By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Seen from the street, the Valley's most fabled restaurant doesn't look like much, just a boxy, Pepto Bismol-colored building badly in need of a paint job. The only decoration is the sad-looking awning over the front door, an entrance that doesn't get used much, anyway. On the roof is the '60s-style sign--a series of seven yellow, plastic boxes that spell out the name of the place, one letter to a box. Pull into the parking lot behind the Central Avenue steak house, and the view declines appreciably. Over the ramshackle service porch that serves as the restaurant's main entrance is a weather-beaten placard bearing the credo of the eatery's colorful founder. The sign reads: "In my humble opinion, Durant's is the finest eating and drinking establishment in the world"--Jack Durant.
Welcome to Durant's, the Valley institution that once prompted a local food critic to comment, "Without prior exposure, the first visit to a landmark [of this kind] can seem like an elaborate practical joke"--a culinary museum piece that prompts the uninitiated to wonder, "You really like this?" For hundreds of thousands of devoted customers who've traipsed through the restaurant's back door--the cognoscenti's entrance of choice, probably because it involves a homey, if hellishly hot, schlep through a Dante's Inferno of a kitchen--the answer is an unqualified "Yes." A favorite of local power brokers, lawyers, journalists and sports figures since former Las Vegas pit boss Durant opened it for business in 1950, the place is simply like no other restaurant around. The tuxedoed staff has been there since relish trays were still in style, and the guests, most of them regulars, continue to slather Saltines with iced butter like they've never heard of health. This is the restaurant that Heart Smart forgot, the place Phoenix goes to eat steaks, caesar salads and stuffed celery. The place where a waiter of 16 years' tenure explains, "I'm still in training." The place where diners squint at the booth across the room and realize, yes, that really is Charles Barkley, Robert Mitchum or Russ Meyer. The place where people celebrate job promotions and Grandma's birthday or hold an opening-night cast party for a local theatre production and watch everyone pretend they're at Sardi's.
Several years ago, one of this newspaper's writers paid the restaurant what may be the ultimate compliment. He told readers he could think of no better place from which to monitor the end of the world than the TV in Durant's bar.
For fans of this downtown bastion of beef 'n' booze, Armageddon of an only slightly less earthshaking variety is fast approaching. Citing the need to update the physical facility and broaden the restaurant's customer base, Durant's management last week confirmed rumors that the restaurant was gearing up for a major face-lift.
Sometime in August or early September, customers will march through the kitchen for the last time. With a slick new food-preparation area on line to open in October, the old walk-through blast furnace will be demolished to make way for a private banquet room. In addition, the interior decor will undergo a variety of nips and tucks. The existing rest rooms--barely larger than those on an airplane--will be razed, and new wheelchair-accessible lavatories will be built at the back of the restaurant. The pop-art-like cigarette machine will be replaced by wine racks. To facilitate working lunches, the dim lighting will be goosed several notches during daytime dining. The condiment-jammed bus stations will be modernized. And though the restaurant will retain the throbbing red interior that reminds many guests of the bloodstream sequences from Fantastic Voyage, the scruffy flocked wallpaper and carpet are being replaced.
The restaurant is also updating its menu, a bill of fare so frozen in time that a fried-zucchini appetizer represents one of its few concessions to any food trend of the past 25 years. By fall, a startling array of culinary Johnny-come-latelies will join the eatery's retro roster of chicken livers, sweetbreads and apple brown Betty. Although exact dishes have yet to be determined, expect to see things like Cajun blackened swordfish, fresh fruit salsa and angel-hair pasta. Have room for dessert? How about an order of something called Sex in the Pan?
Heimlich maneuver, anyone?
Upon learning of the restaurant's renovation plans last week, many of its devotees couldn't have been more surprised had former governor Rose Mofford, another local institution, swapped her trademark beehive hairdo for a pixy cut. Predictably, reaction to the news ranged from civic outrage to something approaching personal betrayal. "There's so much change in the world, the last thing you want to change is something like Durant's," says Valley media-ite Jana Bommersbach. One of Durant's biggest boosters, Bommersbach has been holding election-night vigils at Durant's since the Seventies, and, in a recent Arizona Republic article, identified the spot as her favorite eatery in town. "This is a venerable Phoenix institution that is near and dear to the hearts of most of the citizenry," she says. "There is no reason to change Durant's."
A local video artist whose work is heavily influenced by the Fifties is even more vocal in criticizing proposed changes at the time-warped restaurant. "Why anyone thinks we need another 'hip' espresso-pesto-winery is beyond me," says artist Paul Wilson. "Durant's is truly the last of a noble race of establishments whose charm lay in its timeless, unaltered state. To try and upgrade what is already so cool is absolutely unforgivable." "Is nothing sacred?" cries another regular. "This is just another death knell for Old Phoenix."
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."
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.