By Matthew Hendley
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The bombshell nature of the news even triggered outright disbelief among several customers unable to comprehend that anything at Durant's would ever change. Discovering that the restaurant where she's been lunching for the past ten years intends to install an espresso machine and microbrewery spigots, a downtown lawyer bursts out laughing. "You're kidding, right?" she asks.
Meanwhile, one Valley newspaperman has an equally hard time swallowing rumors regarding Durant's belated entrance into the '90s. Unable to fathom why Durant's would possibly tamper with its timeless recipe for success, the journalist could only speculate that the renovation tales were actually part of a Machiavellian publicity stunt and that, in reality, the restaurant had no intention of changing anything.
But all the prime rib and au jus in the world can't change the fact that time waits for no restaurant, not even the peeling pink relic at the corner of Central and Virginia. And after nearly 50 years, Durant's management confesses, both the restaurant and its clientele are showing their age.
"I have two rules," says Dan Held, the San Ramon, California, restaurant consultant hired to supervise Durant's overhaul. "One, 'Keep it simple.' Two, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' And there's an awful lot of stuff here that just isn't broken."
But the beloved walk-through kitchen is one thing that needs plenty of work.
"This is the same kitchen that's been here since the place opened in 1950," explains Russell Hoag, Durant's manager for the past 15 years. "There are bound to be problems with a facility that old." According to Hoag, those problems have escalated to the point that the restaurant now spends between $4,000 and $5,000 correcting violations following every inspection by the county health department. And after surveying the situation several months ago, a restaurant consultant hired by Durant's came to the conclusion that, rather than remodel, it'd be economically more feasible to tear the old kitchen down and build a new one from scratch.
Unfortunately, the solution to the restaurant's declining customer base isn't nearly as tidy.
Dan Held smiles wanly. "Let's face it," says the consultant. "If some people have been coming to Durant's for 40 years, and they were 40 when they started coming--well, you can finish that sentence any way you want to."
Another adviser involved in the Durant's makeover is considerably more blunt. "To be perfectly frank, the clientele are basically dying off," reports Kevin White, the out-of-state chef hired to supervise the menu redo. Referring to the restaurant's fixation with red meat, butter and sour cream, White adds, "And I'm not so sure that [Durant's old menu] didn't help them along."
But self-destructive diners needn't look elsewhere for their cholesterol fix. "Everybody's still going to be able to get their same old favorites," says White, who owns a restaurant in Arcata, California. "We're just offering our customers a fresh, healthier alternative." Several of those innovations (including the redundantly named "shrimp scampi") are already being tested as specials. According to White, customers--especially female lunchers--have been so receptive to the new dishes that the kitchen has sold out of every special offer to date.
While admitting that many regulars--not to mention employees--are "very edgy" about the proposed revamp, Held denies that the restaurant's clientele is as impervious to change as many seem to think.
"This used to be the place to go for a six-martini lunch," he says. "Wine? Who cared? Well, the owner's [San Francisco veterinarian Jack McElroy, the son of Jack Durant's late partner] a wine aficionado, so he upped the wine list three or four years ago. And suddenly there's a lot of wine being sold."
Pause. "The thinking seemed to be, 'Oh, Durant's could never have pasta.' Well, yes, Durant's can have pasta. Why not?"
Although it's going to take more than a plate of noodles to sink the landmark steak house, several local restaurant observers foresee trouble if Durant's continues to play with its food. "This is a restaurant that has an incredibly loyal customer base," says New Times' restaurant critic, Howard Seftel. "The danger of what they're doing is that they'll alienate the people who are their core clientele without attracting anybody else. I'd be very interested to know where all these new customers are supposed to be coming from. Anyone who now makes a Saturday-night reservation at RoxSand's or Rancho Pinot Grill is not suddenly going to say, 'To hell with this, let's go to Durant's.' It's just not going to happen.
"Obviously, I don't have access to their books, their figures or their thinking," Seftel continues. "But from my own experience in restaurants, what they're attempting to do doesn't strike me as fundamentally sound."
Apprised of Durant's plans to beef up its menu with the likes of mango/watermelon salsa and halibut poached in parchment paper, longtime Phoenix food writer and restaurant consultant Elin Jeffords lets loose with a horselaugh. "The '80s live! That kind of tortured menu writing was out of date ten years ago. It sounds to me like the restaurant is just trading one kind of pass‚ for another--and, who knows, it might work."