Flagstaff is changing. I arrived here eight years ago, and I still find myself a bit taken aback by the ways this town has transformed since then. But with the question of change comes another question: How does this town go about its changing? I believe that many members of this community could stand behind at least one idea: Flagstaff is a unique place, and its distinctiveness should be preserved going forward.
When Joe and Dara Rodger opened the doors of their new restaurant, Shift Kitchen & Bar, the oncoming change in Flagstaff started to become all the more clear. Not in a way that has anything to do with plastic bags or student housing, but with the nature of restaurants that line our streets.
The recent additions to Flagstaff’s restaurant scene are mostly of the kitschy wood-paneled walls and big screen TV variety. But stepping into Shift immediately evokes an air of particularity. The restaurant’s chalk-white walls bounce natural light from the street side windows throughout the space. Flashes of blue and silver décor contrast the bright walls and instill the interior with a sense of comfort and tasteful whimsy.
Over cans of Coors Banquet and within the comfortable trappings of Shift, the husband and wife duo recently shared with me everything about their history and the future of their restaurant. Dara expressed their initial concern with opening a restaurant in Flagstaff and the eventual decision to take the jump: “The food scene here was not like anywhere else we had worked before, but we knew we could try and change the food scene to something great.”
Most of Dara’s experience previous to Shift was within the Colorado dining scene, which has seen rapid growth over the last 10 years. While the momentum in the Rocky Mountain state is well sustained by now, it’s only just getting started in northern Arizona.
“The flame in Flagstaff has been slowly growing and now it’s starting to get really big,” Joe says.
Joe, who grew up in Sedona, worked in a handful of Flagstaff restaurants before bouncing back and forth between California and Arizona. Eventually he ended up in Boulder, Colo., at Frasca Food and Wine. Dara had been at Frasca for a few years by the time Joe arrived, and she was excelling as the restaurant’s pastry chef.
Eventually the couple moved to Vail together before getting an invite from Scott Heinonen to work in Flagstaff at Tinderbox Kitchen and Tourist Home. Soon thereafter they seized the opportunity to take over the space where Flag Buzz Coffeehouse used to be—and before that Late for the Train—on San Francisco Street between Aspen and Birch Avenues. They set out renovating the space, and in April of this year opened the doors at Shift.
Focused upon entry
Beyond the unique trappings, the restaurant’s anterior dining room is dominated by a chef’s counter, which is the first of its kind in Flagstaff. The chef’s counter takes the concept of an “open kitchen” to a whole new level. Instead of just allowing diners to peek into the kitchen, the chef’s counter allows diners to sit front and center as Shift’s chefs and cooks bring their dishes to life.
The decision to include a chef’s counter is evidence of Joe and Dara’s greater goal with their restaurant. Instead of being disconnected from their patrons, the chef’s counter allows those making the food to connect with those eating it. For Joe that means witnessing the patron’s experience firsthand and giving them an opportunity to provide minute-by-minute feedback.
“I would have [the experience] be something where you figure it on your own,” he says, “Feel what you feel, and then we’ll figure it out from there.”
Shift is not just about connecting with patrons, but challenging them as well. The restaurant’s menu is another first of its kind in Flagstaff. At the top are smaller dishes that function as starters. The dishes get larger in size as the menu progresses further down the page, giving the guests the liberty to progress through their meal as they see fit.
The menu items are on constant rotation, an approach that transcends the seasonal menu concept. This flexibility allows Joe, Dara and their crew to have creative freedom and a variability that will continually evolve the restaurant.
“I want it to grow and develop … it’ll be something different in six months than it is now,” Joe says.
The forward-thinking menu not only gives Shift trajectory, it also gives the restaurant a sense of immediacy. While Joe and Dara plan on keeping popular dishes on the menu as long as possible, some dishes may be available for short periods of time based on ingredient availability and their crew’s preference.
They both admit that while this may not cater to the classical dining convention, Shift is all about taking risks and doing things their own way.
“If we’re not super passionate about something on the menu, then we’ll take it off,” Dara says. “There’s always room for a better dish or better execution of something.”
With the trend of farm-to-table dining continuing to grow in popularity in Flagstaff, Joe is taking a practical approach to a concept that simply may not work up here. Not that it would be impossible, but Joe and Dara are willing to find a way to be more up front about the limited access to ingredients in northern Arizona. Joe simply states: “I want to cook honest food and make it taste good.”
Plating the abstract
I’ve had the chance to dine at Shift twice since the doors opened, and everything that Joe and Dara advocate for can be found in the dishes they deliver. The presentation nods to their history in fine dining, but the playfulness brings each dish to life in vivid detail. It is as if the white walls are the canvas and Joe, Dara and their crew are painting from an eclectic palette.
But their dishes are less like a Rembrandt and more like a Pollock. Dara’s dessert dish of white chocolate ganache, coconut, lime and poppyseed is a lively splash of geometric shapes and vibrant colors that underlines Shift’s approach of equal emphasis on flavor and presentation.
The main course dishes are no exception to this. The spring vegetable with fazzoletti pasta almost leaps off the plate, melding hues of green, bright orange and ivory. The dish features house-fermented vegetables that strike the perfect level of umami and balanced textures.
The drink menu is just as focused on flavor and balance as the rest of the menu. Shift’s general manager Connor Barrett and the rest of the crew conceptualized drink offerings that would complement whatever the kitchen was churning out. The Fernet Flip, which features the largely misunderstood Fernet Branca herbal bitter liqueur, is a drink with enough depth and flavor to pair with anything on Shift’s menu, including the dessert options.
Soon after Shift opened they began offering brunch on Sundays. The menu is a welcome addition to this town’s burgeoning brunch scene. With dishes like butterscotch bread pudding and a pork belly sandwich, Sundays at Shift are quickly adding an exciting note to Flagstaff’s brunch options.
But Shift is a place where the food and drink speaks for itself. For all I know, all of the dishes I mentioned won’t be there by the time I make it back for another meal. But that makes me all the more anxious to get back and try whatever they’ve come up with.
“It sounds cheesy, but we’re so passionate and when we have a feeling for something and we’re really lined up in those feelings, then we totally go for it,” Dara says.
That sort of zeal and ingenuity is exactly what our dining scene needs to maintain the progression that we’ve witnessed over the past few years. Luckily, Joe and Dara Rodger and the rest of their crew are passionate about bringing something new and genuine to this town. I’ve avoided being cliché as much as I could until now, but I can’t help myself: I couldn’t be more excited about the shift that Shift is bringing to Flagstaff.
Shift Kitchen & Bar is located at 107 N. San Francisco, Ste. #2. Hours are Wed–Sat, 5–10 p.m.; Sun 9 a.m.–2 p.m.; Mon 6–9 p.m. and closed Tue. To learn more, call 440-5135 or visit Shift on Facebook.