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A Long Weekend in Tucson Is Hot Stuff

By Brad Wetzler
March 10, 2006
0604_where_tucson
Jon Ragel
The revitalized Arizona city is ideal for a three-day trip: You can stay somewhere funky, eat amazing Mexican food, and even pick up a new fetish

It's 10 p.m. at the Hotel Congress, the neon-lit epicenter of bohemia in Tucson. In Club Congress, the hotel's cavernous nightclub, a local avant-garde French pop singer, Marianne Dissard, is warbling a French song about love's "little lies" with unusual forcefulness. She's accompanied on electric guitar by her husband, the improbably named Naim Amor. But while there's nothing flawed about Naim's guitar playing, there's no mistaking who's the star of this show. A documentary filmmaker and all-around Tucson scenester, Dissard has the martini-sipping crowd of about 75 wrapped around her finger.

"Tonight is a very special night for me," she says, squinting through the glare of the stage lights. "I am celebrating the 10th anniversary of when I moved to Tucson. I feel so glad I found this amazing, diverse, artistic city. I love you all."

The audience whoops loudly. "You tell it, sister!" one man shouts.

Earlier that afternoon, an innkeeper was using similar adjectives to describe Tucson: "It's arts-oriented, tolerant, and culturally diverse," said Jeff DiGregorio, co-owner of the Royal Elizabeth B&B Inn, in a 128-year-old adobe mansion downtown. "I'm biased, but I think we're very intellectual, too."

All this enthusiasm can get suspiciously fervent, but there must be something to it. Tucson, 120 miles southeast of Phoenix, has long been known as a laid-back Southwestern cowboy city with near-perfect weather; lately, the town of 510,000 is making more noise. Says DiGregorio, "Tucson has the culture of L.A., but with the intimacy of Santa Fe."

The 1930s-era Hotel Congress has one foot in the past and the other in the present. There's an Old West-style bar (the Tap Room), a sleek separate restaurant (the Cup Café), retro rooms, and neon signs throughout.

Then again, not everyone wants to sleep above a nightclub. The Royal Elizabeth--or The Liz, as it's known around town--is furnished in a style DiGregorio calls an "antiques medley," where pieces from the Victorian, craftsman, and art deco eras casually coexist.

DiGregorio, a Tucson native, and his partner, Chuck Bressi, were living in Washington, D.C., when they saw the building online and bought it sight unseen. Two weeks later, they moved to Tucson and got to work. Bressi handles the books and the cooking--and amuses guests with his quiet wit. DiGregorio, meanwhile, is a walking encyclopedia of downtown history. He also always seems to be around to help when it's time to make dinner plans.

The restaurant where he's most likely to send guests is the nouveau Mexican Café Poca Cosa. Suzana Davila, the café's waifish chef, is a former model from Guaymas, Mexico, and she imported her love of mole, a rich sauce made with chocolate, red wine, and chilis. Handwritten chalkboard menus at each table change daily. If a diner gives Davila carte blanche, she'll recommend her favorite: a chocolateless Oaxacan mole verde--made from pumpkin seeds, pistachios, cilantro, and serrano peppers.

Another part of downtown, along 4th Avenue, is considerably funkier. There are counterculture bookstores, and, this being the Southwest, there are shops selling therapeutic crystals. The unofficial mayor of the avenue is Dominique Francesca. She's often found standing in the doorway of Café Jinx, surveying the scene. Francesca is also an artist and photographer, and the café's expert cook; her baby spinach frittata and dark French Roast coffee are hits with the rock bands rolling through Tucson.

Francesca hasn't always been a fixture here, though it often seems that way. She explains that she spent half of the '90s "getting my head together" on a road trip in her Chevy Suburban. Upon arriving in Tucson, she ditched her Suburban for a room at the Hotel Congress, and met artists who convinced her to settle in town for good. "The city has quite a funky groove," she says. "I guess I sort of feed off it."

A mission beyond downtown

Like so many Western cities, Tucson has its share of sprawl. It's worth braving for the ghostly San Xavier del Bac Mission (1950 W. San Xavier Rd., 520/294-2624, free), near the Tohono O'odham reservation southwest of town. Built by Franciscans in 1797, the white adobe church has spectacular arches, domes, and towers. One of the better craft stands outside the mission is a Hopi jewelry shop called Loo-Lol-Ma's. What stands out are the fetishes, alabaster Zuni charms that come in different animal shapes.

