Writer Shannon Severson

Photography Courtesy of Alexi Rose Productions

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n the competitive restaurant industry, it’s not enough to just serve up expertly crafted meals with a smile. Diners are looking for the full experience. This includes a healthy portion of ambiance — an environment that builds anticipation from the moment one arrives, exciting the senses from the front door to the last bite of dessert.

As patrons are just beginning to return to in-person dining, the pressure is on for establishments to stand out from the crowd.

Taco Guild in Phoenix has gained national attention for both its award-winning, upscale menu and unusual setting. The restaurant is located inside of a former Methodist Church whose cornerstone dates to 1893, though the current building was completed in the 1950s. Just like its brick and mortar exterior, the restaurant itself is standing the test of time.

Expert Renovation and Reuse

During the recent temporary shut-down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Taco Guild’s owner Michael Stone took the opportunity to enhance the restaurant’s interior aesthetically and mechanically while keeping health guidelines in mind. He also brought back some star performers in the kitchen and dining room.

“We are committed to serving our guests even better than before,” Stone says. “We still offer takeout and delivery, but the Taco Guild experience truly happens inside the four walls. Our building is aesthetically pleasing, but our staying power comes from the quality of food, the service and the overall attitude. It is an absolute privilege for us to receive guests.”

That dedication to the full experience is grounded in the well-preserved location that showcases expert renovation and reuse.

“We wanted to make sure that, as a restaurant, we honored the history, architecture and historical contribution of the building,” Stone explains. “The cornerstone is still visible from the patio and what stands now was constructed from the bones of the 1893 church. Our task was to keep and capture the authentic roots while converting it into what we needed for a restaurant.”

It has been an adventure to own and maintain a place with so much history. The stained glass and original beamed ceilings remain. The old doors have been reconditioned and repurposed. Even some of the pews are used for indoor seating while the bell tower still stands as well, beckoning one and all to gather in a new way.

“Every single team member takes a ton of pride in the building,” Stone says. “They all know the history and can tour the customers around. Everyone has a story they like to share.”

New Discoveries

Every once in a while, new discoveries are made — or unearthed, as is the case with a time capsule. Some of the photos and documents inside are now displayed on the restaurant’s walls. The early church registry — 

found when the church’s safe was opened — lists the names of Arizona’s historically significant Osborn family, after whom Osborn Road was named.

The most recent discovery is that of a chancel window, named in original plans as “The Reward Crown of the Faithful.” One of two, it was previously believed to be lost.

“As I was sitting at a high-top table, the sun hit one of the high attic windows at the back of our kitchen at just the right angle,” Stone says. “The window had been blacked out. We found the documentation about it, restored it and moved it to the forefront to be on prominent display. We have it lit up and I always point it out.”

The other chancel window has yet to be found. The church was officially decommissioned many years ago, but Stone says he still has customers who come to eat and say they used to attend church or were married there.

“Everyone has been thrilled about what we’ve done with the building,” Stone says. “We wanted to make sure that, as a restaurant, we honored the history, architecture and historical contribution of our location.”

The ‘Wow’ Factor

Taco Guild’s story began with real estate developer David Wetta, who was alerted to the property before it ever came on the market. The Bethel United Methodist Church had a dramatic drop in membership and was looking to sell.

“At first, I didn’t see the adaptive reuse opportunities,” Wetta says. “It was a great piece of real estate. When we looked at what we would build with a clean slate, the square footage was the same as what was already there and new codes would shrink what we could build. That’s where the fun started. The more we looked at it, the more we determined it was reusable. It was fate.”

Wetta adds that the simplicity and size of the church building made it perfect for use as a restaurant. He enlisted the help of architect Mike Rumpeltin.

“Mike is the best architect with the vision to execute adaptive reuse on this smaller scale, which is more complicated,” Wetta says. “Taco Guild really has the ‘wow [factor]’ and it was so fun to see people’s reactions when it first opened. They’d never seen anything like it. Churches that became restaurants 

do exist around the country, but not many. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to do it here in Phoenix. It’s pretty special.”

Rumpeltin was excited to take on the project with an eye toward preserving what he could.

Inside the church, removing acoustical tile revealed wood trusses that now add to the ambiance. To keep those, rigid insulation had to be added to the building’s exterior. The orientation of the building was changed so that the front entrance now faces the parking lot instead of the street. The original foyer is used as a private dining room.

“We added a big chandelier inside and the original concept was to lower it each night at happy hour and have a lighting ceremony with real candles,” Rumpeltin says. “We thought it was a great idea but the fire department said, ‘no way.’”

Creating Community

The “guild” theme of Taco Guild is drawn from the idea of the restaurant and its patrons being part of a society that treasures its history.

“People photograph themselves in front of the framed photos on the wall,” Rumpeltin says. “It’s the most rewarding thing to sit quietly at a table, watching people enjoying the space. It’s great to see the eclectic group that is drawn to the comfort and hospitality at Taco Guild. It’s about creating community.”

As for the future of Taco Guild, Stone remains a champion of the next phase and foresees many more years of serving appreciative diners. He’s even on the lookout to expand in the Phoenix market someday — but the location will have to be just right.

“We’d like to find another architectural location that will fit our brand,” Stone says. “We can’t just go into a strip center or generic facility. We have strong brand recognition that has been an anchor in the growth of the Seventh Street culinary scene and we want to continue that in future locations.”

Taco Guild

546 E. Osborn Road, Phoenix