By Heather Hoch
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By New Times
By Rachel Miller
By Eric Schaefer
By Heather Hoch and Lauren Saria
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Durant's, 2611 North Central, Phoenix, 602-264-5967. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 4 to 10 p.m.; Friday, 4 to 11 p.m.; Saturday 5 to 11 p.m.; Sunday 4:30 to 10 p.m. When I first ate at Durant's about 15 years ago, it looked old and a bit frayed. It looks exactly the same today. It's a bit eerie. Even Dick Clark shows signs of wear.
Durant's 1950s aesthetic seems even further from reality now that we've left the 1900s behind. Is Durant's the restaurant where time stood still, or is it the restaurant that time forgot? Either way, it's about time for someone to use the place as a set for a good B movie.
Although the front door faces Central Avenue, almost everyone enters through the real main entrance: a door in the back of the kitchen. My first view of Durant's, like most customers', was the hot, frenetically paced kitchen. Hectic, but under control.
If you've never been to Durant's, your first peek at the dining room will be a surprise. Red flocked wallpaper, dark wood paneling and burgundy vinyl booths are so kitsch they're cool. The wallpaper, paneling and vinyl look too good to be original, so maintaining the '50s look is apparently an ongoing process.
About five years ago, Durant's underwent a face-lift. The kitchen was remodeled. Carpets and wallpaper were replaced, apparently with look-alikes. Bus stations look the same to me -- large, not too pretty and open to view.
Time has definitely stood still in the rest rooms. They're tiny, with narrow doors that prevent handicap accessibility. My guest who checked out the ladies' room said it was so small that more than two women in there at a time would probably get into a "bitch fight." The mirrors are covered with a narcissistic listing of the restaurant's accomplishments.
In fact, a staff member told us there are no handicap-accessible rest rooms. This is one bit of nostalgia that's not worthy of its grandfather clause.
Durant's cigar-friendly environment means that you'll smell smoke, even at the non-smoking tables in the room behind the bar. The separate room on the south side of the restaurant is actually smoke-free.
The most obvious aspects of Durant's touch-up are on the menu. You'll see more fish, more vegetables and more appetizers. Best of all, meat lovers won't miss a thing.
One nod in the right direction is the bottled Sole' water. This is now the house water, not a pricey extra. Durant's tap water used to have a mildly chlorinated flavor, so this change is in good taste.
A caesar salad also is available with your entree (for $1.95 extra) in lieu of the house salad. Durant's caesar has always been good, but in days past it was available only as a large separate course. Their version has a bold, flavorful dressing and a generous portion of crisp romaine lettuce. Despite its ersatz grainy Parmesan, the caesar is worth ordering.
When the server asks if you want anchovies on your caesar, say no -- unless you really love the salty little fish and are willing to pay for it. At Durant's a "yes" adds four anchovies to your plate and 95 cents to your bill. If either the menu or the server had mentioned this, I wouldn't quibble. But hidden costs, even small ones, leave me feeling a bit like I was set up.
The importance of a sale isn't limited to tinned fish or rest-room mirrors. There's a definite push to sell expensive items. One night, I overheard a server give a nearby table the hard sell for the Florida stone crabs. When the customers declined, the server actually excused himself and came back with a plate of the crab so he could show them what they were missing. The customers looked uncomfortable, but I give them points for not being coerced into spending $35 for six crab claws they didn't want.
In the old days, Durant's was a steak-and-potatoes kind of place. Fish meant a frozen swordfish steak. But the current menu offers a varied selection of fresh seafood. Entrees include salmon, scallops, trout and swordfish. Appetizers include oysters, both raw and Rockefeller. Shrimp cocktail and crab cakes are also available.
Seriously consider starting with the plump, sweet and juicy oysters Rockefeller. Cooked just long enough to bubble the creamy spinach and heat the delicate oysters, the Rockefellers are a perfect starter. Bits of bacon are a nice touch. The oysters come in the half-shell on a hot metal oyster plate. It keeps them warm and upright and obviates the messy rock salt typically used to keep the oysters from tipping.
The salmon was as fresh and perfectly cooked as the oysters. The portion was generous. No need to say more.
Not least on the seafood roster are the crab cakes. Available as an appetizer or an entree, they come on a plate spruced up with flakes of fried spinach, topped with a small dollop of a creamy sauce that's somewhere between tartar and cocktail.
The generous crab cakes are peppered, literally, with bits of crunchy green and yellow bell pepper. Sweet crab flavor comes out on top, with just enough seasoning to enhance the overall effect.