by James Hudson
Patrons at the Rialto Theatre’s new side-bar, R Bar, are immediately greeted by an impressive, back-lit steel sun rising over a stark, blood-red wall. Flanked by iron birds and modern winged machines, the disc beckons one to a glass-lined balcony view above its angular bar, all housed in the south Cadence building on Congress St., mere steps east of the historic Theatre’s Herbert Alley side exit.
While Rialto is focused on fast service and bar staples, R Bar offers hand-stamped concert-goers a more unique experience, with an inspired house cocktail menu conjured up by bar manager and acclaimed local mixologist Rory O’Rear (Wilko, Red Room). Spontaneous creations inspired by customers’ tastes will be highly encouraged at R Bar, which will tentatively open by July 12th. You can't see it from the street, and its official address at 350 E. Congress No. 110 may throw you off, but just keep walking south in the alley between World of Beer and Rialto and you'll run right into R Bar.
Tucson-based designers Patch & Clark (Hotel Congress’ Copper Hall, Cup Cafe) and Repp McClain (Falora, Side Car, Sparkroot) gave R Bar its locally flavored theme, with its intricately carved steel mural resembling a three-dimensional, chronological Google Earth view of Southern Arizona: The McDonald’s totem-like “M” peers over the Nogales border; two and four-footed desert crossers shadow mythical landmarks and icons past Kitt Peak; and an approaching monsoon storm looms over A Mountain, downtown and the Rialto itself.
R Bar’s metallic motif is offset by a wall’s opaque screen onto which images and video are semi-visible from restrooms located directly behind the projections. Expect mostly experimental films, such as the Norwegian "Slow TV" movement. Culinary service from Cadence neighbors Gio Taco will complement craft beers and cocktails with non-traditional tacos that have won over even Tucson’s staunchest Mexican food purists.
I spoke with Rialto Theatre Manager Curtis McCrary about R Bar, which he jokingly calls “Tucson’s Best Alley Bar,” an alley which as recently as 2006 was home to idling Greyhound buses, and in the 1920s, a low-budget dining and lodging option to Hotel Congress, featuring Southern Pacific Railroad’s S.P. Dining Room.
Tucson Weekly: For a while it seemed the Rialto Theatre’s long-sought effort to expand was doomed. How did R Bar beat the odds?
Curtis McCrary: I have been looking to expand our concession operation/have a 7-day-week bar since probably late 2007, because once things started to get bad with the economy, I knew we needed to do something to survive. The original plan was to use the storefronts on either side of the lobby and we considered lots of approaches. That didn't work out, but the silver lining is that now Good Oak Bar exists there instead, and we like it and the rest of the development on our block a lot. When it became clear that we would get the opportunity to lease space in the Cadence building, we seized it.
Weekly: What does R Bar offer the Rialto show-goer that the Theatre bar doesn’t?
McCrary: It's a totally different approach — Rialto is about speed of service and relative simplicity. R Bar is going to have totally different products on offer with an emphasis on craft in all categories. We'll have 10 draft beers plus 4 draft wines that will rotate pretty regularly, in addition to a great selection of bottles and cans. Just clap your hands. Our bar manager Rory O'Rear has created an excellent house specialty cocktail menu, but we're also emphasizing an approach where you tell our bartender a thing or two about tastes or flavors you like, and she creates a bespoke drink for you on the spot. If we do that well, people will really enjoy it.
Weekly: Describe a non-event night at R Bar. Can we expect projected movies, prerecorded music or the occasional small live act?
McCrary: All those things. Music will be a constant. Live music or a DJ will be occasional, with the possibility of an exciting residency on Wednesday or Thursday night, more about that later. We have a huge screen and a lot of fun plans about what we'll be projecting. It will mostly be for ambiance but we plan for it to be visually compelling. Long-time Rialto staffer James Grip will be curating the visuals, with my and Rory's input. It will be cool. (A ticketless patron) that just wants to come to R Bar during a show will just enter from Herbert Alley, capacity permitting. And they'll do the same on nights when we're open but there's not a show at the Theatre.
Weekly: How does Gio Taco fit in, logistically?
McCrary: It's still being worked on, but the setup will be that you can order from a (somewhat) limited menu, from an R Bar server or bartender, they will put it on your check, and Gio will bring it via the back hallway. It should be pretty seamless.
Weekly: And getting in and out of R Bar, for Rialto ticket-holders and others?
McCrary: As for getting back and forth, it will be very simple - Theatre patrons will simply go out the side door at the rear of the auditorium out to the patio in Herbert Alley, get a stamp on their hands to re-enter, and enjoy what R Bar has to offer, coming back and forth at their leisure. The only drawback is that we can't have glass in the Theatre so they'll have to switch to a plastic cup.
Weekly: Any final thoughts?
McCrary: I'm personally really excited about this project. I think it will complement what we do at the Rialto hand-in-glove. The steel mural will speak for itself as the signature element of what we intend to be a visual feast. It will simply be a great place to hang out, and hopefully never boring.