Open since 1953, Durant's restaurant and lounge on Central evokes a Phoenix that exists today only in the memory. A Phoenix where a freeway out of town was but a dream. Where a crosstown drive at midnight would reveal nary a set of oncoming headlights, and a DUI was as foreign as a microbrewery. A Phoenix where very few residents doubted the essential goodness of their burgeoning township. Where the neon nights on Van Buren or Central were as inoffensively seductive as they were cozy and safe.
It was a Phoenix in which the desert was still the predominant landscape and offered a darkness at night as unspoiled as the air.
Durant's reflects the vernacular of a time when old restraints were loosened behind the decline of Calvinism and Puritanism and McCarthyism. A time in which tipping back a glass was as appropriate as a cigarette; it meant, quite reasonably, clarity for the uncertain, comfort for the lonely, confidence for the shy. A time when booze was counted on to relax the tongue and fuel a self-satisfaction that seems to offer the only escape from life's brutal demands.
A time when politicians openly drank and got drunk and politicized over gin martinis. A time about which everyone from Mailer to Martin has been known to say, "Everybody drank then."
The lounge in Durant's is an unchanged melody, an uncharted time-warp, a romantic nod to the archaic culture of drinking and smoking and to those who appreciate it as such.
Red velvet wallpaper, mahogany wall inlays, leather booths and a long, graceful bar enclosed in an atmosphere refined with an unironic nostalgic grace, a sense that not everything must be blinded by progress. It is a scene that says--in overtly sentimental tones, perhaps--that drinking and dignity are not mutually exclusive, but are, indeed, comfy bedfellows.
And where else in Phoenix but at a place like Durant's could a person find at least one bartender who matches said style, and does so with an acerbic wit? One who has legions singing his praises as both a decent human being and killer barkeep.
Born in San Francisco in 1933 to Irish/Italian parents, Richard "Richie" Finnigan is a starch-shirted, bespectacled gentleman in whom lives a kind of hard-road elegance. As a drink slinger, he is a natty master who, after 42 years of mixing up the medicine, is as animated behind the bar as anyone half his age.
"When I came to Phoenix in '60, the Westward Ho was a boomin' hotel then. I worked at The Stockyard (restaurant/lounge) at 48th Street and Washington."
He adds with a mounting laugh, "When I was there, they still had the feed pens all around. They were feeding about 30,000 head of cattle out there. Funny, we never served any Arizona beef, we served all Colorado beef. We got the better of the deal. The Arizona beef went to L.A."
Prattling nicotine-stained words like a hard-drinking Robert Mitchum, Finnigan's voice belies his manicured, groomed surface. And his discourse is punctuated with a chesty laugh, a kind of smoker's guffaw that sounds like a precursor to a nasty hack.
The hack never comes; that would be unbecoming.
"Van Buren was beautiful then. All the hotels were gorgeous. It was just loaded," Finnigan recalls. "It was the main drive right through town. Then the Black Canyon Freeway was under construction and we often wondered where the hell that went. It just died up north."
The National Highway Act of 1956 paved the way for interstates, effectively eliminating much of America's roadside culture. And when the freeway was finally completed, Van Buren went south.
"I worked and ran the Sands on Van Buren for 10 years in the Sixties and Seventies--that's when the street was nice. We had all the WAC [Western Athletic Conference] teams stay with us, all the Pac-10 teams, all the pro teams. The only people we didn't have were the NBA. The NBA stayed across the street at the Caravan."
After the Sands on Van Buren, Finnigan poured his way through various other restaurant/lounges, even owning one on Washington for a spell: a place he christened Finnigan's Rainbow after the Broadway play and one he recalls as being "a toilet, but a fun toilet." That place floundered after many of his clients, who comprised the graveyard shift from the nearby Motorola plant, were laid off.
"From 6 a.m. to noon we were packed," Finnigan says.
He arrived at Durant's 12 years ago, just in time for the heavy penalties associated with drunken driving and their fiscal side effects on the bars.
"The Sixties and Seventies probably were the high points of everybody just drinkin' and raisin' hell and havin' a good time. Then the MADD [Mothers Against Drunk Drivers] got involved, and the drunk-driving laws started drying the downtown places up.
"Your working people just can't afford it [DUI]. The amazing thing is it's the people that can't afford it are still the ones getting nailed the most."
Other things have changed, too, like the simple customer-versus-bartender knowledge of the booze. It's an inevitable change that rides on any trend train like Cocktail Nation, one which requires a fundamental knowledge of libations.
"In my day, nobody was that aware of products particularly. It was, 'Gimme a scotch. Gimme this. Gimme that.' Our day was volume. Quantity against quality. Now it's quality. Kids now are more aware of what they are drinking. Now they are calling, 'Give me that' about the top-shelf stuff and knowing it all. When somebody asks a question, you have to come up with a halfway legitimate answer. You can't say, 'I don't know, read the labels.'"
Durant's has, through the years, been a watering hole for political weasels, a fact on which Finnigan doesn't want to elaborate.
But with a galloping laugh, he offers, "Prior to AzScam, this used to be a helluva stop for the legislature."
Finnigan's career in booze took root at a blues show when he was a pup. And he remembers his first drink like one remembers his first woman.
"I faked an ID card to see Billy Eckstine. I was about 16. The bartender had to be blind, 'cause I got a baby face! Everybody drank in those days, city kids, country kids."
What did his old man think of him taking up barkeep work in San Francisco more than four decades ago?
"He was madder than hell when he found out I was gonna tend bar. The funny thing is, my father was a bartender."
Why tend bar?
"Well," he says, adding, in full self-mocking pitch, "I'm a real people person."
So how was the drinking in his day?
"Of course, I met my wife in a bar. It was called the Goldmine in San Francisco. I don't know if it is still there, but we have been married 39 years. So, it was great."
There is, in fact, no current listing for a Goldmine lounge in the City by the Bay.
Does he still drink?
"That was the dumbest question I have ever heard."
Lifelong bartenders have heard more tragic stories than the wife of Superman. And they have, over the years, fed booze to faces that reflect, more than anything, the moods and mores of a society consistently suffocating under its own weight. Maudlin sounding, perhaps, but the purpose is served. Just ask Richie Finnigan at Durant's.
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