Pride & Passion in Arizona

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When Nat King Cole sang “Get Your Kicks on Route 66” back in 1946, the Mother Road, as John Steinbeck called the highway in The Grapes of Wrath, supported the towns it passed through, from Chicago to L.A. Gas stations, motor courts and restaurants sprang up along the first continuously paved highway in the U.S., offering travellers a place to fix the car, a place to sleep and a place to eat.

Places like the Galaxy Diner in Flagstaff. Step through its chrome door and time-travel back 60 years to an eatery offering hamburgers, malts and more than a hundred kinds of old-fashioned shakes. The original counter dominates the narrow room, dividing the servers from the served. A maelstrom of red, black and white tiles, chrome and neon, and ’50s memorabilia contrast with the black-and-white photos of movie stars that fill every inch of wall space – Ava Gardner, Elizabeth Taylor, Gregory Peck, Lee Marvin. Surrounded by a phalanx of Marilyn Monroe images is a parody of Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” where the three diner patrons are replaced by Humphrey Bogart, James Dean and Norma Jean herself, the server by Elvis Presley. The King is also represented on the diner’s menu: the Elvis Banana Split – three scoops of vanilla ice cream, chocolate and caramel sauces, peanut butter, whipped cream and bacon.

But times – and tastes – have changed. By the early ’60s, when Chuck Berry and The Rolling Stones had both covered “Route 66,” many of the towns had been bypassed by the new interstate, leaving them in decline with abandoned motor courts where no cars stopped. A decade later, when the I-40 bypassed Winslow, once the largest town in northern Arizona, businesses were shuttered, frozen in time for a quarter of a century until La Posada, which had been a Fred Harvey House, a chain of about 80 elegant restaurants following the train tracks bringing good food – and civilization – to the Southwest, was saved from demolition. Reopened in 1997 as a hotel, residence and private museum, guest rooms are named after the celebrities who have slept there: Clark Gable, Mary Pickford, Albert Einstein among others. La Posada’s restaurant, The Turquoise Room, serves up regional contemporary Southwestern fare based on Navajo and Hopi crops – imagine sweet corn tamales, quail with Oaxaca dipping sauce, wild chili tamale with bison, wild boar, venison and scarlet runner beans – and has been named as one of the country’s top three restaurants in the 2009 Condé Nast Gold List.

And no visit to Winslow is complete without standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona – yes, the corner immortalized in “Take It Easy” by Jackson Browne and Glenn Frey – right by Browne himself or, at least, a life-sized bronze statue of him. And yes, my Lord, there is a girl in a flat-bed Ford, but she’s not slowing down. She’s part of an incredible mural the town created for the Standin’ on the Corner Park in 1999, contributing to the tourism dollars that are helping to bring life back to the towns.

Northern Arizona has attracted foodie-preneurs who are turning the dining scene – and Flagstaff’s iconic Muffler Men – on its head. (The famous 22-foot tall lumberjack who once guarded the Lumberjack Café on Route 66 now lives at Northern Arizona University where he is the mascot of the NAU Lumberjacks.) Jamie Thousand and his wife, Lindsay, hail from Missouri and traded in their legal and IT backgrounds to start a catering business in Flagstaff. With no restaurant experience, they rented a commercial kitchen by the hour until success moved them into a 300-square-foot building and offer carry-out and drive-through service. Their love of “good food, good times and good people” paid off – Thousand has been named to Best Chefs America – and now Satchmo’s BBQ, Cajun, Catering boasts a dining room and patio – and the best jambalaya west of New Orleans.

Good Cajun spicing calls for a good quaff, and the two dozen craft beers at eight downtown locations on the self-guided Flagstaff-Grand Canyon Ale Trail more than qualify. The small-batch brews are fresh, full and flavourful. Enjoy the full-bodied Lost Highway Imperial Black IPA or the crisp Gold Road Kolsch-Style Ale at the three-year-old Mother Road Brewing Co., where the garage door beside the taproom in the former laundromat opens into a couch-filled room complete with pool table. Looking for fare with your suds? Charly’s Pub & Grill serves a variety of local brews in the historic Weatherford Hotel along with Navajo tacos – traditional fry bread with beans, olives, cheese, and onions. American author Zane Grey, who idealized the American frontier, was a frequent guest of the hotel.

In a town with so many appealing restaurants, a progressive dinner may be in order. Start at Cuveé 928 Wine Bar and Café in Heritage Square with appetizers from chef James Hoffman like Satchmo’s smoked salmon with egg salad, mushrooms with farmers cheese and basil panna cotta. Then head to the intimate Pizzicletta on the Southside. Share a wood-fired Neapolitan pizza baked in 90 seconds in the oven built by owner-chef Caleb Schiff – indulge in Amore Oi Mari, with mascarpone, pecorino, prosciutto, arugula and Meyer lemon olive oil. And end the evening at the 30-seat Coppa Café’s “taste of Europe in the mountains of Flagstaff” with husband-and-wife team of homeboy Brian Konefal and Brazilian-born Paola Fioravanti. Her quest to perfect fine European pastry is a challenge at Flagstaff’s 7,000-foot elevation – the high altitude makes pastries take longer to bake, rise higher and dry out faster – but with the local organic Concord grape and vanilla macaron she may have achieved her goal.

At 4,200 feet above sea level, it’s not just the altitude of Sedona that takes your breath away but the otherworldly vistas of red rocks, buttes, mesas and spires. Combine that with impeccable food and service under cottonwood and sycamore trees at the creekside resort of L’Auberge on Oak Creek in Red Rock Country, and you may never breathe again. Locally sourced ingredients are prepared in a French-inspired manner with a modern American touch by chef Rochelle Daniel – pasta with artichoke, kumquat and rosemary; scallop ceviche with Brussels sprouts, pomegranate, black garlic and pickled rhubarb. Its wine list has won the Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence 22 times. L’Auberge made it to Condé Naste’s Gold List, won Travel + Leisure’s World’s Best 2012 awards and was named one of the most romantic eateries in Arizona by Fodor’s. Perhaps the spiritual energy of the area’s fabled vortexes inspires exalted gastronomic efforts in the Grand Canyon State.