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New owner has big plans for Tom’s Tavern

Jim Gallen, new owner of Tom's Tavern (Photo by Rachel Leingang, Arizona Capitol Times)

Jim Gallen, new owner of Tom’s Tavern (Photo by Rachel Leingang, Arizona Capitol Times)

It was kismet.

In 2010, Jim Gallen needed a break. The former managing partner at Tarbell’s, an upscale restaurant in Phoenix, found out he had stage 4 cancer. He decided to take a job at the Biltmore Golf Club, running a breakfast and lunch program, a much different pace than Tarbell’s.

He wanted to get healthy, and he wanted to get a personal life.

It worked: He met his wife at the golf club, and he’s been cancer-free for five years.

“The journey to that golf course was personally exactly what I needed,” Gallen said.

And in turn, Gallen met the person who would eventually lead him to Tom’s Tavern. Gallen recently took over as the owner of the venerable landmark that’s long been the hangout of lawyers and politicos.

The path to Tom’s Tavern was a classic example of “good people being good people,” Gallen said.

While working at the Biltmore Golf Club, Gallen met Rodney Glassman, an attorney who ran for the U.S. Senate. Glassman took his family to the Adobe Restaurant at the golf club on weekends.

Meanwhile, Glassman also met Tim Bidwill. The Bidwill family, owners of the Arizona Cardinals, purchased Tom’s Tavern in 2011 after its former owner, Michael Ratner, died of cancer.

Glassman was going to have coffee with Gov. Doug Ducey one day. When Glassman walked in to meet Ducey, Ducey was chatting with Bidwill, and Ducey introduced the two, Glassman said.

Gallen told Glassman he decided to leave his job at the golf club because he was looking for a full-service restaurant. Glassman reached out to Bidwill to tell him there was a great manager available if Bidwill was looking for someone to handle the downtown Phoenix establishment.

Gallen became general manager of Tom’s Tavern in March 2015. And after less than a year at the helm, Gallen bought the restaurant from the Bidwill family.

“It comes down to the fact that the governor is the kind of person that takes the time to make the introduction,” Glassman said. “And then secondly, because I hang out with guys like Doug that are thoughtful in that way, I’ve been trained to be thoughtful in that way. It’s a lesson on treating people nicely.”

Life in the restaurant business

It’s been about a week since Gallen took over as owner on Jan. 28, and the feeling still hasn’t really sunk in yet.

Gallen, 50, has been working in restaurants since he was 13 years old. As a kid in New Jersey, he washed glasses at a bar with his dad. He went to a vocational high school with a culinary program. Then he joined the Air Force, which is what led him to Arizona.

He wanted to get a degree in political science at Arizona State University, then eventually go to law school. While he was going to college, he was working at a restaurant and was given the opportunity to be the manager. He decided to take the manager job and leave school.

“I chose the restaurant business because it really is in my blood. I love every aspect of it. I love the good days, the bad days, the hard days, the long days, the short days,” Gallen said.

After 26 years in the restaurant business, in roles from general manager to food and beverage director to operating partner, Gallen is finally an owner.

And he still sees lawyers all the time, despite choosing restaurants over the legal field. Since Tom’s Tavern is near several court buildings, it has long been a favorite lunch spot for attorneys and judges.

“There are many that come here on a regular basis. And I’m going to say 90 percent of them tell me I made the right call,” Gallen said.

Lifeblood of the community

Tom’s Tavern holds many tales of backroom political deals completed by the power brokers who visited the establishment over the years. The “governor’s room” boasts photos of each Arizona governor.

Tom Higley, the original owner of Tom’s, opened the restaurant at 136 W. Adams St. in 1929. The restaurant has lived at the corner of Washington Street and First Avenue since 1988.

Tom’s Tavern entertained political heavyweights like Janet Napolitano, Joe Arpaio, Fife Symington, Bruce Babbitt and even former President George W. Bush, according to a 2009 story in the Arizona Capitol Times.

Gallen said he sees a lot of politicians come in, from Ducey to city council members to former Gov. Jan Brewer to judges.

“Probably once a week, there’s some sort of security in here that’s guarding somebody,” he said.

The Bidwills bought the restaurant when its future “was in jeopardy” after Ratner’s death, according to a press release announcing Gallen’s ownership.

In 2010, Ratner announced that the restaurant was for sale. According to a 2010 Capitol Times report, if the restaurant itself wasn’t purchased, buyers could have converted the restaurant to something else, considering its prime location downtown.

Michael Bidwill, a former assistant federal prosecutor, used to visit Tom’s Tavern frequently. Michael Bidwill, president of the Arizona Cardinals, told Ratner in 2010 he didn’t want to see Tom’s close if they couldn’t find a buyer, according to a 2011 Capitol Times story about the sale.

“We were honored to be stewards for such an iconic and historic Phoenix institution,” Tim Bidwill said in a press release. “Places like Tom’s Tavern are the lifeblood of a community and we viewed it as critical to keep it going.”

“But it was also clear that it needed its own on-site ownership to continue growing and thriving. Jim (Gallen) has managed the operations for the past year and this was the next logical step to ensure the future success of Tom’s Tavern,” Tim Bidwill said in the press release.

As the latest steward of the nearly 90-year-old establishment, Gallen wants to maintain that political vibe and help it grow again.

“Considering what I wanted to be when I was younger, that I had a fleeting daydream of being a lawyer and being in politics, and being as opinionated as a kid from Jersey can be, I honestly love it. It really is a great marriage, because I love that aspect of Tom’s,” he said.

A food and wine destination

Gallen wants Tom’s to become a food and wine destination for downtown Phoenix to add to the fabric of what’s going on in the area. It’ll still be Tom’s – he doesn’t want to alienate the loyal lunch lawyers – but it’ll be a night-time, full-service hotspot, too, Gallen hopes.

Over the past year as general manager, Gallen updated the lunch menu to be more seasonal. He plans to evolve the dinner menu as well to highlight local and seasonal offerings – “comfort food that’s refined.”

Hopefully, when people plan a night out, they think of a downtown circuit of cocktails, food and entertainment at one of the many sports or concert venues, with dinner at Tom’s as one of its main attractions, Gallen said.

“I really think that downtown is really begging for another complete dining experience,” he said.

Glassman, who made the fateful introduction, always orders the Cobb salad when he goes to Tom’s. Hopefully, because of his involvement, Glassman won’t need to find a new lunch order.

“He can do anything he wants to the menu. Hopefully, for me, he’ll keep the Cobb salad on it,” Glassman said.

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