It would be an overstatement to say the verdict on downtown Phoenix’s development hinges on a drink named Patches McStormy.
But not much of one.
Now in its first official week in the historic Luhrs Building, Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour has downtown development watchers, and cocktail lovers, asking whether Phoenix has finally arrived.
For years, Valley tourism and business advocates have touted downtown as a live-work-play destination. But without a downtown staple — a stand-alone cocktail lounge — most anyone who had dared linger longer than last call at happy hour hasn’t taken that idea seriously.
Conventional wisdom dictated that sprawl meant too few cocktail connoisseurs lived in any one area. And that the state’s DUI laws, some of the nation’s strictest, would keep them from driving far, and from drinking much if they did drive.
Today, several factors, including downtown residential and commercial development, growing Metro Light Rail use, as well as the expansion of Arizona State University and University of Arizona campuses, have made Bitter & Twisted’s backers optimistic.
“And the Super Bowl is just around the corner,” said Bitter & Twisted proprietor and head barman Ross Simon, looking ahead to Super Bowl XLIX, still 241 days away.
In 2008, the Great Recession gutted downtown land prices and infill development boomed.
Downtown — Seventh Avenue to Seventh Street and McDowell Road to the railroad tracks south of Jackson Street — has added 929 residential units in the past two years and 1,313 more are in development, according to the Downtown Phoenix Partnership.
Across the street from Bitter & Twisted, the $900 million mixed-use development CityScape is thriving. Metro Light Rail use after 7 p.m. is consistently growing, up 7 percent from 2011 and now comprising almost 15 percent of total ridership.
Simon’s faith in downtown, and in his house-infused toasted coconut vodka, isn’t misplaced: downtown Phoenix has a better restaurant-success rate than the national average. Of the roughly 90 restaurants and bars that have opened since 2008, 48 remain.
Nationally, about one in four restaurants closes or changes ownership in year one. Over three years, that number rises to three in five, according to a 2005 study published in the Cornell Hotel & Restaurant Administration Quarterly by hospitality researcher H.G. Parsa of the Ohio State University.
On the first floor of the 10-story, 1924 brick-and-stone Luhrs Building, Bitter & Twisted is ambitious.
Raj Hansji, president of subsidiary Hansji Urban, bought the property in 2007 for $28 million. Hansji said his company spent about $9 million to preserve it, the neighboring 14-story Luhrs Tower and the one-story arcade that spans them along Jefferson.
The building’s character has been preserved outside with a new, elaborate metal awning meant to evoke the past, and highlighted inside, with a two-story ceiling of exposed duct work and towering sets of original windows set into unfinished-concrete walls.
Inside the 120-person-capacity bar, an almost two-story mural riffs on the poster for the 1958 camp classic “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.” In a bikini top and mini skirt, the title character, Nancy Archer, picks her way through downtown Phoenix, holding a listing Champagne coupe in her left hand.
Bitter & Twisted has a 24-page menu with 49 cocktails, two signature shots and five non-alcoholic drinks. That’s about three times the number of drinks on the average cocktail menu, and doesn’t include market-priced daily variations offered based on seasonal produce.
For the easily overwhelmed, Simon provides a scatter plot marked with drinks landing on intersections between Experimental, Play it Safe, To the Point and Refreshing. To discourage pilfering, he offers the menu for purchase at $5.
Tall booths encourage drinkers to lean in to get intimate, but smartphone charging stations encourage drinkers to lean away to post to Twitter with the hashtag #drinkbetter.
With drink prices ranging from $9 to $12 for a signature cocktail and $16 for a top-shelf version, Bitter & Twisted’s prices can seem high for a bar surrounded by so many still-vacant lots and parking lots.
But Simon is in line with Blue Hound Kitchen & Cocktails at the Hotel Palomar, and Hanny’s, both neighbors with a top cocktail price of $13, and nearby Arrogant Butcher, with a top of $11.
In 2008, Karl Kopp opened the bar and restaurant Hanny’s in a similarly historic building at First and Adams streets. Hanny’s sells slightly more food than liquor, and has a restaurant liquor license.
Simon sells drinks, and bottles to-go, and has a bar liquor license. He said if he can do close to as well as his neighbors, he’ll make back his investors’ money, and then some.
The Luhrs Tower and Building are both mostly occupied by white-collar workers, some boutique law firms and some people working for the county attorney.
Hansji is working with Marriott International to build Luhrs City Center Marriott, an $80 million, 320-room combination Courtyard and Residence Inn adjacent to the bar in the Industrial Congress Building, also known as the Central Building.
“That corner is so important, it’s going to activate the whole block,” said Hansji, who has been talking to Simon about the prospect of such a bar for more than five years. “Downtown is going through a revitalization and we wanted local eateries and restaurant concepts.
“We feel like that concept is going to kill it because Ross wanted to focus on the drinks ... when everyone is competing against the lunch business ... and doing bars with 100 beers on tap.”
Some restaurant and bar developers say downtown Phoenix is either already too expensive, so they’re looking along Seventh Avenue, or it’s still years away from being relevant.
“The easy sites are gone, and the cheap sites are gone. But a lot of the risk is also gone,” said Trent Rustan, vice president of retail sales and leasing with Commercial Properties Inc. “But there’s still plenty of affordable land downtown, plenty of opportunity.”
The area is on its way, but it has not “arrived,” said Don Keuth, president of Phoenix Community Alliance.
Population projections, he said, call for development of tens of thousands of living spaces in high-rises that would be suitable for downtown. But the area is still a far cry from that kind of planned density.
“We should demand more for downtown,” Keuth said. “But this is a start. And we’ve got to keep the pedal to the metal.”
Billy Shields, the former United Phoenix Firefighters Association president, is one of Bitter & Twisted’s investors and said the neighborhood has reached a critical mass.
“We crossed that threshold about five years ago,” Shields said, mentioning not being able to find a downtown table at Cibo pizzeria or the new Vig Fillmore on a recent Monday, and how Chef Aaron Chamberlin, who runs the popular St. Francis, recently invested in overhauling the restaurant at Phoenix Public Market.
“You used to have to go to Scottsdale to find a really hip, cool place to eat, and now that’s happening downtown,” Shields said.
Restaurant developer Tucker Woodbury has been watching downtown since 1996, when he opened That’s A Wrap on Palm Lane and Seventh Street, north of the area.
Woodbury wanted it to be more than a sandwich shop, but couldn’t get people to stay past lunch.
Now, he said, things are different. Woodbury runs Genuine Concepts, the group behind the downtown Vig Fillmore, the central Phoenix Little Woody, the Scottsdale Western and the Crescent Ballroom in downtown.
He said Crescent’s success helped him see downtown was ready for more development.
“We got support for lunch and happy hour and late night,” he said. “And there’s a much bigger student population downtown and there’s TGen (the Translational Genomics Research Institute) ...
“There’s so much opportunity downtown for us and for others. I think it’s getting people to say, ‘I want to live downtown now.’ “