Mid-Century TucsonBy Louie Christensen
Your guide to the Southern Arizona city’s mid-century-modern hot spots
The stark lines, simple curves, and the past’s eye for futurism are back. It’s easy to assume you need to head to Manhattan or Los Angeles to fulfill your mid-century-modern dreams, but it’s in the Southwest where those who loved “the look” built their getaways. Skip over the obvious cities like Palm Springs and Scottsdale for the true mid-century getaway… Tucson, Arizona.
Where you’re staying
If you were to close your eyes and imagine a hotel that encapsulates everything mid-century modern and everything you imagine Tucson to be, you’d be picturing Hotel McCoy. From the over-the-top A-frame entrance and Technicolor murals to the brassy light fixtures in every room, the newly overhauled Hotel McCoy does not shy away from making big statements. The hotel is located next to thriving downtown Tucson, a city with a food scene that New York Times and other national publications have highlighted time and time again. Best of all, you won’t have to spend an arm and a leg for a room, leaving plenty of extra funds in your vacation budget to explore everything Tucson has to offer.
Where you’re dining
There’s no better way to start your mid-century-modern Tucson visit than to grab brunch at Welcome Diner. The all-American, farm-to-table restaurant is situated in a Googie-architecture building just east of downtown Tucson. While the terms “farm-to-table” and “mid-century” may not appear very often in the same sentence, that is what makes this elevated diner unique. The restaurant’s distinctive look is not a gimmick to lure visitors; it is simply the garnish atop a delicious, carefully crafted meal.
Food from the 1950s wasn’t exactly healthy. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as this was the era when cigarettes were advertised as “doctor-recommended.” So, for the truest taste of the mid-century, you’ll have to put the diet aside and swing by Pat’s Chili Dogs. This establishment harkens back to the good old days, and it surely won’t disappoint. Snag yourself a chili dog—and the largest size of fries you dare to subject your arteries to—and enjoy.
If chili dogs aren’t your style, maybe Lucky Wishbone is the lunch spot for you. Opened in 1953, this Tucson fried-food classic is only one year younger than KFC, putting it in the realm of fast-food pioneers. There isn’t a Tucsonan in town who can’t sing their jingle or at least recognize their flashing neon signage. Be sure to throw caution to the wind and order a slice of buttered garlic toast with your fried chicken or steak fingers.
While Kingfisher was not around in the 1960s, it resides in a building that was. You may come for a martini and the oysters, but it’s their seafood and steak menu that will keep you around. The restaurant—which borders on eccentric, with hodge-podge décor and a mix of brightly painted and redbrick walls—has been proudly serving Tucson for decades. Sit back, relax, and enjoy your fantastic meal.
You have a few options when it comes to finding the perfect mid-century cocktail spot… and they are very different options.
The essential mid-century tiki cocktail genre has seen a resurgence recently, making it all the more important to visit a true classic tiki bar. Tucson’s Kon Tiki Restaurant and Lounge has been serving its patrons since mid-century-modern furniture was just called “furniture.” Complete with gas-powered torches, the world’s largest collection of Milan Guanko tikis, and a menu full of classic tiki cocktails, Kon Tiki proves that nothing beats an original.
If black skinny ties and a cocktail bar in your corner office is more your scene, you’ll need to stop in for a drink at SideCar. While the bar itself is not mid-century-themed, aspects of the small bar’s architecture and aesthetics will surely complement your Clubmaster eyeglasses. The bar features its own craft cocktail list, but the knowledgeable staff will surely whip up the perfect Old Fashioned or Manhattan for you.
You may be too young to remember “duck and cover” drills in school, but you aren’t too old to raise a glass to nuclear doom at The Shelter. It isn’t very often you go looking for the city’s best martini at a dive bar, but that’s just the quirky twist you’ll find at this dive that does indeed look like a bomb shelter—albeit an over-the-top version of one. Decorated with all the JFK caricatures, animal print, and mid-century details you can handle, The Shelter isn’t for everyone; but, then again, what dive bar is?
What you’re doing
Tucson is filled with galleries, museums, murals, and pockets of artistic expression, but many revolve around the region’s heritage and culture. While such pieces obviously have their place and should be celebrated, the Etherton Gallery brings a fresh breath of air to the city’s art scene. Located in a building built in 1914, the gallery’s space is beautiful, and you won’t be surprised to hear it has won Tucson Weekly’s “Best Fine Art Gallery” recognition more than a dozen times over the years.
After spending some time admiring art, it’s time to shop for it. Tucson’s best mid-century retail therapy doesn’t happen in our malls or at the beautiful La Encantada outdoor shopping center; it happens in small boutiques scattered around town.
One can’t-miss option is Sunshine Shop Tucson. Located in the preserved Hirsh’s Shoes building along Broadway Boulevard’s The Sunshine Mile—a two-mile stretch of mid-century-modern buildings and shops mixed in with 21st-century additions—Sunshine Shop features an array of art, home décor, and Arizona-themed gifts with an emphasis on mid-century design.