The Flagstaff Connection Hits Downtown’s Dining Scene

October 18, 2012

By Teya Vitu

You’ve heard of Flagstaff’s restaurant renaissance in just the past few years? Well, two of the culinary poster children in Lumberjack country are bringing their great eats to the eastern edge of Downtown Tucson.

Two Flagstaff restaurants and a bar will go into the Rialto Building adjoining the Rialto Theatre.

Proper, Diablo Burger and Good Oak Bar will go into the Rialto Building across from Hotel Congress once the University of Arizona Mars and Beyond exhibition wraps up at the end of October.

The hopes are to have Proper and Diablo Burger open some time in February with Good Oak following a few months later.

Diablo Burger will possibly be familiar to any Tucsonan who’s made the summer drive to cool down in Flagstaff since March 2, 2009. It’s been named Best Burger in Flagstaff every year since in the Arizona Daily Sun. And in October 2010, Diablo Burger was the Arizona entry for USA Today’s “51 Great Burger Joints Across the USA.”

Proper is a new concept for the man behind Flagstaff’s Brix Restaurant and Wine Bar and Criollo Latin Kitchen. Conde Naste magazine named Brix one of the 95 Hottest Restaurants in the World.

These Flagstaff eateries are the darlings of Arizona Highways magazine. Brix made the magazine’s annual Best Restaurants feature in 2008, Criollo followed in 2011, Diablo Burger in 2012, joined this year by Tucson’s own DOWNTOWN Kitchen + Cocktails and Maynard’s Market & Kitchen.

Now restaurateurs Paul Moir and Derrick Widmark are ready to branch out to Tucson. Moir was first looking at Fort Collins, Colo., as expansion territory, and Widmark thought Phoenix would be the logical place for his second Diablo Burger.

“My original thinking, which turned out to be wrong (or at least ill-timed),” Widmark said, “was that Phoenix was the right place for our second restaurant because so many Phoenicians knew about DB from visiting Flagstaff.  But if you are into the energy of a real downtown, as I am, Phoenix is a tough fit.”

Together, Moir and Widmark gravitated to Tucson, strongly drawn, like by a diving rod, by the vision of Scott Stiteler. He owns the One North Fifth Aparments, the buildings housing HUB Restaurant & Ice Creamery and Playground Lounge, and he co-owns the Rialto Block.

“I went down there expecting to take a 15-minute tour,” said Moir, owner of Brix, Criollo and the concept that will become Proper. “Scott sat me down, laid out his vision, and I was blown away. I got back to Flagstaff, told Derrick, and he was blown away.”

Widmark, who owns Diablo Burgers, remembers it similarly but he compresses the time frame.

“Paul came down for a meeting and called me about five minutes after and said, ‘You need to check this place out,’” said Widmark, who also plans a Good Oak Bar next door to his Tucson Diablo Burger. “We came back down together about a week later and it was one of those ‘there it is’ type moments. Everything I’d been looking for in Phoenix, and had been unable to find, was right here.”

Stiteler was talking with his brother-in-law broker, who lives in Phoenix and worked on the Cityscape project. He had heard about these Flagstaff restaurateurs from a college classmate broker in Fort Collins, who was showing Moir around at the time. The brother-in-law got Stiteler and the Flagstaff duo in touch.

“They are the A Team,” Stiteler said. “We met for an afternoon and an evening and totally hit it off.”

Stiteler has taken excruciating pains in finding just the right tenants for his Fifth and Congress properties. He resolutely stays away from chain stores and instead lured Ari Shapiro to Downtown with Xoom Juice and Sparkroot and Kade Mislinski with HUB and Playground.

“I think they will hit it off with Kade and Ari and that’s important to me,” Stiteler said. “I have room for two or three more opportunities – three retail or two restaurants. We’re fielding so many good offers. I’ll continue to be patient.”

Moir, Widmark and Stiteler each sought more of a partnership than an absentee landlord-tenant relationship.

“Scott just blew away every other landlord I considered.” Widmark said. “I wanted a landlord who had a vision, who wanted to make something happen, and who saw me as a partner in bringing that to life. He sent folks up to Flagstaff to check us out. We did our homework on him, and most importantly we spent time together, hammering out details and getting to know each other.”

Moir and Widmark have entirely separate business operations in Flagstaff, on neighboring streets, in fact. Here in Tucson, Proper and Diablo will be distinct and separate, too, in the same building. But Moir and Widmark are close friends, pretty much a team, communicating by phone, text or in person on most days.

Moir was Widmark’s mentor when the latter was scheming opening a hamburger joint sourced with open-range, grass-fed beef from the Diablo Trust’s Flying M and Bar T Bar ranches near Canyon Diablo, 40 miles east of Flagstaff.

Paul and Laura Moir had already opened Brix in 2006 after moving to Flagstaff the year before from Denver. Widmark was an early customer.

“He came in and sat at the bar and we struck up a conversation,” Moir remembered. “He told me this idea about a burger concept. I helped him pull his plan together. I worked with him a little at Diablo.”

Paul Moir had culinary training at Johnson & Wales University in Denver, and both Paul and Linda have first-level sommelier certificates. Widmark had done marketing at Diablo Trust and before that did film and advertising work in New York. Diablo Burger was his first exposure to the restaurant business.

“Paul had had Brix open for 3 years and could have been cold and competitive and told me to figure stuff out for myself,” Widmark said. “Instead, he was welcoming and supportive and always there for me when I needed help, which was a lot.”

Even though Moir took the lead with Tucson and helped Widmark get Diablo going, Moir views Widmark as an equal.

“We have each other’s backs in both locations,” Moir said. “During construction, I trust him to make decisions on my behalf (when Moir is not in Tucson).”

Proper will be a hybrid of Moir’s Brix and Criollo. Proper will have full meals but his heart leans heavily to the “small plates and shared plates” concept that will be new to Proper.

“What we serve is properly portioned plates,” Moir said.

The name Proper was inspired by a British friend who lives in Colorado and occasionally visits Flagstaff and stops by Moir’s restaurant.

“He always regards our food as being proper,” Moir said. “It’s really simple, straightforward food, good ingredients.”

Diablo Burger serves hamburgers on an English muffin branded with a DB.

“The idea behind the English Muffin is to keep the focus on the beef and on that great, clean grass-fed beef flavor,” Widmark said. “Most burgers come on buns that are even bigger than the burger itself, and you actually get that big, stuffed feeling in large part from the bread.”

Widmark will likely use the same beef in Tucson as he does in Flagstaff at first, but he’s been talking to University of Arizona ethno-botanist and local food movement guru Gary Nabhan to find Southern Arizona ranches to supply beef for Tucson.

Paul and Linda Moir both know Tucson well. Linda grew up here and graduated from Sahuaro High School and the University of Arizona. Paul lived in Tucson for five years 20 years ago.

“When I lived in Tucson in the early 1990s, Downtown was not a place you went,” Paul Moir recalled. “It certainly wasn’t a dining destination. When I drove down there the first time now, my jaw dropped. I was really impressed.”