Where to Eat in Tempe, Arizona

What makes Tempe, Arizona, a great destination for good eatin’?

This college town is home to the main campus of Arizona State University. And as you’d expect, thousands of students live here in constant need of snacks and caffeine. Tempe is situated in the core of the Phoenix metro area, which means there are plenty of older constructions with inexpensive rents that independent bars, coffee shops, or restaurants can afford. A handful of regional chain restaurants like Cornish Pasty or Pita Jungle had their start here before branching out to other cities. And Tempe sits at the gateway of the East Valley’s pan-Asian immigrant community.

Trees provide shade as the sun sets over a restaurant patio in Tempe, Arizona
The front patio of Casey Moore’s Oyster House

I had the privilege of living in this city for three years—plenty of time to try a variety of coffee shops and restaurants in central Tempe. Moving to Tempe was a great introduction to Arizona for me, and while I’ve since moved across town, I’m glad I still work in Tempe and can keep going back to my old haunts on my lunch break.

Wherever I travel, I try to support local, independent businesses and avoid corporate chains, so this list of recommendations reflects that principle and tries to show what a unique place central Tempe is.

I’ve also focused on locations within walking distance of downtown Tempe or that you can access via public transit options like light rail, free Orbit circulator buses, or the upcoming Tempe Streetcar. Tempe is one of the few places in the Phoenix Valley where you’re not automatically forced to drive everywhere, so put on some walking shoes, work up an appetite, and enjoy your meal!

Coffee shops/breakfast/snacks

Cartel Coffee Lab (225 West University Drive #101)
What I love about the original Cartel location is how everything is done on location here, from the coffee that’s roasted in the same sprawling space where college students stay glued to their MacBooks, to the pastries that are baked in the next storefront over. The atmosphere may be a little intimidating for the Folger’s or Frappuccino crowds, but it’s not scary at all to taste their excellent roast by getting the One + One: a single shot of espresso served straight up and another with steamed milk.

Small glasses of pure espresso, espresso and steamed milk, and sparking water
One + One at Cartel

Delante Coffee (960 West University Drive #111)
Skip the drive-through-only Starbucks across the street for an air-conditioned coffee house that cares about the community. Their spicy Mexican mocha latte and burritos with locally made chorizo set this place apart from other coffee shops; plus, they give some of their proceeds to local charities and regularly open their space up so organizations can meet here after hours.

Harlow’s Café (1021 West University Drive)
Sometimes you’re craving bacon and eggs, pancakes and syrup, and bottomless drip coffee. Harlow’s is where your cravings will be met. Step inside this wooden-paneled Tempe institution and be treated to a diner-style breakfast that will keep you full all day long. You can often find big-rig pickup trucks with large American flags in the parking lot, giving lie to the stereotype that college-town Tempe is just a bunch of hippies.

King Coffee (1020 South Mill Avenue)
Whether you need a place you can write a paper or you just need a pick-me-up before heading across the street to Gammage for a show, King Coffee’s got you covered. Their very reasonable prices for espresso drinks will leave you smiling, as will the local artwork that adorns the walls.

Paletas Betty (425 South Mill Avenue #109, inside Kung Fu Tea)
I’ll be honest—those 115º F summer afternoons don’t get any easier to handle the longer I live here. But I stay cool with paletas or Mexican-style popsicles from Paletas Betty. Made totally from scratch and coming in a variety of flavors, these paletas will transform a stroll down Mill Avenue from hellish to heavenly. Find them in a cooler right in front of the boba tea shop’s cash register.

Grilled breakfast burrito sliced in half with a cappuccino in a black mug
Breakfast burrito at Press Coffee Skywater

Press Coffee (601 West Rio Salado Parkway #103)
This local coffee roasting empire has seven locations across the Phoenix Valley, and one of their Tempe locations is an ideal stop for getting some work done or for getting a treat after biking or jogging at Tempe Town Lake. The décor is clean, if sterile, but it lets you focus on your work, have a conversation with a friend, or appreciate any of their Third Wave-style coffee beverages, from pour over to nitro brew. There’s a larger location east of ASU at 1221 East Apache Boulevard.

