How the Valley's Legendary Restaurants Keep Up With the Times

It isn't easy running a Valley landmark — especially when it's a restaurant.

The task of preserving a building's heritage while making updates for a new generation of diners — whether the changes regard the restaurant's atmosphere, menu, or otherwise — is akin to a taste-making (or -breaking) tightrope walk for restaurateurs.

Unfortunately, this precarious formula has worked only halfway in the case of El Chorro Lodge in Paradise Valley.

Jamie Peachey
A scene from Wrigley Mansion's bygone days.
A scene from Wrigley Mansion's bygone days.

Location Info

Map

Geordie's at Wrigley Mansion

2501 E. Telawa Trail
Phoenix, AZ 85016

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: East Phoenix

Pink Pony

3831 N. Scottsdale Road
Scottsdale, AZ 85251-4431

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Central Scottsdale

Monti's La Casa Vieja

1 W. Rio Salado Parkway
Tempe, AZ 85281

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: Tempe

Details

See a slideshow of The Wrigley Mansion, The Pink Pony, and Monti's La Casa Vieja.

Built by John C. Lincoln in 1934 as a school for girls and set on 11 ahh-inspiring acres of desert near Camelback and Mummy mountains, the building was converted to a restaurant and lodge in 1937. After years of entertaining vacationing celebrity guests and hosting countless special occasions for Arizona locals, the restaurant won a James Beard Award honoring legendary family-owned restaurants across the country. But aside from its rustic charm, picturesque setting, and legendary sticky buns, El Chorro had become a landmark mired in its own history. And its mediocre food, tolerated mostly by the restaurant's aging clientele of Paradise Valley locals, was doing little to bring in new (and younger) guests.

Hope for more happened in 2009, when the restaurant and lodge was sold. Its new principal owner, Jacquie Dorrance (wife of Bennett Dorrance, a major shareholder in the Campbell Soup Co., which his family founded) announced plans for major renovations. It was an undertaking Dorrance obviously could afford.

But simply pouring money into a project doesn't always ensure its success. Updates such as an expanded, wrap-around patio with several fireplaces, an indoor-outdoor bar, and open dining room floor plan complete with a view of Mummy Mountain — even the addition of an organic herb garden and two bocce ball courts — were nothing short of dazzling and kept the integrity of the building intact.

Sadly, though, El Chorro's new menu of American cuisine remained as dated and as lackluster as ever. Even its most optimistic fans often resort to a drink on the patio and a sticky bun or two. Then they eat elsewhere.

Walking the line between cool classic and worn-down relic is part of what makes landmark restaurants so tricky. Simply being a sentimental favorite where folks of a certain age went as children isn't enough to stay in business. Retro-tastic Durant's still looks like a scene from the 1950s, but its location on Central Avenue, solid menu, and first-rate staff, many of whom have worked there for decades, have helped it survive. Once a hot spot for politicians and executives, Beef Eaters, after being in business for 45 years, was unable to revive its glory days, and the huge property on Camelback Road in Central Phoenix has been visibly wasting away for years.

And, after a filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2011, the future of Bill Johnson's Big Apple, the 55-year-old Valley restaurant chain, has come into question, complete with a family feud (see story by Robrt L Pela).

Recently, three other landmark restaurants in the Valley have hit significant milestones. In 2009 and 2010, respectively, The Wrigley Mansion at the Biltmore and Scottsdale's Pink Pony saw new leadership, which resulted in changes to both dishes and décor, with varied results. And in 2011, Monti's La Casa Vieja, the historic landmark in Tempe, celebrated 55 years in business.

All three are ghosts of a sort — hanging around for decades and jangling the chains of reputations past: Monti's as the old but charming spot for casual steak dinners at prices that won't break the family's bank account; the opulent Wrigley Mansion frequented mostly for weddings or special occasions and with a view far more spectacular than the overpriced fare; and the Pink Pony, a dark, old-school hangout for aging Scottsdalians and baseball buffs in search of a slab of beef and a hard pour.

But when it comes to change, ghosts can be difficult. That is, if change is warranted at all.

In the case of The Wrigley Mansion, fast and sweeping adjustments and new concepts have translated to a better organized business and a more approachable hilltop estate, but a dining experience that's only halfway complete. At the Pink Pony, keeping in touch with a tradition of baseball and steak while tempting new diners who might not care much for either has meant a balancing act that, save for a slump, is coming into its own. And a decidedly conservative approach to change (mostly not changing) has been what's made Monti's tick for over half a century.

"We've seen guests whose grandparents took them here years ago," said Tim Smith, co-owner of the Pink Pony in Scottsdale, "and now they're back with their kids."

Smith's pleasure in capturing future generations of diners while still delighting those from the restaurant's past — also echoed by those in charge of Monti's and The Wrigley Mansion — is one way to gauge whether the tightrope walk is working. And the journey, Smith adds, is always evolving.

THE WRIGLEY MANSION

Wrigley Mansion may be one of the most decadent gifts ever given in the Valley.

The hilltop home in the Biltmore neighborhood, found by way of a winding, landscaped road leading to eye-popping views of downtown Phoenix, Camelback Mountain, and the Arizona Biltmore, was built between 1929 and '30 by chewing gum magnate and former Chicago Cubs owner William Wrigley as a 50th wedding anniversary present for his wife, Ada. And its 16,000-plus square feet of space (which included 24 rooms, 12 bathrooms, and 11 fireplaces) not to mention spare-no-expense details such as several balconies and terraces, mission tile roofs, stuccoed clay walls, and handmade tiles shipped to Phoenix from the family's Catalina Island tile factory in Southern California, "La Colina Solana," the sunny hill, as it was appropriately named, must have garnered William Wrigley Jr. some major marital points, indeed.

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