Weeks before diablo burger and Proper are set to open, Paul Moir and Derrick Widmark walk into Sparkroot in downtown Tucson loaded down with boxes. “Have you ever seen that vaudeville act with all the plates spinning?” Widmark asks. “Well, that’s what’s happening right now.” Outside the windows, the air is teeming with dust and the noises of construction. Within two weeks, both restaurants would be open, transforming the historic Rialto Building across from Hotel Congress into a hive of local-food activity.
It’s fitting that their restaurants held grand openings within a day of each other—Diablo Burger opened on May 4, Proper on May 5—because these restaurant owners are not only colleagues but also longtime friends and supporters of one another’s ventures. And their friendship began sitting across from one another in a restaurant.
“We met about six years ago when Derrick came into Brix and sat at the bar,” Moir says. “He shared with me his idea for this local, grassfed beef burger joint that he wanted to open. I loved his idea from the start and offered to share my knowledge and help however I could.”
Proper will be Moir’s first Tucson venture, but he and his wife and business partner Laura have already made a name for themselves with their two Flagstaff restaurants Brix and Criollo Latin Kitchen. Brix has received much acclaim, including being rated among the top 95 new restaurants in Conde Nast Traveler in 2007.
Though he made his name in Flagstaff, Moir first learned the restaurant business during his time in Tucson in the early nineties. “I think the community support of independent restaurants has always been strong in Tucson; it was true 20 years ago and it’s still true today,” Moir says. Furthermore, Moir sees Tucsonans as invested in eating local. “I think that Tucson is fortunate to have all these ranches and farms to the south as a local foodshed and I see more and more people taking an interest in supporting them.”
As with his Flagstaff restaurants, cooking with local ingredients is a big priority for Moir. “Almost every time you turn on the TV or open a newspaper, there is a story about some problem related to food. We shouldn’t have E coli in our spinach, there’s no reason for it to be there other than huge agribusiness has polluted our food supply. Mass-produced, heavily processed and preserved, chemical-laden foods are making us sick and they keep upping the ante on it,” Moir says. “This isn’t just a business decision for Laura and me, it’s how we eat and how we feed our kids and it’s what we believe in and want to pass along to our guests.”
Moir will be sourcing food from producers like McClendon Select, Black Mesa Ranch, and Ridgeview Farms, which he uses at his other restaurants, and is in talks to further source from Tucson-area food producers Sleeping Frog Farms, Josh’s Foraging Fowls, 47 Ranch, and Walking J. “We want to support the local economy, making it stronger and more resilient. We want to have relationships with the people who produce the food, to know where the food comes from,” Moir says. “And we want local and sustainable food for health, freshness, and flavor.”
In other words, the food at Proper will be decent, authentic, and, well, proper. The name came from old friend and patron John Sutcliffe who always described food at Brix as “proper food.” Creating a community atmosphere with a locally sourced menu is Moir’s biggest priority. “We want people to come in with friends, order a number of plates of food and a couple bottles of wine to share and enjoy each other’s company,” Moir says. “No pretense, just proper food and service.”
Depth of Place
Originally Widmark was thinking of opening a new Diablo Burger in Phoenix and Moir was planning on opening Proper in Denver, but a new plan emerged when they found out about the available space at Fifth and Congress. Moir says, “Downtown [Tucson] had all of the attributes we were looking for: a landlord with a long term vision, a strong sense of community, an urban center with a great vibe and a beautiful building.” Moir called his friend to share the news, and Widmark remembers the moment a week later when he walked into the space for the first time: “It was just one of those ‘there it is’ moments; I knew this is where I wanted to be. Paul and I just both looked at it, saw this incredibly rare intersection of authenticity and density, and said yes.”
“I’ve become fond of saying that one shouldn’t expect to make a fast buck off of slow food. I feel that food is changing quite perceptively now; how we source it, how we serve it, and most importantly how we think and talk about it.”
For both Moir and Widmark, community is central. Both restaurants are committed not only to purchasing food from local producers but also to giving back to their community. Through their restaurants, the Moirs have partnered with local nonprofits and they will continue to do so with Proper. Diablo Burger was the first restaurant in Arizona to participate in 1% for the Planet, a growing movement of almost 1,400 member companies who donate one percent of their proceeds to environmental organizations worldwide.
Widmark moved to Flagstaff from New York City in 2006 to help run the Diablo Trust, the non-profit conservation group begun by two ranches who supply beef to Diablo Burger—the Bar T Bar and the Flying M. In spite of the challenges, Widmark says he loves running restaurants because those challenges often offer opportunities for creative solutions. “I’ve become fond of saying that one shouldn’t expect to make a fast buck off of slow food,” he says. “I feel that food is changing quite perceptively now; how we source it, how we serve it, and most importantly how we think and talk about it, and the intention and choices of Diablo Burger are made in large part so that we can do our small part in that changing dynamic.”
In Tucson, Diablo Burger is partnering with Sleeping Frog Farms for produce and Chiva Risa for cheeses, adding them to their existing producers within a 250-mile foodshed. As Widmark says, the vision of Diablo Burger is to “connect community to ecology through gastronomy—people to place through good, healthy local food.”
In tribute to its new town, the new Diablo Burger features the addition of “El Sonoran,” a burger tribute to the popular Sonoran Hot Dog that has made a name for itself beyond its roots in Tucson. Widmark appreciates the flavors of Tucson that extend beyond the palate, saying “Tucson seems to me populated by creative and friendly spirits. I see a lot of quirkiness and outside-the-box thinking. I like places with layers, with depth, and Tucson has that, much more so than one might at first glance think.”
And as Tucsonans visit El Diablo and Proper, Widmark and Moir will continue to be one another’s cheerleaders. “As anyone who visits our places will see, we do things differently,” Widmark says, “but we share a lot of the same values and are constantly bouncing ideas off of each other, sharing information and producers. It’s not just with anyone that you can go through something like this, and sign leases to be next-door neighbors for the next 20 years.” ✜
Diablo Burger is open Monday-Wednesday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Thursday-Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m; diabloburger.com; (520) 882-2007. Proper serves brunch and dinner seven days a week starting at 9 a.m.; propertucson.com; (520) 396-3357.
Lisa O’Neill originally hails from New Orleans but has made her second home in the desert, where she writes and teaches writing. Her favorite food to make is lemon icebox pie.