Northern AZ’s Mountain Living Magazine, January 2017
Written by Gail G. Collins
In the late 70s, songwriter and entertainer, Peter Allen focused on life’s ageless aspects crooning, “Everything old is new again.” This timely reference point also marks Flagstaff’s decision to preserve its downtown heritage.
First, some perspective. Several years after its namesake July 4th flag planting on the nation’s centennial in 1876, Flagstaff was established as a railway and a lumbering center. The original structures, built from the forests’ ready materials, burned down repeatedly, and many were replaced by brick and native sandstone structures. In 1926, iconic Route 66 ventured west, carrying tourists to the Grand Canyon via Flagstaff, where they stayed overnight at The Hotel Weatherford with its witch’s cap cupola or Hotel Monte Vista, as did film stars.
With modern trends, some buildings, like Babbitt’s Department Store, endured a space-aged, aluminum face lift. Many businesses exited downtown by the 70s, and the city concentrated on regeneration. By 1990, a formal preservation program began, and the aluminum siding came down, revealing carved, red stone on Babbitt’s with others following suit.
Restoration and repurposing has continued, including innovative eateries, such as Proper and Tourist Home Urban Market propping up the south side with The McMillan, north of the tracks. But not everything can be saved, even if built of stone. The Commercial Hotel was devastated by fire in 1975, and The Commerce, a new craft cocktail bar, stands on the former site. Art within the bar commemorates the event.
Tyler Christensen labeled his latest endeavor as ‘fluid’—as in its cocktails and its evolving menu. “The Commerce is a blank slate,” he said. “We could change the menu tomorrow, and no one would freak out.” Although Flagstaff is a beer-centric town, Christensen aims to educate any willing subject with riffs on classic cocktails, like the coin toss old fashioned or the apple press gang. The latter blends rhum agricole—a cane juice rum originally distilled in the French Caribbean—and cana brava—a long lost Panamanian-styled rum—with CaskWerks Distilling Company’s apple pie liqueur, lime juice, OJ and Commerce ginger syrup. It is served in a coupe glass with apple slices atop. It’s fresh, seasonable and almost too quaffable.
Conversations are encouraged and Christensen ideally learns from the public as well, especially travelers. The June rose—a glass of dolled up gin, fresh raspberry puree, lime juice, egg white and desiccated rose buds—is an example. “Our ears are open,” he said, “Cocktails are conversation starters. The Commerce has a slower vibe with time to talk.”
The Commerce opened with ‘dram funding’ paying the way as the concept developed. Even with the launch of the full kitchen, the menu remains a living document. The favorites stick around, based on customer ordering. The scratch sammies are constructed with honest ingredients and proper processes. All sides are house made, of course. For starters, hummus rocks the Med with harissa and za’atar spices for a zippy red dip. It is loaded with pork belly nuggets, feta, hearts of palm and heirloom cherry tomatoes, with pitas for a savory shareable.
As for sandwiches, the Beep is a brisket-lover’s dream. Ciabatta piled with house smoked and seared tender, beefy shreds, mingled with caramelized onion, red pepper and jalapeño, plus a squirt of wasabi mayo. Go vegan or veg with the Genghis. Mushrooms, marinated in soy and mirin, partner with miso mayo, guacamole, jicama and sesame seeds on a ciabatta for a robust bite. Gluten-free bread is available.
The sides include harissa potato chips, which beckon for the creamy dip. Go light with a salad or ratchet up a hearty meal with mac and cheese. Amish potato salad solos with red spuds coated in a tangy, yet creamy, mustard dressing.
The New Year launches soup and sandwich combos—a standard and a special. Dessert will sweeten its focus with apple cobbler and chocolate volcano brownies. Warm cider will melt January’s chills at the bar, and Il Rosso’s Bob Verdame will continue the Monday Italian madness rotating a menu of saucy loves.
The Commerce keeps company with SoSoBa, as a Christensen enterprise. The fun and flavors of nonstop noodle shop next door boasts of … mic drop … booze and noodles. On site of the former location of Black Bean, Christensen introduced, “the spirit of Japanese ramen that is unabashedly inauthentic,” he said. “We’re taking care of business—it’s the perfect marriage.” Whether you’re hungry for a bowl of noodles, a craft cocktail or craftier sandwiches, these side-by-side businesses are keeping it old and new all at once. NAMLM