Every town needs an iconic cafe. These classic haunts are found across the world. There’s PJ Clarke’s in New York City, where Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra rubbed shoulders. Albert Camus, Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway are said to have frequented Le Deux Magots in the heart of Paris to contemplate a cappuccino and search for inspiration. Fictional cafes have created the cozy backdrop for our favorite television shows, whether it be Monk’s from Seinfeld or Central Perk from Friends. Whether they’re lit with fluorescent lights or chandeliers, one could argue every great city requires a great cafe. In Flagstaff, the Grand Canyon Cafe has filled that role for locals and tourists for three-quarters of a century.
The Grand Canyon Cafe has overlooked the segment of Route 66 between San Francisco and Agassiz Streets for decades. Opened in 1942, passing trains have shaken its windows countless times and innumerable hungry pedestrians have been intrigued by the unique combination of American and Chinese food. The neon pink and green sign outside, casting a warm glow onto the sidewalk, has become a familiar sight on dark Flagstaff nights.
Purchased by the Wong family in 1943, Fred and Tina Wong took over the family business in 1980. Fred and Tina quickly became known as the owners of the friendliest cafe in town; their loyal customer base quickly grew. The chicken fried steak became a local favorite. When it was revealed the duo was retiring in late 2016, people were rightfully nervous about what would happen to the cafe they, their parents, and, probably, their grandparents had loved for a warm meal and a good cup of coffee. On Facebook, many expressed their concerns: Would the food be the same? Would the memorable corner booth still reside by the front window?
Local restaurateurs Paul and Laura Moir, and Michael and Alissa Marquess bought the landmark eatery from the Wongs and intend to carry on its historic legacy. At first, the Moirs were hesitant about taking on another property, but as soon as they heard Michael and Alissa, owners of Mother Road Brewing Co., were also interested, they knew buying the cafe would be a good decision.
Walking into the newly remodeled Grand Canyon Cafe eases many of our fears: the new ownership has masterfully showcased the Wongs’ work while also elevating many of its best aspects.
“I knew Fred as a neighbor whose backdoor would face mine,” Paul says, who also owns Criollo Latin Kitchen, Brix Restaurant & Wine Bar, and Proper Meats + Provisions. “[Fred] was always pleasant and friendly. They’re really wonderful, gracious people. Fred and Tina have a farm down in the Verde Valley, way before it was popular to have this farm-to-table thing. I see him as the original—I mean he was legit. He was growing [his own vegetables] and bringing it up here and selling it in his own restaurant.”
Paul recognizes the balancing act between respecting the history of the cafe, while also implementing his personal aesthetic. There are fresh, new floors, more accessibility, restuffed booths, and new paint. All the meat used in dishes will be sourced from Proper Meats + Provisions. The booth by the front window is no longer there, but has been replaced by a glossy wooden table. The other window is completed with a long counter, made with floor boards from the cafe’s original kitchen.
At the same time, some of the characteristic details such as the pastel-hued Grand Canyon painting, oval front window, mint-green counter tops and the miniature jukeboxes at each table have remained—a pleasant reminder of times passed. Furthermore, they have decided to retain most of the classic menu items, notably chicken fried steak and the Chinese food, with a slightly new approach by the new chef. Paul has discussed continuing to source produce from Fred’s Verde Valley farm.
Framed on the wall are a collection of receipts, accounting ledgers and old menus, dating all the way back to the 1950s and ’60s. They are appropriate decoration—a visitor who might be unaware of the cafe’s legacy will immediately understand why this particular spot is important to Flagstaff and northern Arizona.
“A few other people had looked at buying [the cafe], but most other intents were to gut it and do something different, which I think would have been a shame,” Paul says.
Paul describes how the Wong family offered their many stories, with the hopes of old relics being preserved. Among the stories include a kitchen fire that started beneath the floorboards. When the kitchen underwent a remodel, the new owners were surprised to find blackened beams beneath. The fire could have been a disaster, but somehow limited itself to below the cafe.
Another intriguing story explains a decades-old bullet hole in the kitchen’s walk-in cooler.
“The bullet hole in the walk-in is something that we’ve wanted to preserve and tell the story about,” Paul says. “There was a guy running from the cops, and he ran into the cafe’s kitchen and they shot him and sadly killed him. There’s still a bullet hole in the side of the ice box. You don’t get that history with most restaurants and we didn’t want to lose that.”
Even with the inevitable growth and changes Flagstaff has faced in the last century, the Grand Canyon Cafe remains a steady, reliable haven to enjoy the simplest pleasures in life: good food, conversation, and familiar faces. It has seen Flagstaff’s evolution from small-town stop along the highway to the busy, ever-growing city it is today. Somehow, it hasn’t been bought out by Starbucks, and many are thankful there are locals who intend to preserve the cafe, giving it the attention it deserves.
Yet, Paul is excited about the future and what it will bring to Flagstaff—he sees opportunity in the creativity that our town continues to attract, especially regarding food.
“Flag is this sort of incredibly smart, well-traveled town,” Paul says. “The people that live here, you hear stories about where they’re from and where they’ve been and where they’ve traveled. That global awareness is big, and I think we’re seeing that transition into restaurants. Now you can go to about a dozen chef-run, interesting, innovative restaurants.”
The neon sign continues to buzz and the smell of stir-frying vegetables and cooking meat waft onto the sidewalk. Customers file in, curious about the unique conglomeration of new and old. They ponder the yellowing framed receipts and examine the jukeboxes while deciding what to order. While it’s definitely 2017, the mid-20th century doesn’t seem to be too far away.
Undoubtedly, people go to the Grand Canyon Cafe for its history and accompanying stories. Hopefully, they’ll return for the food.
The Grand Canyon Cafe is located at 110 E. Rte. 66 in downtown Flagstaff. Hours are 7 a.m.–9 p.m. seven days a week. For more info, call 774-2252 or visit them on Facebook.