By Ray Stern
By New Times
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By Stephen Lemons
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But Jeffords has her doubts.
"I think that the clientele is going to head for the hills," she predicts. "People go to Durant's for its predictability and simplicity--not to eat quasi-Italian things like scampi on angel-hair pasta. Considering Phoenix's lack of traditions and the very few rock-bound institutions we have here, this is going to be an interesting situation to watch. At best, this is going to be very iffy."
As a restaurant consultant, what advice would Jeffords give Durant's? "That this is something that they should have been thinking about ten years ago," she replies. "If they had tweaked, spruced up and fine-tuned things incrementally over a period of time, I think the customers would have accepted it. But to hit them with remodeling and new food all at once is going to alienate a lot of their regulars." Characterizing the Durant's rehab as a possible no-win situation, she says, "I don't see this project as being a career enhancer for anyone involved."
"[My] restaurant is the oldest of its class in the state, and there ain't nothin' like it," Jack Durant humbly opined during an interview several years before his death. "The Pink Pony over there in Scottsdale and those fancy places that keep opening and closing all over town can't hold a candle to it."
The restaurant that bears Durant's name originally began life as Wayne's Midway Inn, a sawdust-on-the-floor roadhouse located in what was then open country on the north edge of town. But eventually, Wayne's fell on hard times, and in 1950, Durant picked up the rough-and-tumble tavern at a tax auction for $26,000. In September of that year, following considerable remodeling, Jack Durant opened his version of the swank chophouses he'd admired in New York and Chicago. Although most present-day diners assume Durant's hasn't changed a bit since it opened, they probably wouldn't recognize the place during its salad days. The stark-pink exterior originally boasted two street entrances, as well as the image of a giant neon chef. Inside, the interior was predominantly green, not the now-familiar red that was installed during a late '50s/early '60s remodel that left the restaurant looking as it does today. And they certainly wouldn't have participated in a then-unknown Durant's tradition borne of urban sprawl: As the city grew northward and street parking disappeared, customers had no choice but to park in back and enter through the kitchen.
Thousands of diners--including Joe DiMaggio, Dizzy Dean, John Wayne and Burt Reynolds--marched through that kitchen before the 80-something Durant died of natural causes in 1987. Unable to resist plugging his restaurant from the grave, the Valley's most famous "personality" restaurateur made posthumous headlines when it was learned he had bequeathed a large chunk of his estate--including a house and $50,000 in cash--to his pet English bulldog, Humble. When 8-year-old Humble's decline necessitated his being put to sleep a year later, the dog's inheritance money reportedly went into a trust fund Durant had established for longtime employees.
Thanks to framed portraits hanging in the barroom dining area, both dog and master still keep an eye on the place.
It's not easy being the architect in charge of the remodel with Jack Durant--and all of Phoenix--looking over your shoulder. A Durant's customer himself for the past 11 years, interior architect Jeffrey Rausch now finds himself in the awkward position of renovating the building he once swore he'd never touch.
"Even though it's one of the worst-designed places in Phoenix, I always said I'd never change a thing about it," says Rausch, long an admirer of the restaurant's "quirky" charm. Acknowledging the perils of tampering with a local landmark, he adds, half-jokingly, "I really don't want my name associated with this until it's done, because I don't want to get strung up by the balls if it doesn't work."
Rausch's plans call for building an entirely new kitchen wing, a state-of-the-art facility that will extend eastward into the parking lot along the north side of the property. Although present-day health-code regulations will prevent customers from entering the new restaurant through the actual cooking area (the current kitchen entrance was grandfathered in), the architect hopes to create a "sense" of walking through the kitchen with the use of glass, low walls and lots of "smoke and mirrors." Oddly, what many perceive as the most troublesome aspect of the redo--matching the flocked wallpaper--may actually be a piece of cake. Rausch laughs. "It's terrible to imagine that people still put that in their homes, but they do," he says, explaining that the signature red wall covering is still readily available. "You'd be surprised at some of the really ugly stuff that's out on the market.