To truly experience a city, one must seek out its hidden gems – those one-of-a-kind places that reveal a town’s character, from funky boutiques to charming historic neighborhoods. And nothing reflects the flavor of a destination more than one of its locally owned restaurants.

Two independent-restaurant associations make the search for these authentic dining experiences a little easier. Tucson Originals, founded in 1999, comprises 44 stellar Tucson restaurants, and Savor Scottsdale, formed in 2007, represents more than 30 fine Scottsdale dining establishments – each owned by a local chef or restaurateur.

Searching for original Mexican food in Scottsdale? Try the fare at Savor Scottsdale member Los Sombreros Mexican Café & Cantina. Want diversity at the highest level? Tucson Originals restaurants serve up such cuisines as American eclectic (Pastiche Modern Eatery) and regional Southwestern (downtown Tucson dining hot spot Barrio, for one).

True Local Flavor

“Tucson Originals restaurants are locally owned and operated – with no affiliation with a national company,” says Colette Landeen, executive director of the trend-setting group, which began when a few independents aggregated their buying and marketing power and whose success has inspired at least a dozen similar organizations across the country.

003217_lo.pngShe and husband Jonathan have owned Jonathan’s Cork since 1994. The popular Southwestern restaurant emphasizes “mom-and-pop” qualities such as unique menu items, décor with a regional flair and personal attention to diners.

“Every opportunity to support independent restaurants and chefs and their vision of food in America is essential for preserving local cuisine,” says Jonathan, the restaurant’s chef and a Tucson Originals board member. “One of our goals is to keep alive the ability of small, independent restaurants to compete in today’s marketplace with greater purchasing power and better promotional exposure. Our members are as much supporters of each other as we are competitors.” 

Similarly, partnership for promotion spurred the creation of Savor Scottsdale. Don Carson, owner of Don & Charlie’s, and Peter Kasperski, whose restaurants include Cowboy Ciao and Kazimierz, met with other Scottsdale chefs such as James Porter (Petite Maison) and Deborah Knight and Matt Rinn (formerly of Mosaic). “The mission was simple: Bring recognition to the small independent restaurants on a local and national level,” says Kerri Conlon, the group’s executive director.

To ensure this, both organizations maintain robust relationships with their respective communities. Tucson Originals promotes the local culinary scene with the Metropolitan Tucson Convention & Visitors Bureau as well as the Tucson City Council; Savor Scottsdale partners with the Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. Each group also promotes local growers and products – celebrating Arizona’s long-time agricultural heritage.

Arizona Culinary Events for a Cause

Both organizations also contribute to local charities through funds raised at regular events. Waste Not Arizona, which redistributes perishable food from restaurants to feed the hungry, is the partner charity for Savor Scottsdale. Member restaurants of Tucson Originals donate thousands of gift certificates as well as food for charity events. Tucson Originals also partners with the Primavera Foundation for the annual summer Primavera Cooks event, which raises money to combat poverty and homelessness.

Annually, each group sponsors a not-to-miss dining-centered celebration. In early October, Tucson Originals hosts the Tucson Culinary Festival. A few weeks later, Savor Scottsdale follows suit with its support of one of its hometown culinary events, Crave Arizona.

Camaraderie trumps competition – and the winner is you, our Arizona guest. “As chefs and restaurateurs, our ethos is to nourish, to serve and to provide hospitality,” says Janos Wilder, the James Beard Award-winning chef/owner of Janos restaurant and J Bar at the Westin La Paloma Resort & Spa. “Tucson Originals allows us the opportunity to extend that calling beyond the walls of our individual restaurants into the community where we all live.”