WHOLLY COW!

Durant's, 2611 North Central, Phoenix, 264-5967. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight; Sunday, 4 p.m. to midnight.

The elites who gather at Durant's don't play ball in public. They're politicians, lobbyists and attorneys, people of influence who play their hardball in smoke-filled rooms, behind closed doors.

Durant's should make them feel right at home, since the restaurant lacks a no-smoking section. The place has a rugged, bustling, no-nonsense air about it, the kind of room where it's easy to imagine public servants trading favors, sidestepping ethics and bilking taxpayers. But even if you're not important, the smooth, tuxedo-clad servers make you feel as if you are. A great deal of Durant's charm derives from its look. If you want to pass yourself off as a regular, enter from the rear, by the parking lot. You'll slide through the kitchen, where the help briefly looks up from its chores, sizes you up and asks, "How ya doin'?" If you have an aversion to the color red, don't step through the swinging kitchen doors into the dining areas. The restaurant will have you blinking and rubbing your eyes: Walls, booths, carpeting, all are bathed in vivid red hues. The red, though, does give Durant's an ornate feel, despite the vinyl booths and Formica-topped tables.

Durant's helps you get down to business immediately, greeting diners with a welcome chilled relish tray, a ketchupy dip and a pleasant basket of warm biscuits. The appetizer of steamed fresh clams is a Durant's trademark, and we looked forward to dipping them in the cups of butter and clam broth. But the bivalve mollusks we got seemed a bit long in the tooth, chewy and gritty. There were, however, a zillion of them. Meals here come with a cup of nothing-special soup and a routinely uninteresting house salad. A couple of … la carte salads, though, perk things up. Caesar salad fans can indulge their whim without fear--there's no stinting on the anchovies. The German salad, meanwhile, is basically a romaine-and-bacon mix. It's doused with a warm, pungent vinaigrette that has enough vinegar in it to strip the porcelain from a bathtub. It's tart, all right, but the taste grew on me. Like the ballplayers at the Pink Pony, the Important People here have come to sink their teeth into red meat. And Durant's does a creditable job gratifying those urges. The eight-ounce filet mignon delivered just what I expected: a superbly soft hunk of juicy meat, cooked exactly to specifications. A hefty portion of charcoal-broiled tenderloin tips also inspired growls of delight. And the prime rib, while not as prodigious as the Pink Pony's, packed a moist, beefy punch.

Don't anticipate additional enjoyment, though, from anything else on the plate. The baked potato and French fry options are strictly stomach fillers. And the only vegetables you'll find here are the scallions, carrots, celery and radishes on the relish tray. Don't bother with dessert, either, unless you plan on stopping elsewhere. There's ice cream, sherbet and a homemade cheesecake that sets back the art of cheesecake-making a hundred years. It's got no cheesy taste or texture, only the incredibly sugary goopiness of sweetened condensed milk. Even if you haven't come to Durant's to cut a deal, it's still a comfortable, old-fashioned kind of spot to share drinks with buddies, munch some greenery and absorb animal protein. It was a good dining idea in the undemanding Fifties; with some fine-tuning, it can work in the sophisticated Nineties, too.

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