Taste Your Way Around Downtown on a Food Tour

March 12, 2012

By Teya Vitu

How often are you in some downtown somewhere, even Tucson, and you walk right by a restaurant or two or 10 without ever giving a thought to going inside? We all do it. We have to. We can’t just stop at every eatery we come upon.

Brad Lawrence leads walking tours to six Downtown restaurants.

What can happen, though, is we walk right by, drive right by, or altogether miss by a block or two, a restaurant we could just adore – if only we stepped inside and discovered it.

That discovery of a potential dining gem is what the new Tucson Food Tours is all about.

Brad and Maria Lawrence launched this Downtown walking tour to a half dozen restaurants during Super Bowl weekend.

Tucson Food Tours is also a great eye opener for people who have not witnessed the veritable Downtown renaissance of the past three years.

“People who take the tour are just surprised there is so much to do in Downtown,” said Lawrence, who himself limited his Downtown ventures to Hotel Congress and 4th Avenue until a couple years ago. ”I have people from the East Side who don’t realize there’s stuff to do.”

Lawrence peppers his slightly amplified tour with tidbits of history and mentions of other places like 47 Scott, the sidewalk outlines of the 1775 presidio, the monthly First Fridays social event at Tucson Museum of Art, the Former Old Stork maternity ward at 221 N. Court Ave. and the Z Mansion.

The tour’s food stops, for now, are HUB Restaurant & Ice Creamery, Empire Pizza & Pub, El Charro Café, Monkey Burger, Maynards Kitchen, Chocolate Iguana and Bumsted’s.

“I have house guests coming in April and I can imagine bringing all of them down here,” said Angie Perryman, who got enlightened during a recent tour. “You get a little flavor of the history of Tucson. I’ve heard the name of HUB but I knew nothing about it.”

Gwen Swanson (left), Donna Steffen and Judy Daggert sample some ice cream at HUB Restaurant and Ice Creamery, an early stop on the Tucson Food Tours itinerary.

“It made me want to come back to every place we’ve gone to,” Gretchen McFarren said during the El Charro stop. “I had no idea Buffalo Exchange was down here.”

Perryman and McFarren were among 14 women taking the tour with Tash Lawrence, for whom the tour was her 65th birthday present from her son the tour guide. Most of the 60-something-year-old friends Tash brought along are Sabino Canyon volunteer naturalists.

Tucson Food Tours takes some three hours for lingering food stops and to cover the nearly 2 miles on foot. The charge is $44 per person, which includes the food and drink at all six eateries.

Bonnie Schwimer, who is “over 65,” had no issues with the extended walk, which included Congress Street, the El Presidio Neighborhood, the Toole Avenue artist warehouse row and 4th Avenue.

“It’s not a very fast walk. It’s not a power walk. It’s a leisurely stroll,” Schwimer said.

Brad and Maria Lawrence attended a wedding last year in Wisconsin and, while there, took a brewery tour, and also a food tour in Chicago.

“We had a blast,” Maria Lawrence said.

Brad Lawrence is a firefighter at the Drexel Heights Fire District, which means blocks of six days and four days with no work and he’s off every other day while on duty. This 10-day a month work schedule inspires many firefighters to start side business.

“This is nice and simple,” Lawrence said about Tucson Food Tours.

His firefighting service explains the seemingly random or even erratic schedule for Tucson Food Tours with stretches of consecutive days mixed with tours every other day. Tucson Food Tours can be reached at 477-7YUM.

“When we did our tour in Chicago, we looked up reviews on tours in other cities,” Lawrence said. “They complain they are not getting enough food.”

The samplings served on Tucson Food Tours add up to a decent meal involving pizza, ice cream, half a burger, fried pickles, ice cream, pâté and a tamale. The restaurants don’t charge Lawrence or the tour participants.

“It’s worth it to get the word out there to get people to experience the quality of the food. That’s what helps us most, word of mouth,” said Ralphie Roth, general manager at Monkey Burger, 47 N. 6th Ave.

“It’s been nothing but a win-win for us,” said Scott Lynch, general manager at Empire Pizza & Pub, 137 E. Congress. “He’s introduced a whole new clientele to Downtown. People do come back. They tell their friends. It’s been a great deal for us.”

Brad Lawrence doesn’t have a set tour other than the six restaurant stops. Sometimes they go faster, sometimes they linger, depending on the tour audiences.

“So far the tours have been groups of people so I could customize it for them,” Lawrence said. “We try to cater it to whoever comes. Some people want less history: ‘Let’s get to the food.’ Others are history buffs. We’re more about food and socializing.”

Tour participant Ricki Mensching is not a Downtown regular. She reckons she’s been Downtown about six times in the last two years.

“The only person I’ve come Downtown with is Tash. My husband won’t even consider coming Downtown,” Mensching said before launching into her thoughts about Downtown. “Oh, it’s on the upswing. It’s definitely starting to get cool. It’s got a new energy. The tour is showing me that there are things happening.”

The tour also won over Dru Duncan.

“I never come down here,” Duncan said. “I’ve never been interested in Downtown. It’s fun. It’s an adventure. It makes you want to walk into other shops. I like the smallness. It feels like a homey environment. I don’t feel scared.”