Food tourism in Tucson

Food tourism, restaurants are revitalizing Tucson.

They say you are what you eat. If that statement is true, then Tucsonans must be equal parts multifaceted, high quality and above all, thriving. 

Dozens of Tucson eateries have opened this year, including American Eat Co., Cans, Hoki Poki and more. And on the horizon, the Boxyard, a shipping container mall, is being built on Fourth Avenue. Not only are these new options delicious and diverse, as they grow, Tucson grows with them.

“Restaurants here are growing quickly, and we’re starting to see diversity in them as well,” said Travis Reese, co-owner of 47 Scott. “There are new, really unique concepts in these restaurants we haven’t seen before. We’re in a more mature culinary scene now, and it’s growing in cool ways.” 

A fiscal highlights report published by the Joint Legislative Budget Committee of Arizona found that, year to date, restaurant and bar sales tax collections were up 6 percent this year. This growing trend in local eateries has played a crucial role in the revitalization of downtown Tucson. 

“In 2010 we had three restaurants, now we have about 85,” said Fletcher McCusker, board chair of the Rio Nuevo District. “And I think we’re going to get to 100. Some of our highest quality restaurants are downtown, and I think we now have a designation as a food city.” 

The Downtown Tucson Partnership recently published their Summer 2018 Development Report, where they listed 32 new businesses in downtown, 12 of which were labeled as “Dining & Alcohol.” They described the current trend as “unprecedented growth.”

“The food scene led the way, and opened the invitation to downtown,” Reese said. “What happened allowed for the population to come downtown more and more. And we have a trend of quality here now, so more quality things are being built.”

Beyond Tucsonans coming downtown more, a burgeoning and unique cuisine scene also brings in tourists from out of town. 

“The thing with food in tourism is that, unlike other attractions, everyone has to eat,” said Dan Gibson, director of communications at Visit Tucson. “You can skip museum A or not go to event B, but eventually you’ll go to a restaurant.” 

Beyond local businesses starting up, the booming food scene in town is also attracting attention from Phoenix. Both Welcome Diner and the brand-new Cobra Arcade Bar have previous locations up north. 

McCusker said that, clearly, the entire redevelopment of downtown has been led by locals, but that the region is beginning to see some out-of-town developers make some moves.

Undoubtedly some of the biggest news in the food sphere was Tucson’s designation as a “City of Gastronomy” by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. In 2015, UNESCO added 47 locations to its “Creative Cities” network, and they added Tucson for its food. With a culinary history stretching back 4,000 years, mixing together multiple cultures, cooking styles and technologies, it’s easy to see why Tucson was the first ever designated city of gastronomy in the nation. 

“We’ve seen a significant rise in tourism since the UNESCO designation,” Gibson said. “It’s really been a marker of what people think of Tucson.” 

Local restaurant-owners report serving customers from as far away as New York, who are visiting simply from the food reputation. 

“We’ve always had such a large amount of tourism for our restaurants,” Reese said. “But now instead of snowbirds, we’re seeing a lot more young people here for weekend getaways. It’s a whole new crowd that’s interested in the food experience.” 

The region’s rich agricultural history can be seen in many local cuisines: Tepary beans, cholla buds, prickly pear, Sonoran wheat and agave. 

“So much of the food here is driven by local flavors,” Gibson said. “There’s a flavor to our foods that’s multicultural and remarkable.” 

Dozens of local restaurants proudly exhibit this tradition, including Thunder Canyon Brewstillery with their Heritage Burger, Maynards with their mesquite grilled quail, Penca’s nopales tacos and 47 Scott hosting local Whiskey Del Bac. 

“I think we have a ways to go still,” Reese said. “We probably don’t embrace enough of our Sonoran roots. There’s so much to work with.” 

Other than individual restaurants, local food tourism includes Marana’s UNESCO food tour, the “Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food” in the nation, and the annual Agave Heritage Festival. 

“It feels like people want to support local restaurants here,” Gibson said. “And what’s good for the locals is good for tourism, and the opposite is true as well.” 

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