A perfect example of this phenomenon is Wilbur's Grill, located at the Viscount Suite Hotel at Broadway Boulevard and Swan Road. I'll bet that the vast majority of folks in the Old Pueblo have never heard of this joint, and it's a shame; I just had one of the best meals I've had in Tucson there.
The food's quite good, although some of it could be a bit better. But what makes the place so nice is the atmosphere and the service--the place, even when dead, seems to have a welcoming energy. The folks employed there seem to genuinely want to make Wilbur's work, and it shows.
I visited there one Saturday night with Hugh Dougherty, The Weekly's art/graphics manager. Even though we were there at what would be peak dining time most places, Wilbur's was dead. One other table was occupied, and several folks were playing a game of billiards, but all those folks would soon leave, leaving Hugh and me as the sole customers. I asked our server about this, and she said that the weeknights tend to be busier, thanks to hotel guests dining in without leaving the building.
It really is a nice room. The aforementioned pool table sits in one corner of the room, next to a bar that runs across the back wall. Tables and chairs, black with wood trim, dot the main floor, and a low, black ceiling gives Wilbur's an intimate feel. About a half-dozen TV sets were all on, turned to sports (except for one that aired Wheel of Fortune). The folks at Wilbur's also serve several tables outside of the restaurant, next to the fountain in the hotel lobby.
In an effort to get people in the door, Wilbur's is offering some impressive specials that Hugh and I took advantage of: $1.99 appetizers and selected 99-cent drinks during happy hour (which is actually TWO happy hours from 5-7 p.m.). Hugh and I ordered some buffalo wings ($6 for 12 wings on the regular menu) and some chips and salsa ($4 on the regular menu), along with some margaritas. During other times (non-happy hours), the other appetizers range in price from $6 to $9 and include fare such as chicken strips, mini chicken chimis, shrimp cocktail, Thai lettuce wraps and Lahvosh, a large cracker topped with grilled chicken, dill havarti cheese, capers, artichoke hearts, olives and sundried tomatoes--something I'll definitely try on my next visit.
The appetizers and the drinks were delivered quickly by our server, a polite yet professional woman who appeared to be the sole server on duty--which was not a problem considering the customer count. Both the appetizers were good, especially the wings. They were surprisingly meaty and had a kind of peppery hotness that sneaks up on you after not being apparent at first. The carrots and celery served alongside the wings were crisp and fresh. The chips--homemade--were a little greasy, but nonetheless crisp. They were also sprinkled with tiny scallion pieces, which provided a nice touch. The salsa was flavorful--with onion, tomato, cilantro and pepper--although it was a bit watery, and it had no kick whatsoever.
As we watched California kick a field goal to beat USC in the third overtime, we ordered our entrées. Hugh ordered the 12-ounce roast prime rib au jus ($16), and I chose the fried coconut shrimp ($9) with a side salad. The menu also features salads, sandwiches, burgers and other entrées including salmon, sweet marsala chicken, baby-back pork ribs and several pastas.
The salad was well-prepared with fresh vegetables--and the presentation was impressive. A standard lettuce mixture, dominated by romaine, was topped with tomato chunks and julienned carrots and squash, as well as a radish cut into a flower-like shape. It was a work of art that tasted great.
As we chatted and watched the various football games going on around us for a while, our meals were delivered.
Hugh's prime rib was cooked as he ordered it, medium (he actually requested medium-rare, but restaurant policy is that it be at least medium), and was served with real horseradish. It was a nice cut of meat, and while the prime rib was apparently prepared with only a minimum of discernable spices, Hugh cleaned it up, as he did with the sides: red potatoes and fresh vegetables.
My five shrimp were excellent. While they were a bit small, they were delicious: coated in coconut flakes and fried to a golden brown, they were sweet and juicy. The sweet red chili dipping sauce, with pepper seeds and the ever-present scallion pieces, was warm and delightful. (My meal was so sweet, it could have been on the dessert menu.) The steak fries served along side were fine, and my plate, like Hugh's, was cleaned.
We topped off the meal with dessert and coffee. I ordered the chocolate cheesecake ($5) and Hugh got the apple crisp ($6). Tiramisu, a banana split and ice cream were also options.
My dessert was Wilbur's only misstep of our meal. It was served warm, and it was unlike any cheesecake I'd ever seen. It had the texture and flavor of a mousse pie, not a cheesecake. The menu describes it as "velvety smooth with a chocolate crumb crust." Velvety smooth, it was not.
I watched with jealousy as Hugh reveled in his apple crisp. He said the Granny Smith apples were prepared perfectly--solid yet cooked thoroughly. The crisp, topped with oatmeal crumbles and vanilla ice cream, earned a grade of "excellent" from Hugh.
The questionable cheesecake aside, Wilbur's Grill was a delight. They sweat the small stuff in terms of service, presentation and décor. This is a restaurant that deserves to succeed--so get down there, locals. Don't let the visitors have all the fun.