Lodging

 

  • Hotel Congress 311 E. Congress St., 520/622-8848, hotelcongress.com, rooms from $69
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  • Royal Elizabeth B&B Inn 204 S. Scott Ave., 877/670-9022, royalelizabeth.com, rooms from $115

Food

 

  • Café Poca Cosa 88 E. Broadway Blvd., 520/622-6400, Oaxacan mole verde $18
  •  

  • Café Jinx 344 N. 4th Ave., no phone, spinach frittata $4
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Inspiration

Vintage Fashion in Vancouver That Qualifies as New

Two Vancouver neighborhoods--the Gastown district and South Main--are emerging as hubs for boutiques with reworked vintage clothing. "Designers for our shop use fabrics like curtains and crocheted afghans and create new items out of them," says Wendy de Kruyff, owner of Dream, in Gastown (311 W. Cordova St., 604/683-7326). Most of those designers are locals like Kim Brower, whose labels read 100 PERCENT RECYCLED--TRY IT! She took a green tank and enhanced it with embroidered flowers and denim detailing along the hemline and sides ($50). Dream's accessories are given the recycled treatment, too: Suzanne Cowan makes photo albums from old LPs ($61); Mishi Perugini uses candy wrappers to create wallets ($19). Two miles southeast of Gastown, in up-and-coming South Main, a number of chic boutiques line Main Street. Chief among them is Eugene Choo, with its sleek SoHo sensibility (3683 Main St., 604/873-8874). The store specializes in pieces that don't try to hide their roots: An A-line trenchcoat dress by Toronto designer Preloved prominently displays the original London Fog and Pierre Cardin labels ($127), and Vancouver designer Erin Templeton reconfigures leather miniskirts into purses ($174). Regular menswear selections include navy-and-white blazers made out of old sweatshirts, and gray jackets constructed from chinos ($100-$122). With pop-art rugs and graphic print wallpaper, South Main's Mod to Modern has the groovy vibe of a '60s rec room (3712 Main St., 604/874-2144). Sadly, the store's fabulous '60s and '70s lamps aren't for sale. "As you can imagine, the supply of good furniture is pretty limited around here," says owner Michelle Bergeron-Mok. "But how about that dress?" She's pointing to a piece from her own line, a stretchy halter dress adapted from clothing picked up at thrift stores ($85). Her latest designs also include remade sweaters, using hand-cut wool in earth tones ($95-$145). Mod to Modern sells repurposed accessories, too, such as zippered wallets made out of thin inner tubes ($19) and necklaces mixing both old and new beads ($30). At Barefoot Contessa, tea towels and silky slips--and the white picket fence used as decoration--create a '50s feel (3715 Main St., 604/879-1137). Pastel sundresses made from recycled cotton fabrics couldn't be more girly ($130). The shop also carries jewelry, in the back, underneath an antique refrigerator door. Aspiring Doris Days will fall for flower brooches fashioned, naturally, from vintage fabrics ($23). Vintage for real At DeLuxe Junk Co. in the Gastown district, period accessories are paired with vintage duds--a faux-Prada purse in green vinyl ($30) and ropes of bright plastic and glass beads ($7) add flash to a strapless black gown ($26) with a bow-tie front (310 W. Cordova St., 604/685-4871). For guys, there are wool trousers, silk ties, and the occasional conversation piece, like a 1970s leather fish-scale jacket ($59). Front & Company, the 13-year-old anchor of the South Main strip, has a reliably massive selection of clothing, accessories, and housewares (3742, 3746, and 3772 Main St., 604/879-8431).