Tempe Farmers Market (805 South Farmer Avenue)
Sure, a massive Whole Foods just opened across University Drive, but if you don’t like being pressured into signing up for Amazon Prime at every turn, support the little guy at Tempe Farmers Market. They’ve got a great selection of bottled kombucha, prepared foods, and vegan burritos; plus, they make espresso-based drinks and smoothies on the spot.

Restaurants

Arai Pastry / Fujiya Market / Tokyo Stop (1335 West University Drive #4–6)
Most of us have had (expensive) sushi before. But what about (affordable) Japanese food? Visit Tokyo Stop weekdays for dishes like teriyaki chicken, yakisoba noodles, Japanese curry, and more. Fujiya Market next door offers a limited selection of freshly prepared bento boxes and lots of bottled green tea, while Japanese bakery Arai Pastry fills out your dessert options.

Spiced chicken in a sauce with lentils and greens and folded, spongey bread
Chicken, lentils, and greens at Café Lalibela

Café Lalibela (849 West University Drive)
You could eat the warm Ethiopian comfort food they serve at Café Lalibela with a fork and a spoon, but it’d be so much more fun to tear off a strip of injera—spongy pancake-like bread—and use it to scoop up bites of tender spiced chicken, delightful greens, or umami-rich lentils with your hands.

Caffe Boa (398 South Mill Avenue)
Come to Caffe Boa for freshly made pasta and a great selection of cheese, salami, and wine. It’s upscale Italian cooking, but with an Istrian twist; lots of seafood finds its way onto the menu here, as do pierogies and even rakija, Croatian fruit brandy.

Casey Moore’s Oyster House (850 South Ash Avenue)
There’s nothing more quintessential Tempe than sitting out on the patio of this converted home in the historic Maple-Ash neighborhood and cooling off beneath the old shade trees with a beer (or whiskey) in your hand, a platter of fresh oysters in front of you, and lively locals and college students around you.

Cheba Hut (960 West University Drive)
This weed-themed sub sandwich shop now has franchies in cannabis-friendly states like California, Colorado, and Nevada, but it had its start right here in Tempe two decades ago. There’s no marijuana on offer here, medical or otherwise, but Cheba Hut’s toasted sandwiches will really satisfy the munchies. Try their meatball sub, an avocado-and-turkey combo, or even sandwiches with a variety of vegan toppings.

A platter of shucked oysters on the half shell over ice with containers of cocktail sauce and horseradish
A dozen fresh oysters at Casey Moore’s

The Chuckbox (202 East University Drive)
This classic Tempe burger joint close to ASU has been around for decades, a place where you can choose the number of patties, how big they are, and toppings like bacon and guacamole. For folks who don’t eat beef, they also offer a vegetarian burger and chicken sandwiches. The Chuckbox is cash only.

Cornish Pasty (960 West University Drive #103)
If I could only take you to one restaurant in Tempe, this would be it. Founded by an immigrant from Cornwall in southwest England, Cornish Pasty serves, well, Cornish pasties: a pocket pie, similar to a baked Argentine empanada, stuffed with meat, potatoes, and whatever else you can think of. The owner has taken lots of creative liberties with the fillings; in additional to traditional ones like lamb and mint you can order New Mexican carne adovada or my Thanksgiving Dinner favorite, the Pilgrim. If you don’t want to walk or ride a bus a mile from downtown Tempe, there’s also a tinier Cornish at 425 South Mill Avenue #111.

Curry Corner (1212 East Apache Boulevard)
It’s easy to get quality chicken tikka masala and naan here, but what you really want to order is a thali, a round platter with half a dozen small dishes and curries surrounding a serving of rice. You get a little bit of everything in this authentic Indian meal.

Desert Roots Kitchen (414 South Mill Avenue #111)
Get your vegan fix at Desert Roots, which has a menu that changes daily and includes everything from wraps and pasta to hummus, salads, and more. Pair your wrap with a fresh iced tea and a vegan baked good!

A meat pie of turkey and sweet potatoes sliced in half with containers of cranberry sauce and gravy
The Pilgrim at Cornish Pasty

Haji-Baba (1513 East Apache Boulevard)
Part ethnic grocery store, part Mediterranean restaurant, you’ll feel transported to the Middle East as you browse the aisles of the market or enjoy a platter paired with with fresh hummus and fluffy tabouleh. Try their shawarma or (my favorite) their falafel, which is visibly green from parsley when you bite into it.

