Nestled in a tight-knit Phoenix neighborhood, Tuck Shop feels like home
Dining out has never been normal for Grace Unger. Even before she became owner of Tuck Shop, the popular dinner destination in the historic Coronado neighborhood in central Phoenix, she remembers eating out with her family was a somewhat unusual affair.
“Going to restaurants was never a normal experience,” Unger remembers with a laugh. “My mom would get really annoyed because my dad and I would geek out on the food and the plating and the lights and the experience.”
Unger’s father owned a meat manufacturing company in the UK, but later sold the business to move the family somewhere sunnier. As a result, Unger grew up between Phoenix, Melbourne and Manchester. But thanks to her family’s longstanding ties to food and beverage (her grandfather owned the first American-style restaurant in Manchester), she learned early on to recognize the many minute details that go into creating an ideal dining experience.
Later in life, Unger travelled through Europe, Asia and Australia, honing her instincts about the art of dining in each city where she lived, worked and played. In Australia, Unger learned to love the country’s “cafe society,” a tradition of casual neighborhood restaurants where the staff is friendly and always knows your name. From time spent living and working in the south of France, she learned first-hand just how much elbow grease it takes to make it in hospitality. And she fell in love with a quaint fishing village where she learned champagne and oysters could be a magical and casual affair.
Through all of this, however, Unger would return to the desert to visit family who lived in Phoenix. And whenever she was here, she would dine at one place: Tuck Shop.
“I used to go there all the time,” she says. “I just thought it was so homey. I thought it was the perfect place in the perfect neighborhood.”
At the time, the restaurant was owned by DJ Fernandez and Jessica Ruiz. But in 2016, when the original owners decided to sell the business to focus on other projects, Unger and her family jumped at the chance.
Tuck Shop, which already was a pillar of the tight-knit Coronado community, became the place where Unger could put all her real-world experience into practice. She wanted the restaurant to be an intimate and comfortable dining experience, but one that also delivered an elevated product.
From the staff—who Unger jokes diners are just as likely to see out after their shift at local bars, as they are running food through the low-lit Tuck Shop dining room—to the decor, Unger works hard to make Tuck Shop feel like home. The relaxed, yet cheerful dining room offers a mismatched collection of tables and chairs. There’s even a low-slung couch in one corner. The overall effect is a space that feels as much like Unger’s living room as it does the dining room of one of Phoenix’s well-loved restaurants.
Unger says the informality helps Tuck Shop give Phoenix diners something they crave. Something that can’t be served on a plate. “You look at Phoenix and it wasn’t always this way,” she remembers. “It’s a big city, but it’s spread out so it doesn’t feel that way. In 2008, you had all these people buying big houses in these far away suburbs. I think that our younger generations, we’re looking for a closer connection.”
“They want to see each other,” Unger continues. “And when they don’t, they do get that—I hate to use slang—but FOMO (fear of missing out).”
And Unger has more than just her single restaurant in the works. She’s taken on a new role as chief creative officer for True North Studio, a Phoenix-based development company behind a handful of large-scale hospitality projects in and around downtown Phoenix.
Unger will help the company, led by founder and lead developer Jonathon Vento, to open three new restaurants in downtown’s Roosevelt Row neighborhood. The restaurants, which also will draw inspiration from Unger’s travels in Europe, will open in historic buildings near residential projects.
The largest is Josephine, a modern French restaurant with a dark, cocktail lounge called Coup de Grâce located on the same property. Unger also will open Petit Jo, a casual bakery and café, inside the historic Knipe House, just south of Portland on Second Street. Unger hopes the spot will be a new all-day dining destination for downtown residents.
The parallels between Unger’s Tuck Shop and the new restaurants are no mistake. Unger says Vento sought her out in large part because of his appreciation for her work at Tuck Shop.
“He literally said, ‘Can we just make Josephine a French version of Tuck Shop?’ ” Unger says with a laugh.
Story: Lauren Saria
Photos: Mark Lipczynski