by Emily King

Mill Avenue is the place to be and be seen on a Friday afternoon. College-aged students are sitting outside enjoying a few beers after a long week of classes. Street performers are setting up shop on corners in preparation for an evening of entertaining the inebriated masses as they hop from bar to bar. Good-looking servers are rolling out space heaters to make patio-seating more comfortable. It’s a hip and inviting scene—the perfect setting for new restaurant concepts, or in the case of Julian Wright, a few new restaurant concepts.

Julian Wright, owner of La Bocca Urban Pizzeria and Canteen Modern Tequila Bar, is truly “the man behind the curtain” of both of his current operations. Luckily for him, they are located just across the street from each other, and I’m quite certain that he saves a fair amount of money on a gym membership as he runs between these  two very popular establishments.


                                                            Dusk at Canteen and La Bocca

Despite his busy schedule, Wright has mastered the art of the “poker face.” The man is in constant motion during our interview. He jumps up every now and then to make sure that a minor repair job is going well, answers queries from his staff, and greets the regulars, yet he never seems to be overwhelmed. It’s the kind of work-ethic and multi-tasking ability that develops from years of experience in the restaurant industry—experience that Wright gained as he worked his way through college.

After graduating from ASU, Wright forged ahead in the fast-paced restaurant industry. As a bartender and server on the opening teams of many new restaurants, he was able to observe the successes and failures of numerous owners and managers. Before long, he too was an owner doing his best to avoid making the mistakes of his predecessors.

Make no bones about it: Opening a restaurant is a tricky business that perplexes even the most talented and intelligent professionals. Perhaps what sets Wright apart is his attention to detail and his participation in every aspect of his restaurants. He is the king of “winging it,” proving that formal training in culinary, design, and carpentry are nice, but not always key to success.


Wright opened La Bocca in 2008, “as the sky was falling,” he jokes. With less disposable income, people were especially picky about where they ate, and Wright didn’t feel like the mediocre crust La Bocca was turning out at the time was cutting it. Ever the busy-body, Wright headed to the kitchen and stayed there for 6 months learning the intricacies of pizza dough. He admits that La Bocca’s process is unconventional, but customers can’t get enough of it. Mission accomplished.

Of course, the pizza isn’t the only thing that makes La Bocca a shining star among the slew of eateries on Mill; the signature flatbread, and garlicky baba ganoush (Caution: do not consume on date-night if you intend to get that goodnight kiss) are delicious components of the medley plate. The Queen Creek Olives, tasty feta, and smooth hummus are perfect accompaniments for a glass (or three) of wine and good conversation. For more substantial noshing, I’d spring for the Mascarpone, Smoked Prosciutto, and Truffle Oil Bruschetta. Basically, Ecstasy without the pill–or those pesky urges.

Then, of course, there are the impressive interiors of both Canteen and La Bocca which look like the creations of a professional designer with access to a large budget. In fact, the chief interior designer of both restaurants was Wright himself, armed with only his creativity, the local Ikea, and the patience “to go to Lowes and get nine different colors of paint.”

The Bar at Canteen

Wright denies that he is an artist although I beg to differ. It takes the spirit of an artist to look at a space and work with the existing pieces the way he does. He points to the long, upholstered benches that run parallel to the bar in the center of Canteen; they are cream-colored with splashes of lime green—the exact shade of the wall behind the benches.  Clearly, he wasn’t kidding about all those trips to Lowe’s.

While Mill Avenue may be the place ‘to be and be seen’, the scene (yeah, I know) at both La Bocca and Canteen is well worth any trip to Tempe.  Stop in and say “Hello” to Julian – he may sit down and give you some interior design tips.