Khai Hoàn Restaurant (1537 East Apache Boulevard)
Immigrants from all over the Asian continent have settled in the East Valley of the Phoenix metro area, particularly in west Mesa. It’s not surprising that my standby for a restorative bowl of pho is right next door in east Tempe.

The Lodge (26 South Farmer Avenue)
Once you look past the Sasquatch burger—a hamburger patty served between two grilled cheese sandwiches—you’ll find a nice hangout to watch the game with your buddies, try any of their many whiskeys from around the world, or enjoy a plate of loaded nachos.

Macayo’s Depot Cantina (300 South Ash Avenue)
The Amtrak no longer stops in downtown Tempe, but at least a classic Mexican restaurant that began in Midtown Phoenix keeps the historic train depot in use. You can’t go wrong with Macayo’s enchiladas, although for something new, try the Sonoran enchiladas.

A chimichanga or deep-fried burrito topped with dollops of sour cream and guacamole
Chimichanga at Rosita’s

Oregano’s Pizza Bistro (523 West University Drive)
With all the transplants from the Midwest living here, something Chicago-related was bound to find its way onto this list. You can wait up to half an hour for a deep-dish pizza pie to make it to your table, or if you’re in a rush, bite into one of their voluminous sandwiches.

Pita Jungle (4 East University Drive)
From its original restaurant here in Tempe, Pita Jungle has taken over the Phoenix metro area and beyond with 20 locations that serve savory, Mediterranean-inspired salads, pitas, chicken, fish, and vegetarian options—their hummus is top-notch!

Rosita’s Fine Mexican Food (960 West University Drive)
Opened in the ’60s by an immigrant from northern Mexico, Rosita’s serves a truly encyclopedic menu of Mexican cuisine, so here are my recommendations. Try machaca, rehydrated spiced beef originally developed by Sonoran ranchers. I don’t eat beef anymore, so nowadays I splurge for the invented-in-Arizona chimichanga or a bowl of the all-you-can-eat pozole.

Bars

Arizona Distilling Co. (601 West University Drive)
Try—and buy!—this distillery’s award-winning spirits at a cocktail bar half a mile west of Mill Avenue, then go on an intimate, informative tour of their operations out back. I’m a fan of their Commerce Gin, whose aroma of juniper berries comes directly from the deserts of northern Arizona.

A whiskey-based cocktail with a large head of egg-white foam and bitters drizzled on top
Whiskey-based cocktail at Arizona Distilling

Four Peaks Brewing Co. (1340 East 8th Street #104)
Although I may not be the biggest fan of their beer (they did “sell out” to multinational beer giant Anheuser-Busch InBev), I nevertheless have enjoyed Arizona’s biggest craft brewery. They offer free tours of their (haunted) brewery, and there’s even a gift shop to buy Four Peaks merch.

Postino Annex (615 South College Avenue)
Postino has expanded into downtown Tempe from their original Uptown Phoenix wine bar. They pair a short, approachable menu of wines from around the world (including Arizona!) with a dozen varieties of bruschetta.

Rúla Búla Irish Pub (401 South Mill Avenue)
Not your typical mail-order Irish pub, Rúla Búla is an anchor against the rising tide of corporate chains on Mill Avenue. They’ve got a lovely, shaded patio in the back and an extensive food and beer menu. Their fish and chips are up to par, and they even make their Reuben sandwiches with turkey on request!

Two glasses of beer on a wooden table
Two beers at The Shop

The Shop Beer Co. (922 West 1st Street)
We’ve now come full circle: The Shop comes from the same folks who brought you Cartel Coffee Lab. This brewpub operates in a renovated house one block south of the popular Tempe Town Lake, but this neighborhood watering hole still feels undiscovered. The patio out back is where you want to be: in the shade, cooled by misters and fans, and with a new food truck to try every evening.

Taste of Tops (403 West University Drive)
The narrow aisles of Tops Liquors may make you feel claustrophobic, but their extensive selection proves you don’t need to patronize CVS or Total Wine for your booze. Pick up a local craft brew at Tops, then take it over to the bar at Taste of Tops next door to try it.

Have you ever eaten in Tempe before? What coffee shop, restaurant, or bar looks the most appetizing to you from this list? Tell me in the discussion thread below!

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