The first thing you notice about the Giving Tree Café is the deliciously warm and inviting scent that greets you as soon as you walk in the door. The sensory effect isn’t a coincidence, according to owner David Warr, who opened the vegetarian eatery in December 2019 near 7th Street and McDowell Road in Phoenix.
To get a pulse on the industry for his new venture, the veteran restaurateur, who also is the co-founder and former executive chef of ChocolaTree in Sedona, visited several restaurants and realized that most dining establishments don’t leave good first impressions.
“If it doesn’t smell delicious, you should walk out,” says Warr, a Chicago native who owned his first restaurant at age 22. At the Giving Tree Cafe, what you smell the minute you enter the restaurant is exactly what you get: organic, gluten-free vegetarian cuisine and vegan options with beverages, minus all the additives.
A self-admitted hippie, Warr converted the former government building to emit a feel-good, simple vibe, with exposed white ductwork, live plants hanging from macrame holders, and Himalayan lamps in a space that seats 75 with an outdoor patio. The humble, but warm ambience is grounded by a communal table situated in the middle of the dining space next to the open kitchen, an intentional design that proves Warr has nothing to hide.
“To me, sustainability is an important issue for our businesses, our relationships and our restaurants. I’m being the change I want to see.” – David Warr, Owner, Giving Tree Café
“Food transparency is so important. We’re proud of what we do and believe our guests are worth it, too,” he says. “We go the extra mile. Our food preparation methods are done right in front of you.”
Warr, who is also the head chef, sources ingredients mostly from Arizona, California and Mexico to create his plant-based menu that features all-day breakfast, appetizers, salads, soups, sandwiches and entrees. The “food to live for” includes items such as jalapeño poppers made with cashew cream cheese, pumpkin seed crumble and Rawnch dressing. The Buddha Bowl, a guest favorite, is tossed with roasted maple acorn squash, turmeric cauliflower, shishito peppers, Brussels sprouts, Bangkok sauce, and choice of wild rice or quinoa.
According to Warr, desserts—which include antioxidant-rich, raw chocolate selections and lime cream pie—are some of the healthiest items on the menu. The restaurant also serves fresh, cold-pressed juices crafted onsite with an industrial pressing machine, as well as specialty coffees and conscious cocktails that include alcohol, beer and wine.
The Giving Tree Café’s lineup is something Warr has been serving his family for years, taking classic recipes and putting a vegetarian spin on them—and now vegan, too, using only coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, and natural, whole ingredients to make diverse, nutrient-dense and flavorful food.
As someone who has studied cooking and nutrition for years, Warr understands how food combinations affect the body. “The body digests food in different ways. With our menu, you won’t feel heavy, lethargic or experience a food coma after eating various things,” he says. “The foods all work well together. It’s some of the healthiest food you’ll find in America. It will leave you invigorated and enlivened.”
Although Warr has been a strict vegetarian for decades, he’s not that interested in convincing others to follow his eating habits. Rather, he’s more concerned about raising the culinary bar and providing high-quality food that aligns with human well-being.
“I’m a vegetarian, but it’s not my focus. I want to serve the most radiantly healthy food I possibly can. By definition it’s not going to be healthy if it’s processed. It’s more important to be healthy than vegetarian,” he says. “What makes the Giving Tree Café different is that we are truly healthy. It’s possible to have a vegan meal with Doritos and a diet soda, but it’s not healthy. Neither are soy nuggets deep fried in canola oil.”
He’s also committed to a greater good: protecting the planet so that future generations can benefit from the impact of our food choices. “To me, sustainability is an important issue for our businesses, our relationships and our restaurants. I’m being the change I want to see,” says Warr.
And diners are embracing his approach to eating foods that are healthy for their bodies and the environment. In less than two months in business, the Giving Tree Café has earned high ratings on Yelp. Warr, who wasn’t entirely convinced the urban market would get his concept, couldn’t be more delighted with the community’s reception.
“Some of my favorite reviews are from meat eaters,” he says. “I wanted to do something like this for years. People in Phoenix are truly friendly and I’m having a blast.”
By Sally J. Clasen
Photo: Mark Lipczynski