By Jeff Kronenfeld, March 2019 Issue. Photos by Jeff Kronenfeld; some courtesy of The Dressing Room.
With gleaming new towers packed full of luxury condos popping up faster than you can say “gentrification,” Phoenix’s history is razed almost as quickly as its skyline. However, one small bar and restaurant is trying to remember the neighborhood’s lost lore: The Dressing Room.
Serving fresh takes on street food favorites from around the world — everything from fish tacos to poutine to fried rice — the Dressing Room was once just that, a dressing room. Before the 307 Lounge closed in 2000 and its building was demolished to make way for luxury apartments, it served as one of Phoenix’s first venues for drag performers. Raided by police and pilloried by conservative politicians, the little lounge was an accepting oasis in a prudish cultural desert. However big its heart was, square footage was limited. Its wigged and well-rouged stars prepared themselves by packed into the even smaller building on the other side of the alley.
“It was one of the strangest things because you had to walk across the parking lot to change and then back across to go on stage,” recalls Pussy LeHoot, who performed at the 307 Lounge in the 80s and again before it closed. “There was always something going on in that parking lot ... You weren’t supposed to have anybody in there, but I think a few boys got dragged back.”
Though the Dressing Room’s red carpet, cubbies, and all-night slumber parties may be a thing of the past, LeHoot’s drag shows continue at venues such as Charlie’s Phoenix. However, when Troy Watkins and Kyu Utsunomiya — the founders and owners of food and beverage company Conceptually Social — wanted to convert the then unused space conjoined to their first venture, Be Coffee + Food + Stuff, they decided to name it in honor of this unique past.
Though physically connected to the coffee shop and large MonOrchid Art Gallery, the Dressing Room’s interior space is only about 500 square feet. However, through a smart layout and with ample seating available on two patios, it never feels overcrowded, even on a busy Friday night. The lean staff wears many hats, and since they run a team system, there’s always someone nearby to take your order or top off your water. Looking out the many windows framed by unfinished brick walls or ensconced in a cozy alley surrounded by murals from local artists such as JB Snyder and Sky Black, the ambiance harmonizes nicely with the cuisine.
Malone Deever, executive chef, and general manager describes their culinary approach with a simple formula: making foods you know and love, but always with a fresh twist. One of the best examples is the restaurant’s fries. Infused with lime juice and dusted with savory spices, they work well on their own, dipped in the house’s rich and tangy avocado crema, or smothered in chorizo gravy and topped with an egg for the poutine.
Another example is their crispy fried chicken sandwich. Drawing inspiration from Deever’s time cooking, and eating, in South Carolina, the dish pays homage to its roots with its southern coleslaw and fresh batter, but adds local elements as well, such as a Mexican Coke brine. The result is a sandwich bursting with well-balanced flavors and a variety of textures, from crispy breading to juicy chicken to the cool crunch of the slaw.
A more recent addition is the spiced falafel gyro. Served in a thick doughy pita, the falafel is at once creamy and crispy, as opposed to the often dry or crumbly textures of many falafels. Spiced like gyro meat and drizzled in a house-made tziki (ask them to hold this for a vegan substitute), the dish embodies the cooking staff’s imaginative and playful takes on street food classics.
The same could be said for the Korean pork belly fried rice or the RoRo burger, named in honor of the neighborhood. Topped with gruyere, applewood smoked bacon, and sugar and vinegar-infused onions, the burger’s most distinctive feature is its English muffin bun. Like many of the restaurant’s relatively small number of menu items, the English muffin was selected partly because it could be used in a number of dishes, including the breakfast sandwiches served at Be Coffee, for which the Dressing Room kitchen staff prepares all the food items. However, this was just one reason for its selection.
“The best part of a burger is all the delicious greasy fat that’s coming off of it,” Deever explained. “If you think about a classic nooks and crannies English muffin, it just soaks up all that flavor and will still have integrity.”
No discussion of the Dressing Room would be complete without mentioning their small but fun selection of cocktails, which are half-priced every day from 11:00 a.m. to 6 p.m, making it a perfect destination for day drinking. In keeping with their culinary philosophy, the drinks are classics with twists, such as their South American sour, which features a tequila-base with lemon, charred Fresno syrup, orange, and a Malbec float. Another play on the classic sour is their Rosemary and the Sage, which features a house-made syrup infused with the cocktail’s titular herbs, honey, and bourbon, with Aperol and a sprig of rosemary on top.
Whether they’re paying homage to their roots with an annual doggy drag show or serving up their latest experiments at festivals such as Devour Phoenix, the friendly staff serve all patrons with a smile and sometimes a joke, whether the customer is in a tuxedo, flip flops or fabulous sequin dress.