Winos’ Guide to the Tucson Beer District

Coronet Cafe
Coronet Cafe, a delightful new addition to 4th Ave.
Coronet Cafe
The Coronet, a delightful new addition to 4th Ave.

Tucson has many new bars and restaurants along the modern street car route, but unfortunately, many of them are dedicated to beerI hate beer. I don’t care how trendy beer is these days. I still hate it. There I said it.

Both Zocalo and the Tucson Weekly recently published feature stories about “famous” Tucson bartenders who make fancy mixed drinks. Also not my thing.

What about my people? The wine drinkers. Where should we go for a decent pour at an affordable price in the downtown area? As a public service and in honor of the modern street car’s debut later this week, I have compiled a totally non-scientific review of 41 bars and restaurants along or near the modern street car route– from wine drinker’s point of view. Check out the rankings and photos after the jump.

First a bit about my research, none of the establishments with “beer” or “burger” in the name, sandwiches as the primary menu item, or more televisions than people were included in the survey because I don’t like any of those things. Mexican restaurants also were not included because although I love Mexican food, they generally have no wine or lousy wine. (It’s just not their thing. I used to get weird looks if I even mentioned wine in a Mexican restaurant, so I don’t anymore. Mexican restaurants are for beer and/or tequila– not wine.)

What I have included are 41 bars and restaurants on the street car line or near it. They have been categorized by “good wine,” “pretty good wine,” “bad wine,” and “container wine,” and all of the lists are in alphabetical order. Container wine (ie, wine from a box or keg, rather than a bottle) is a disturbing trend in downtown. It tastes like the container, especially the white wine. I also rated the wine prices as moderate or expensive (with $10/glass as the dividing line), and rated the ambiance and whether or not these businesses have adequate staffing. Another disturbing trend in downtown Tucson is understaffing. Far too many places have one or two bartenders and no other wait staff, which results in customers waiting… waiting… waiting… for the overworked bartender. Poor customer service is another thing I hate. (OK, so I’m a picky bitch.)

Good Wine

wine- goodLucky for us, the “good wine” list is the longest one, and many of these establishments have a good pour for a moderate price. In varying degrees, I like all of the places on this list. My favorites are the Arizona Inn (not cheap but hands down the classiest patio in Tucson for happy hour), The Coronet (how cute! my fav of all of the new places on the street car line), Cafe Passe’s Beer Garden (which serves good wine, has great live music, and a truly 4th Ave feel), and Cushing Street (another classic, beautiful place with good variety). Barrio Brewing, in Armory Park, is the only micro-brewery to make the “good wine” list. They have not forgotten that beer drinkers have friends, girlfriends, and spouses who want more than beer. The Bee Line, one of my favorite restaurants on 4th Ave, was rated as “understaffed” because of the odd “wait in line to order” model. It’s a hassle. Hire more wait staff.

Hotel Congress
The Hotel Congress has the Tap Room, the Lobby Bar, The Cup Cafe, and the room with the stage. These four locations don’t offer the same wine selection or quality.

Pretty Good Wine

wine- pretty goodSome of your more traditional bars made the “pretty good” list. Only one of them– Playground– was rated “pretty good” and “expensive”. Playground has too many TVs on the inside but a really classy patio. Too bad we had sticker shock at the price of a glass of Chardonnay. In the college bar genre, I like Che’s Lounge and Sky Bar. Really, Sky Bar is one of the best values for really cheap, “pretty good” wine. Caruso’s is another classic 4th Ave location with pretty good wine, a great selection of Italian food, and the best outdoor seating on the modern street car line.

Cafe Passe
The Cafe Passe Beer Garden is wonderful– especially during Octoberfest.

Bad Wine

wine- badIf you prefer wine to beer or other spirits, I don’t recommend these establishments– unless, of course, it’s your night to be a designated driver. These places pretty much have no food, either. If you venture a glass of wine at any of these, stick to red because it is less likely to give you a headache than white wine. You’ll note that as the wine quality goes down, so does the service and the ambiance. To be fair, when one goes to the Hut, the Rialto, or even the Wreck, drinking and eating are secondary to music and dancing. The Rialto serves Barefoot brand wine; there is a picture of a Barefoot Chardonnay bottle in the dictionary entry for “headache wine.” (I hope the Rialto’s new bar serves better wine.) Although it’s on the edge of being a dive bar, the Iguana Cafe can be a lot of fun on Karaoke nights.

Several older bars are not on my lists because I haven’t been there in years and didn’t want to unnecessarily dis them if they have changed their bar or food menus in my absence– for example, IBT’s, The District Tavern, Bumsted’s, O’Malley’s, Bison Witches, Frog’n’Firkin’, Gentle Ben’s, and the Auld Dubliner. The last time I was at IBT’s the crowd around the bar was several people deep, and I never got to order anything– another place with overworked bartenders. The others would probably fall somewhere on the line between “pretty good” and “bad” wine, since they are primarily bars, specializing in beer and television sets with sports.

The Wreck
The Wreck is “different”. I like the distressed interior.

Container Wine

container wineContainer wine– wine from a box or keg, rather than a bottle– is really awful stuff. For the most part, it tastes like the container, which is really bad if the container is a metal keg. One caveat on this list is that it’s incomplete. I suspect other places of having container wine as the house wine but have not verified that. I really like The Hub and Thunder Canyon as restaurants. At both places, the container wine in the house wine. My advice: dump the container wine and get a “pretty good” house wine. Container wine can’t be saving you that much money. The Junxion wine is so bad that the bartender warned me about it and offered a sip first. He was right.

Happy hour, anyone? Have fun riding the modern street car.


  1. It is too bad that Mexican restaurants in Tucson, and in the entire US do not serve “real” Mexican wine. I am writing this during a visit to the Guadalupe valley in northern Baja. (Just inland from Ensenada.) There are dozens of wineries here, all serving wines that range (in the ratings from four of us) from OK to glorious. It’s just that the really good Mexican wines are not imported into the US. For that matter, really good Mexican cuisine is not represented in the US either.

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