Inspiration

Hood River, Oregon

After towing a trailer across 46 states looking for a new place to call home, Boulderites Mike and Brooke Pauly found their sweet spot in Hood River, about 45 minutes east of Portland. "Within three hours we knew twenty-five people by name," says Mike, who designs and sells kiteboarding and windsurfing sails. While her husband works with sails, Brooke keeps Hood River residents afloat in cocktails at Brian's Pourhouse, where the blackberry kamikazes are made with freshly picked local berries (606 Oak St., 541/387-4344, $7). "Think locally" could be the town motto. At Sixth Street Bistro (509 Cascade Ave., 541/386-5737), hormone-free meats come from Painted Hills Natural Beef in central Oregon; organic greens are from nearby Zion Farms. Acting globally is equally important: Sixth Street's leftover fryer grease fuels the company's biodiesel vehicle. Along with her partners, co-owner and general manager Jacqueline Carey just opened a new restaurant, Celilo, in an energy-conserving building. (Even the glass was made in Hood River, at Cardinal Glass.) On the menu are skillet-roasted mussels for $9, and a salad of confit duck and Oregon blue cheese for $7.50 (16 Oak St., 541/386-5710). Hood River is on the Columbia River, and the consistently strong wind attracts windsurfers and kiteboarders. Locals are as athletic as they are eco-conscious. When Bryan McGeeney isn't steaming soy milk at his café, 10-Speed Coffee, he's training as a triathlete (1412 13th St., 541/386-3165). His café plays up his two passions; the chairs are recycled Schwinn seats.

Inspiration

Marfa, Texas

A dusty three-hour drive southeast of El Paso, Marfa couldn't be more off the map--except to the art world. For years now, artists and writers have been making the pilgrimage to the Chinati Foundation, a museum founded by artist Donald Judd and dedicated to the preservation of minimalist art. Two artillery sheds house Judd's giant, block-like aluminum sculptures; also on the grounds are works by Dan Flavin and Claes Oldenburg plus several other artists (Guided tour $25, self guided walking tour $15, reservations required). A new generation of artists/entrepreneurs have followed in Judd's footsteps. "The vast emptiness is relaxing, and the sunlight is amazing, even in winter," explains Saarin Keck a former artist and graduate of Rhode Island School of Design and now co-owner of the Pizza Foundation. Pizza Foundation is known for their 18in pizzas that are well worth the wait. But to avoid the wait - plan ahead and schedule a time to pick up your pizza. Virginia Lebermann and Fairfax Dorn, native Texans who were involved in the New York City art world, moved to Marfa in 2003. Their venue, Ballroom Marfa, doubles as a multipurpose art and performance space. (Admission is free but reservations are encouraged) photo courtesy of El Cosmico website There are several hotels, vacation rentals and campgrounds in Marfa . The Thunderbird is a 2005 reinvention of an old horseshoe-shaped roadside motel. The renovation transformed the structure into a model of modern design while maintaining the original hotel’s bygone feeling. If you are up for getting away from the hotel scene and looking for something unique try El Cosmico where you can stay in a trailer, yurts, safari tents or a cosmic kasita. For more information on places to stay and things to do visit the Marfa visitor's site.

Inspiration

Rocheport, Missouri

In 1986, a stretch of the Katy Railroad was shut down, and Rocheport appeared to be doomed. But 10 years later, the Katy was reincarnated as the longest rails-to-trails conversion in the U.S.A. Each year, 350,000 hikers and bikers pass through Rocheport--in central Missouri, just west of Columbia--on the 225-mile, crushed-limestone path. Several new businesses have popped up to cater to them, including the four-room Amber House Bed & Breakfast, a Queen Anne replica. The B&B is owned by Mary Schlueter, a chef who moved from Phoenix a year ago (705 Third St., 573/698-2028, amberhousebb.com, from $135). Unlike many nearby towns, Rocheport's restaurants skew more toward haute cuisine than to meat and potatoes: Abigail's, for one, serves sumac-rubbed veal chops (206 Central St., 573/698-3000, veal chops $18). Les Bourgeois Bistro's signature dish is smoked duck breast (12847 W. Hwy. BB, 573/698-2300, duck breast $18). Les Bourgeois is also a family-run winery, where a patio looks out on the beautiful Missouri River. As much as Rocheport's new residents are investing in its future, they don't want to change certain things--the ash trees, the 19th-century houses, the chickens that literally cross the road. "My life is about as perfect as life can be," says Linda Johnson, owner of Shabby Tabby Antiques & Gifts (505 Second St., 573/698-2109). "It's like going on vacation every time you come home."

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