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Hill Town

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Thanks to its retro Route 66 character, the Nob Hill Historic District has been reborn as Albuquerque’s hippest ’hood. Jayme Moye takes a stroll
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Outdoor seating galore at Kelly’s Brew Pub. Photo by Bill Tondreau.

Behind the bar at Zacatecas Tacos + Tequila, a bartender with tattoo sleeves mixes Olmeca Altos Tequila, fresh-squeezed lime juice, Thatcher’s Organic Blood Orange Liqueur and agave. A well-dressed woman with a cascade of dark brown curls created the drink, with a little help from the restaurant’s build-your-own-margarita menu. She sits across the room with a small group of girlfriends, enjoying happy hour at the high-top table beside the window.

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Albuquerque’s stretch of historical Route 66 is enjoying a mod renaissance. Photo by Marble Street Studio.

Outside, a couple strolls by — he in high-top sneakers, she in trendy black ankle boots. Snippets of their playful debate carry in the late afternoon breeze, drawing smiles from passers-by. The topic? Whether they should dine at Kellys Brew Pub, a landmark hot spot with a patio serving up some of the best people-watching in Albuquerque, or Matanza, the upstart brewery located directly across the street, boasting farm-fresh ingredients and a whopping 100 New Mexican beers on tap.

Farther down the main drag, the last fitness class of the day has just finished at Ryde Shack, an indoor cycling studio with high-tech stationary bikes that lean, turn, steer and balance. Endorphin-energized participants spill out onto the street clad in spandex shorts and then fold into the lively parade of neighbors out walking their dogs or grabbing last-minute dinner ingredients at the La Montañita Co-op, a natural grocer.

Welcome to Friday night in Nob Hill, Albuquerque’s hippest neighborhood.

When a friend recommended a weekend in Nob Hill, I was skeptical. I live in Boulder, Colorado, a bastion of farm-to-table food, craft beer and artisan cocktails.  What does Nob Hill have that I can’t find in Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall area? “Some serious history,” Paul said.

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The HiwayHouse Motel has been around since 1956. Photo by Ivana Star, courtesy of istock.

Nob Hill, located about two miles east of present-day downtown, was Albuquerque’s first suburb. In 1916, the former mayor, a civic-minded entrepreneur named D.K.B. Sellers (who called himself “Colonel” although he was no such thing), envisioned Nob Hill as “the coming aristocratic section of Albuquerque.” He planned it in a rural area far enough away from town that it required an automobile, restricting its residents to the upper class. The name Nob Hill comes from Sellers’ former residence in San Francisco, as he saw a likeness in the incline on Carlisle Boulevard. His sales pitch to prospectors: “Move out of the low zone up to the ozone.”

Initial demand for homes was high, and the majority of builders employed Southwest design styles, infusing Nob Hill with a distinct sense of place. In 1937, Route 66 was relocated along Central Avenue, the main road through Nob Hill, bringing with it a surge of commercial development. World War II halted further construction, and then in the 1960s, the neighborhood’s retail businesses fell on hard times after Interstate 40 was built through Albuquerque, draining motorists from Route 66 and siphoning shoppers to the new malls flanking the highway.

It wasn’t until 1984, after the Nob Hill Shopping Center was sensitively remodeled to maintain its historical character, that residents began to rally for a renaissance.

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Happy hour fixings at ZInc Wine Bar and Bistro. Photo by Sergio Salvador.

Nob Hill’s revitalization was slow — but steady. Today, the neighborhood, which spans the seven blocks between Girard Boulevard and Carlisle Boulevard, is a showcase for the dynamic evolution of architectural styles in the mid-20th century. And the commercial district lining Central Avenue rivals Old Town for eating, drinking and boutique-ing, all with a decidedly hipper vibe. 

Case in point, after combing through handmade turquoise jewelry displayed beneath three dozen or so antique chandeliers at Gertrude Zachary, I cross Central Avenue for a snack. It’s a tough decision between Olo Yogurt Studio, Squeezed Juice Bar and ChocolateDude Coffee & Candy. I settle on the juice bar and sit outside at the bistro table enjoying a Brazilian Fusion — organic granola with Brazilian açai berries, raspberries and banana slices, topped with almond milk and honey.

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A little retro VW style at ChocolateDude Coffee & Candy.

That’s not to say that Nob Hill is without quirk. Kellys Brew Pub occupies a historical building from 1939 that housed the Jones Motor Company and retains the original gas pumps and neon signage for “Service” and “Lubrication” on the building’s exterior. Behind it, also in an old auto service building, visitors will find The Flower Shop at Nob Hill, conveniently located across the street from A Celebration of Love, a Vegas-style wedding chapel complete with a drive-thru window that’s coincidentally (or not) located next door to a law firm.

Central Avenue is dotted with neon signs that pay homage to its Route 66 history, including the kitschy HiwayHouse Motel, the lone survivor of a defunct 1950s motor-hotel chain. My buddy Paul, an Albuquerque native and happily married father of three, points out Sachs Body Modification, nestled between Off Broadway Vintage Clothing and Costumes (a longtime Nob Hill staple) and B2B: Burgers to Beer Bistonomy (a brand-new burger joint with 34 local beers on tap). “I got this 20 years ago at Sachs,” he says, sticking out his tongue to display a piercing I never knew existed.

Later in the afternoon, I walked over to Nob Hill’s most recent mural-in-progress, located on the outside wall of Satellite Coffee. There, 28-year-old Albuquerque native (and 10-year Nob Hill resident) Aaron Stromberg is hard at work. He tells me the mural was commissioned in honor of Nob Hill’s 100th birthday in 2016.

In the center stands D.K.B. Sellers, a fedora shading his eyes and one of his beloved springer spaniels at his feet. At the far right end of the mural, Stromberg is putting the finishing touches on a woman, his wife, Jasmine, he tells me, walking their dog. He says he chose to depict Jaz and Thor in celebration of Nob Hill’s dog-friendly, pedestrian lifestyle. “We take Thor with us to Tractor Brewing Company all the time,” he says. “It’s just a couple blocks from our house.”

I can’t help but think that Nob Hill today is not as D.K.B. Sellers envisioned — it’s better.

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