Tempe’s Mill Avenue sees a lot of turnover. And not just restaurants and bars.
Students who flock to the entertainment district for work and play are usually only Tempe residents when attending Arizona State University. After graduation, students move on and bar and restaurant owners not only have to find new employees, but also a new crowd of customers.
Businesses along Mill have always had to deal with the ebb and flow of students, but something unprecedented happened in 2020: all the students left.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and ASU shifted to virtual learning, Mill Avenue quickly transformed from a bustling restaurant district to a ghost town. And while some restaurants and bars hunkered down and weathered the storm, many have since closed.
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Now, as students return to Mill Avenue, it looks a little different. Some classic spots have disappeared and new concepts are ready to take their place.
Here’s a look at what’s changed on Tempe’s famous restaurant and nightlife street.
Mill Avenue restaurants and bars permanently closed
Pita Pit, a chain of fast-casual restaurants specializing in pita sandwiches and customizable bowls, has closed its location on Mill Avenue. While signage is still in place and tables and chairs are set up inside, the doors are locked and a For Rent sign informs passers-by that space is available.
HOT Taco House
Not only is the HOT House of Tacos closed, but the building has been stripped bare, removing all traces of the bar to which patrons were invited. The Mexican restaurant and bar served micheladas, margaritas, and tacos and often hosted live DJ sets. It also served as a favorite place for sports fans to cheer on ASU.
At the bottom of Mill Avenue, PF Chang’s stood like a prominent doorway into the restaurant district. Now a huge chain, PF Chang’s originally opened just up the road in Scottsdale, then expanded with a location near the ASU campus. The restaurant no longer serves its famous lettuce cups, dumplings or cocktails in Tempe.
One of restaurateur Julian Wright’s many Mill Avenue projects, La Bocca was a wine bar and pizzeria. He then sold the concept to Mill Avenue Management Group, LLC, which operated the restaurant with another location in North Phoenix. The restaurant closed permanently in June 2020, so its closure is nothing new. But what’s unusual for the high-turnover neighborhood is that it still seems empty and untouched after so many months.
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Rula Bula was one of the few places on Mill Avenue that had been around for quite some time. The popular Irish pub lasted for over 20 years before being evicted. The pub and restaurant sold the most Guinness in the state, as well as classic Irish dishes including fish and chips and shepherd’s pie. When it announced its closure last spring, fans from all decades reached out to share memories of their student days at the pub. The building currently remains empty, but developer Julian Wright plans to open Sake Haus, a new sushi and sake bar in the space.
Tempe caption: Community and lots of Guinness: Tempe’s Rula Bula is gone
Fuzzy taco shop
Fuzzy’s Taco Shop, a Mexican restaurant notorious for sticking an entire beer bottle upside down in its margaritas, has closed at the corner of Mill Avenue and Fourth Street. But Fuzzy fans shouldn’t worry, the cantina and late-night dining spot just moved a block away. It reopened in the former Americana restaurant south of Third Street.
Gordon Biersch Brewery
There’s something strange about restaurants that sit empty for a long time, menus still posted in windows describing foods that no one will cook. Another long-time closure that still stands empty is Gordon Biersch Brewing Company. The brewery was one of the oldest restaurants in the area, operating on Mill Avenue and Fifth Street since July 1998. It closed in July 2019 and has stood frozen in time ever since.
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Ted’s Refreshments, a bar just off Mill Avenue on Fourth Street, didn’t last very long. It opened in September 2019, then closed following state COVID-19 mandates in March 2020. Over time, the temporary closure became permanent. The bar’s name has been erased from its sign, and the patio is wrapped in yellow tape.
El Hefe, located at Mill Avenue and Sixth Street, is closed. The concept evolved from Mexican restaurant during the day to nightclub as the evening progressed. The bar, which embodied its “Supermacho Taqueria” slogan, still has an open location in Old Town Scottsdale.
Dierks Bentley’s Whiskey Row
Located just behind El Hefe, another restaurant and nightclub has closed. Dierks Bentley’s Whiskey Row had a rock and country-western theme. It still has locations open in Gilbert and Old Town Scottsdale.
Temporary restaurant closures on Mill Avenue
CASA Tempe, a bar and restaurant known for its burritos and booze buckets, is temporarily closed. Currently wrapped in building paper and metal fencing, the bar is being renovated and expanded. It is not yet known when the Mill Avenue bar and Sixth Street will reopen.
Cornish Pasty – The Lonely Beast
Cornish Pasty’s small storefront on Mill Avenue has remained closed throughout the pandemic. Despite rumors that he is gone for good, as of February 2022 the previously black building got a fresh coat of candy pink paint and signage promising “Comforts, faucets, cocktails, metal” at The Lone Beast. Cornish Pasty’s other Tempe location on Hardy and University roads also has a hidden concert hall known as The Beast.
New restaurants on Mill Avenue
Fuzzy taco shop
Fuzzy’s Taco Shop, a Mill Avenue staple, has moved a few blocks north. The cantina and margarita bar is now open south of Third Street in a space that previously housed Americana, a music-themed bar and restaurant.
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Slangin’ Birdz Nashville Hot Chicken
Slangin’ Birdz, a new fast-casual restaurant selling Nashville hot chicken is now open on Mill Avenue. The menu features the specialty fried chicken in sandwiches, tenders, waffles or fries with sides including coleslaw, pickles and “slangin sauce”. Customers can choose their spice level from Walk of Shame, which is the least hot, to Game Over, described on the menu as “extreme heat, beware”.
Restaurants and bars soon on Mill Avenue
Moving into the longtime Rula Bula space, Sake Haus is set to open soon. Another concept by Julian Wright, this will be the second location of the sushi and sake bar. However, the first has yet to open. Wright plans to open a Sake Haus in downtown Phoenix and on Mill Avenue in Tempe.
The space that previously housed El Hefe is currently surrounded by construction fencing and signs announcing the arrival of Six 40rty and Anoche Cantina. Both concepts come from Ascend Hospitality Group, a Washington-based company. ABC15 recently reported that Six 40rty will serve sliders and feature lawn games in a sports bar atmosphere.
Located next to the Six 40rty, Anoche Cantina is also coming soon and currently hiring. According to her Instagram, Anoche will serve a selection of brightly colored margaritas and other cocktails.
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