Sugar Bowl is quite possibly the only place in Scottsdale where on any given day you might find a bride and groom taking wedding photos; teens on a PG-rated date; Arizona State (ASU) sorority sisters capturing fresh Instagram content; families bonding over ice cream; and retirees enjoying the snowbird life.
If you’re looking for a wholesome, old-fashioned feel in flashy downtown, this is it.
John Travolta comes in from time to time, perhaps reliving his “Grease” days. Mike Tyson comes in quite a bit too, if you can imagine him sitting in a sea of pink vinyl eating an ice cream sundae. Steven Spielberg stops by for a treat every time he’s in town, as does Emma Stone. Both grew up in the area. There are constant photoshoots, both professional and amateur, taking place in their old-time time machine. Sugar Bowl is as iconic as it is Instagrammable — a winning combo in today’s world.
To some, Scottsdale is simply a place to retire — the Florida of the west, if you replace alligators and humidity with dry heat and tranquil desert golf courses and spas.
But Old Town Scottsdale is where the city’s spirit comes to life. It’s one of the bachelorette party capitals of the U.S., often mentioned in the same breath as Las Vegas and Nashville. It plays host to the Waste Management Open, perhaps the rowdiest professional golf tournament in existence, where aside from no talking on a backswing, the rules of etiquette fall to the wayside of having a good time. It also neighbors ASU, one of the liveliest universities in the country.
Strolling down Scottsdale Road, Sugar Bowl sticks out like a beacon with its bright pink exterior, rainbow signage, and gleaming glass windows.
It’s a family-friendly respite from Old Town’s sea of sports bars and nightclubs — and that’s exactly why Jack Huntress opened Sugar Bowl back in 1958: he was tired of getting strange looks when he brought his kids into the area’s raucous bar-and-grills.
Sugar Bowl is just the opposite of that. It’s maintained its family feel for over 60 years, and it’s still a true family business at its core. General manager Ben Huntress is third-generation Sugar Bowl. His dad, Carroll, bought it from his Uncle Jack 35 years ago.
Ben met his wife at Sugar Bowl. She was a server, he was a fountain boy (that’s diner speak for someone who serves up ice cream at the bar). Ben’s sister, Ellie, met her husband at Sugar Bowl when she was 16. Again, she was a server, he was a fountain boy. On their first day working together, Carroll teasingly told the two to stay away from each other. Now, they’ve been married for 12 years and have a son. There have been seven or eight “Sugar Bowl marriages” among the staff, Ellie said. She and her husband both still work at Sugar Bowl; she’s full-time and he works a few nights a week.
This is a place that’s stuck in time, in a good way. Being a historical landmark, its bright colors have been grandfathered into the townscape, immune from modern ordinances that dictate more muted, desert-like colors, which often translates to darker, bar- and nightclub-appropriate color schemes.
Those historic colors are exactly what makes it one of the most Instagrammable spots in Scottsdale. But unlike many social media hotspots, Sugar Bowl’s picture-perfect ambiance isn’t manufactured to give the illusion of a ’60s-era hangout, it just… really still is one.
Of course, this commitment to consistency does comes with its challenges. “We’re scrutinized a lot more than most places are,” Huntress said. “There is a lot of pressure on us to try and maintain a lot of originality just because that’s the atmosphere that people want to come into.”
The restaurant team faced criticism when they replaced their original dining chairs, for instance, despite custom-ordering chairs as similar to the originals as they could find. The ceiling light fixtures are all original, but when they break, as one already has, it’s impossible to replace them.
After someone smashed a hole through the front window’s original lettering on New Year’s Day, Huntress will have to not only replace the window, but hire someone to replicate the writing. As close as they may get, it will never be the same, historic look that Sugar Bowl prides itself on. “I can’t replicate something that’s 63 years old,” Huntress said.
Adorning the walls are Bil Keane’s Family Circus cartoons, original pieces from his personal collection that his family has lent to the Sugar Bowl for decor. Many of his pieces even feature Sugar Bowl, although Keane waited until the big pink diner in the desert had been open for about five years, to be sure they’d last as a new business. Keane passed away in 2011, but his relatives remain regulars.
That’s what makes Sugar Bowl so special: it’s a family place from top to bottom. Not only is the diner family-owned, it’s family-run — and visited by families for generations, with some clientele coming for over 60 years.
In a place where people meet spouses and lifelong friends, there’s something in the air that makes it difficult not to return time and time again. In 2021, you don’t find a place like this just anywhere.