Fans of live music and fans of local restaurants can satisfy both passions by dining at Monterey Court. With local artisan shops lining the patio and parking lot, musicians performing every week from Tuesday through Sunday, and a menu full of American classics updated with a modern twist, there are plenty of reasons to visit the venue, located on Miracle Mile not far from I-10.
If that sounds like an unusual location for a restaurant and live music venue to you, that may be because it wasn’t that long ago that Miracle Mile was more evocative of drugs, crime, and prostitution than the midcentury motor courts and vintage neon signs that line the former northern gateway to Tucson. Things started to change for the better around 2010, with community organizing, local business investment, and a new police station driving the positive shift. In 2012, co-owners Greg Haver and Kelly McLear opened their café in the fully renovated 1938 Monterey Court motor court. (Read more about the revitalization of Miracle Mile in this 2011 piece from AZPM.)
Haver says he didn’t have a full-fledged vision in place when he bought the then- abandoned motor court, but decided to take a chance anyway. He credits 30 years of working in the construction industry with giving him with a good sense for how to renovate without destroying a sense of the original structure, and points to word of mouth and social media as the primary means for keeping tables full. The evening we visited, Ronstadt Generations was playing onstage, the misters were bringing the late afternoon heat down to a pleasant temperature, and the patio was full of families and friends enjoying their evening. We were shown to a table with a view of the stage and settled in to savor two citrusy summer cocktails: the Gin Wicked ($8) and the Jalepeño Cucumber Margarita ($7). The Gin Wicked was a tangy, determinedly unsweet cocktail, and similar in taste to a Greyhound thanks to the use of grapefruit juice, with ginger syrup and a “tiny bit of habanero” adding complexity without adding heat. The Jalepeño Cucumber Margarita was much sweeter, though tempered by the cucumbers, jalepeños, and a salt and chile-encrusted rim.
We chose two appetizers that have been on the menu since Monterey Court first opened: the Smoked Salmon Bruschetta ($13), and the Goat Cheese Stuffed Dates ($13). Both were outstanding examples of simple foods done well. The bruschetta consisted of crisp slices of bread thinly spread with cheese, topped by soft slices of salmon and a fresh tomato, olive, onion, and basil tapenade. The variety of textures combined flavors that built well upon each other. The dates arrived to the table a bit too hot to eat, but after cooling for a couple minutes, revealed themselves as drool-worthy nuggets of melty cooked dates and creamy herbed cheese filling, all wrapped up in perfectly crisped bacon. As with most things I encounter that walk the sweet-and-salty line, this appetizer quickly disappeared from the table.
Monterey Court offers main dishes that hit a variety of price points, and we opted for a Rueben sandwich ($12) and the Grilled Salmon ($19). The Rueben came on crispy toast, with thick slices of corned beef, a modest topping of sauerkraut, and enough Russian dressing to add creaminess but not enough to make a mess. A batch of Wedge Fries may have caused me to sigh in bliss when I bit into one thickly cut stick of potato, finding it perfectly flakey on the inside with a nice fried crust on the outside. The Grilled Salmon came with lightly sautéed summer vegetables, some cilantro rice pilaf, and a large piece of fish laid down the middle. While the grill marks looked stunning on the fish, the salmon was slightly overwhelmed by a char flavor. (I recommend taking off the skin before you dig in.)
We topped off our meal with a piece of Limoncello Marscapone Cake ($6). This is the kind of cake dreams are made of: light, fluffy, and moist, with decadent little curls of white chocolate dotting the top. Set against a backdrop of a warm summer night in Tucson, with the sound of music carrying from the stage, it was the perfect way to end our night.
I asked Haver what he would say to someone who’s never heard of Monterey Court before. His response, “Leave your preconceptions of Miracle Mile at home—it’s totally changed. Come down and have some fun, listen to some music … and have some wonderful food as well.”
505 W. Miracle Mile
Tucson, AZ 85705