelon rind, charred onion and basil goat cheese mousse—makes me yearn for sweet tea. But a $6 whiskey sour made with Benchmark bourbon and Luxardo cherry works, too. That drink will cost you double in other area zip codes. The Welcome Diner has a better bar than many Z-rated restaurants.
“Heard that,” shouts Coats in response to a drink order. Coats and the rest of the crew—a number of whom, he said, were “regulars who needed a job”—manage a kind of laid-back hustle. It’s an impressive display of homegrown good humor in a hot, tight space.
The grill cook says on Fat Tuesday they couldn’t find okra for their gumbo, so they subbed nopales (cactus) and it was great. I’m nodding, believing it, as I dive into a bowl of mac n’cheese with roasted Brussels sprouts.
A smiling, bald, bearded guy materializes behind me. “That burger with the bacon jam changed my life,” he declares to Coats. That was last night. He’s back for pulled pork tonight.
Me, I’ve over-ordered. But it’s going to be a hell of a good breakfast spread tomorrow morning. Coats hands me to-go boxes. It’s 11:30 p.m., and the crowd is two-deep inside. I settle up and cede my stool to a hipster in thick black plastic glasses. The dude taking orders, his long blonde hair in a topknot, tells me to have a good night.
Outside, there’s a line at the window and all the picnic tables are filled. A few folks are pulling on cigarettes. The moon is a silvery half arc.
It’s rush hour at The Welcome Diner.
About the author: Suzanne Wright
Suzanne Wright first stepped into the Sonoran Desert some 30 years ago and was immediately smitten. She has written for national publications such as National Geographic Traveler, USA Today and American Way, but she’s happiest exploring and writing about Arizona for regional outlets like AAA Arizona Highroads, Arizona Highways and the Official Travel Guide to Greater Phoenix.