The Duce Defies Your Preconceived Notions of Downtown Phoenix

Where am I again?

To set foot in The Duce — a quirky mix of retail and dining in a cavernous, circa 1928 brick warehouse at Central and Lincoln south of downtown — is to experience a delighted sort of bewilderment, as if you'd stumbled into a funhouse-meets-time-machine, or at least somewhere very, very far from Phoenix.

Part all-American diner, part old-timey cocktail joint, and part soda fountain — not to mention boxing ring, clothing shop, and antiques dealer — it's an alternate vision of what a downtown hangout should be. And named after the neighborhood's old moniker, The Deuce, it references the gritty decades before revitalization became a buzzword.

The Duce defies what you might imagine about the downtown Phoenix experience.
Jackie Mercandetti
The Duce defies what you might imagine about the downtown Phoenix experience.

Location Info

Map

The Duce

525 S. Central
Phoenix, AZ 85004

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: Central Phoenix

Details

The Duce
525 South Central Avenue
602-866-DUCE
www.theducephx.com
Hours: 10 a.m. to midnight Wednesday through Saturday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday

French toast: $8
Brisket sliders: $8
Maple-roasted ribs: $14
Chicago-style hot dog: $4

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Truly, The Duce is unexpected. For one thing, people don't take advantage of historic properties here the way they do in some cities, where preserved buildings bring unique character to the urban fabric.

The proposed entertainment district in this part of town — in the orbit of the arena and the ballpark — never materialized, and the city's set its sights instead on a very different vision, one embodied by the contemporary architecture and pristine walkways of CityScape, just a few blocks north of here.

And yet, here it is — a spot that pretty much defies what you think you might imagine about the downtown Phoenix experience.

The Duce is the brainchild of two Chicago transplants, husband-and-wife team Steve and Andi Rosenstein, who sold their vintage-inspired Fitigues clothing empire in 2006. In the meantime, they rounded up so many antiques that the dudes from American Pickers would drool if they saw the treasure trove in here. A highlight is the exquisite wood-and-glass Art Deco bar, plucked from a legendary Chicago jazz club called The Black Orchid. You can feel the history just oozing from it, as you sip a Cuba Libre and lean into its smooth wooden surfaces. It's oddly glamorous.

While The Duce's streetside façade is fortress-like (it was stripped to reveal original signage from the days when the building housed a metal forgery and bus body builder), the two rear entrances are huge and open — one reveals an incredible patio stocked with vintage bar seats, a gleaming silver Streamline trailer that serves as the restaurant's kitchen, antique soda coolers, and a cheerful Hamm's Beer bear statue holding a tray.

The other doorway leads to a retail space filled with racks of military surplus clothing and sportswear, vintage bicycles, soaps and lotions, antique kitchen accessories and ceramics, another impressive Art Deco bar, old bleachers, and a retro soda fountain. Just past the honest-to-goodness boxing ring at the far end (where you might see real action some nights of the week), there's another entrance to the dining area, which is filled with communal tables and heat lamps.

By day, the surreal quality of The Duce seems exaggerated, if only because it's largely deserted. The stereo blasts everything from Aerosmith's "Dude Looks Like a Lady" to Elvis' "Love Me Tender," and one lone bartender will take your lunch order. There might be a handful of other people eating here, but in general, it feels like a place that time forgot. It's a novelty that makes you wonder how it can exist and whether it will survive.

But things do rev up in the evening. There could be a DJ spinning an eclectic mix of oldies, and young dudes might be working up a sweat in the boxing ring. Twenty-somethings crowd around the bar for classic cocktails (think Moscow Mules or Greyhounds, served in Mason jars) or working-class beers like Schlitz or Pabst Blue Ribbon, while middle-aged couples with kids in tow gather around linoleum-covered communal tables scattered with baskets of ribs, rolls of paper towels, and bottles of sugary, old-fashioned soda pop. Conveniently, there's a bunch of Hula Hoops on hand for kids (or adults, for that matter) to work off some steam.

And amazingly, despite the free-for-all atmosphere, the food is pretty decent. Sliders make up the biggest part of the menu, and I gobbled up all of them. The tuna salad and egg salad were both classic, homey versions done up with mayonnaise — about what I'd expect, given the emphasis on Americana here. Juicy chicken sausage, simmered in PBR and then grilled, had a tasty bit of char, while meatballs soaked in marinara were plump and tender. Smoky, melt-in-your-mouth brisket sliders were my favorite.

Although I wasn't keen on the pear and pecan salad — somehow, the lettuce lacked a satisfying crispness, like it had wilted a bit — I was more than content with a brown paper bag full of "organic potato crisps" (basically, homemade potato chips), and a side of baked beans.

Simply a naked hot dog in a poppy seed bun, the Chicago-style dog disappointed me at first. Apparently, it was do-it-yourself, with relish, tomato, pickle, onions, ketchup, and mustard at a station by the kitchen, so I went back and piled on all kinds of goodies. Not bad, after all. I longed for a pile of crispy fries, but for some reason, they're not on the menu.

Maple-roasted baby back ribs, served in a wooden fruit basket with a cup of warm maple glaze, were easier to love because of the instant gratification — each bite was meaty, tender, and sweetly caramelized.

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11 comments
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linkiss

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Howard
Howard

bigger question...who is going to want to go to this ish hole during the summer and pay 3 dollars for a schlitz? Even a wave pool of mysters would make me want to go to this crap pile again...

David Bickford
David Bickford

"While The Duce's streetside faƧade is fortress-like ..., the two rear entrances are huge and open" -- In other words, the Duce has blank walls facing the street. Those blank walls discourage pedestrian life and encourage guests to come by car and enter from the parking lot. More than the questionable beer selection, that's what frustrates me most about the Duce. There has been a lot of justifiable criticism of big projects like CityScape for failing to address the street. Shouldn't we hold indie businesses to the same standard in terms of how they interact with their surroundings?

Paddington bear
Paddington bear

this place is really terrible. worst service. I want to get into detail but it will take forever. Epic fail. This place is a total fail in my book. Don't waste your time..

Blah
Blah

Great concept, well executed, but this place fails consistently. Terrible customer service, just terrible. I like the campy concept of crappy beer, but for us adults, how about some good beers? I wish this place had its act together, it could have been a contender. If you want to check it out, hurry- it likely won't be around for long.

Skeefy2
Skeefy2

Yup, this place is a dud. Sorry.

JohnJohn3287
JohnJohn3287

Parking sucks and so does the AC. Plus, this dude is a scammer -- You should be doing a story on how many people he has been ripping off (ie: DJs and POP). Do that story and I will read it.

Marilyn
Marilyn

So proud of you both.Great article...love it,Mom

Hipsterwannabe
Hipsterwannabe

Oooh wait can I be cool and hang out in a warehouse too? The food sucks and since Pop the Soda shop left the soda selection blows too. And why is it that hipsters love to drink Schlitz ? Schlitz is like you took bear pee, strained it into a can and let it sit for 500 years. It is horrible. But hey, guess Schlitz fits the crappy restaurant, crappy location, crappy service motif.

 
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