By Jacki Lenners | Photograph by John Burcham
Countless landmarks on Historic Route 66 have gone the way of the classic cars that once traveled the Mother Road, with strip malls and chain restaurants replacing neon signs and soda fountains. When the longtime owners of Flagstaff’s Grand Canyon Café decided to retire, a few locals teamed up to ensure this treasured institution wouldn’t suffer the same fate.
Paul and Laura Moir, the duo behind several of Flagstaff’s culinary hot spots — including Brix Restaurant and Wine Bar and Criollo Latin Kitchen — joined Michael and Alissa Marquess of Mother Road Brewing Co. to take on the daunting task of breathing new life into a restaurant with a storied past.
That past spans more than seven decades and features the Wong family, who paired their traditional Chinese cuisine with diner-style favorites to feed generations of hungry travelers and locals.
“We couldn’t run their restaurant,” Paul admits, but the new owners endeavored to carry on the Wongs’ legacy while making their own mark.
They took their time, working with regular customers to ensure the revamped menu was a hat tip to the past, but with an eye to the future. Burgers are a mainstay, but the fresh ground beef comes from Proper Meats and Provisions, the Moirs’ butcher shop of Arizona-raised meats. For a double dose of goodness, go for the burger topped with Gruyère cheese and Proper pastrami.
The owners admit Chinese cuisine isn’t in their wheelhouse, but it was the one non-negotiable element of the menu. “We wanted to maintain the continuity and history of the café for the ‘legacy customer’ group, but we also wanted to broaden the visibility,” Paul says. So you’ll find diner favorites, such as a triple-decker club sandwich and corned beef hash, alongside pork belly fried rice, with house kimchi, and crispy noodle chow mein.
While the menu is updated, the décor is virtually untouched from its Route 66 heyday. Guests who dined at Grand Canyon Café half a century ago might find their elbow marks worn into the original tables and countertops.
The Multimixer milkshake machine still churns out shakes, malts and even boozy concoctions, such as a dirty bourbon chai. And a walk around the restaurant offers glimpses into the past — from the pie case, repurposed into beer taps, to the bullet hole in the wooden walk-in cooler, courtesy of a man running from the law.
Deeply rooted in deep history but ready to greet future generations, the neon sign continues to burn bright at the “new” Grand Canyon Café.
Grand Canyon Café is located at 110 Historic Route 66 in Flagstaff. For more information, call 928-774-2252 or visit www.grandcanyon.cafe.