Hotel Congress Lobby Bar: Open-Minded Nightspot Welcomes All in Downtown Tucson

Updated on January 31, 2019
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On a recent trip to Tucson, I was desperate to find a cool place to go for dinner and drinks. I ended up discovering the perfect spot.

Hotel Congress, downtown Tucson
Hotel Congress, downtown Tucson

The historic Hotel Congress, located in Tuscson, Arizona, is a shockingly unusual surprise. I don't think I've ever come across a place where the external perception is so completely different from what I found inside.

If you're like me, one of your frequent Google searches might be "cool things to do in (insert city here)." It seems particularly difficult to find up-to-date, insider-style lists in smaller cities. On a recent trip to Tucson, I was desperate to find a cool place to go for dinner and drinks, but all that my quick internet search turned up were brief, generic marketing-style write-ups on restaurants, hotels, and bars. There was only one that seemed to have any cache, and only because it was a very popular historic landmark: the Hotel Congress. So I printed out my list of hotel restaurants and decided to check this one out first.

Hotel Congress, 311 E. Congress Street
Hotel Congress, 311 E. Congress Street

Built in 1919, the hotel has been restored with some of the original flavor of its past. There are 40 rooms, each decorated differently, with iron bedframes and vintage-style linens. The purposeful lack of televisions helps to maintain the feeling of stepping into the past.

The Southern Pacific Railroad used to run through town near the hotel, and it is certainly easy to picture weary travelers in the early 20th century stopping here for a night's rest. Bustles, top hats, spats, and steamer trunks come to mind. The hotel is also famous for being the final spot where John Dillinger hid out before being captured by the small town Tucson police.

The reception desk has great old signs, those old wooden compartments for keys, and an authentic 1930s switchboard.

Thompson Automatics at Hotel Congress
Thompson Automatics at Hotel Congress

The lobby is a homey, down-to-earth area. At one end is a group of couches and some small tables near a fully stocked bar. This corner of the lobby is called the "Tap Room." I arrived at 5 p.m. to find some great happy hour deals: $5 appetizers and $3 drinks.

Usually, menus have a tiny red pepper or other indication that a dish is very spicy—but not this place. They don't need no stinking tiny peppers! I ordered the "Thompson Automatics" from the bar menu. These Southwestern-style eggrolls were laced with the hottest pepper or Tobasco sauce I've tasted in years. Whoa! But a nice tap beer soothed the burning, making for a delicious light dinner: $8 for a beer and appetizer.

Lobby of Hotel Congress
Lobby of Hotel Congress

As I finished my dinner and sat back to relax for a while, a look around the room at the other patrons yielded some interesting sights. An old white-haired tourist couple in their 80s was sitting at the bar. A group of stylish guys, plaid shorts and cool glasses, sat in the group of couches. I realized, soon after overhearing some of their conversation, that they were gay. I thought, wow, what kind of a place is this, where these two distinctly different types both looked and felt right at home? Little did I know, there was much more evidence of that concept yet to be seen.

When I arrived, the music playing was nothing special, some 1950s pop tunes. But as the night went on, the music started changing, evolving in both period and sound—first some psychedelic Beatles and Stones, then some excellent garage bands, progressing to slick lounge music, volume increasing with each set.

Later, at 10 or 11, the music suddenly blew up with the likes of Lady Gaga and of-the-minute hip hop and dance music. The bar crowd that began to arrive late was both young and old, stylish and not so, transvestite and transgender, low-key guys with flat tops and suede Converse mixed with towering glamazons dressed in awesomely outrageous outfits.

Not one of the lists I found mentioned one word about this inclusive, open-minded and super cool anything-goes bar scene. Hence my great delight and surprise to have wandered into this wonderful place without a clue as to what I would find.

Later, when I did a specific search for Hotel Congress, there was much more information and some obvious signs that this kind of crowd hung out there. But it still mystified me how an historic hotel became the mecca for all kinds of artists, musicians, and wigged-out divas.

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