Friday, December 15, 2017


You'd probably bet Tucson would have some fine, original examples of the roadside diner genre.  You'd be wrong.  They're all long gone.

Whatever fleeting food service outlets may have existed in Tucson during US 89's early decades disappeared for several reasons.

(Editor's Note: Early on December 16, Jill, a member of the Tucson and Pima Co. History Facebook Group, alerted us to Club 21.  It definitely "fits the bill" as perhaps the lone surviving restaurant from US 89's old days.  You can read about it here: )

First and foremost is economic reality.  Prime Time Tucson real estate along any heavily traveled arterial is very valuable property....far more valuable than any mom and pop diner could afford.  If there were indeed any iconic diners along the Stone-Drachman-Oracle Corridor that was US 89, those diners were long ago bought out and bulldozed to make room for something newer, bigger, better and pricier.

Secondly, Tucson's early culture didn't favor roadside diners.  Tucson is Arizona's oldest non-Native community by perhaps one or two hundred years. By the time US 89 rolled around in the late 1920's, Tucson's culinary paradigms were well established and set in Stone (pun intended).  Most, if not all, of those cultural culinary channels remain intact today in one form or another.

When US 89 was just getting established, Tucson's dining traditions covered a lot of bases.  The Old Pueblo's thriving downtown district included numerous popular small cafes and restaurants.  Congress Street was the center of Tucson's early 20th Century commerce. It's where people went to shop, eat and be entertained.  It was Tucson's first street to be paved.  Meanwhile, the many Tucson neighborhoods and barrios were well supplied with small mom and pop places to eat, especially in the Mexican neighborhoods.  Street vendors were arguably more common (and popular) in Tucson than in any other US 89 community from Mexico to Canada. Tucson's Late Legend Roy Drachman writes of one such vendor: "One of the most interesting and useful characters found on Tucson streets in the early days was the Greek popcorn man who had a regular spot on the northeast corner of Stone Avenue and Congress Street.  He was a short, dumpy gentleman who had a handlebar mustache and always wore a felt hat.  Every evening at dusk, he would come down Congress Street pushing his glass enclosed popcorn wagon.  He would park it in the gutter on the Stone Avenue side of the corner, light up his gas burner, and start popping corn.  That was all he sold, but it smelled so good, few people could resist buying a bag, so he sold a lot of it.  George, as he was known, carried on his business at that stand for thirty years or more. He raised his family and supported them as the only popcorn maker in town." (Page 104)

Lastly, Tucson also arguably had more fine dining places to eat than anywhere else along US 89. Over 100 guest (dude) ranches and other enterprises catered to seasonal visitors. The 1929 opening of Stone Avenue's famous Pioneer Hotel provided one of the highest class dining establishments to grace the roadside of early US 89.
Pioneer Hotel ballroom in 1929.

Tucson now certainly has no lack of restaurants and yesteryear's popcorn vendor has become today's taco truck.  Small cafes continue to be a thriving part of Tucson's culinary scene.  Meanwhile, fine dining in Tucson is some of the finest in the entire state.  Furthermore, fast food franchises dominate the busy intersections.  Tucson's oldest remaining restaurant, the original 1922 Court Ave. El Charro, is now nationally famous and serves as a shining example of the Family restaurants that were once common throughout the Old Pueblo.

As a result of all of the above, we won't be writing a US 89 restaurant review for Tucson.  If you come across a genuine ancestral diner that meets all of the informal criteria for an early US 89 roadside eatery, by all means send the information to

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