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.
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.
Used by the couple as a winter "cottage," The Wrigley was the largest private residence in the Valley until the 1960s, when it was re-zoned as part of the neighboring Arizona Biltmore Resort and Spa. Following new ownership in 1973 and 1979, the Mansion was used as guest lodge to the hotel, for corporate retreats, and as a private club. In 1992, in an effort to save the one-time anniversary gift now known as The Wrigley Mansion Club from destruction after years of wear and tear, George A. Hormel, one of the heirs to the Hormel meat-packing family, purchased the structure and successfully restored it.
Six years later, the eccentric "Geordie" (with his long hair and counterculture values, he referred to himself as "the world's oldest hippie") attempted to vanquish the HOA membership imposed in the 1970s (specific by-laws require The Wrigley to operate as a private club) and open its restaurant to the public. When the decision came back as "no," Hormel simply made the fees as cheap as possible. (Prices start at $3 for a one-month membership.)
When Geordie Hormel died in 2006, ownership of The Wrigley fell to his widow, Jamie Hormel. And despite the kind gesture, Geordie's reduction of the mansion's membership requirement seemed to, for the most part, have been overlooked by most Valley diners. Save for attending a wedding or toting a few visiting relatives up the hill for a special occasion, The Wrigley, for many years, was strictly known for its restored grandeur, well-manicured grounds, and breathtaking views. Its food, unfortunately, was a far less memorable affair.
Then, in 2010, perhaps needing a change or recognizing that even a mansion wasn't safe from the economic downturn of the past few years, Jamie Hormel hired Paola Embry, co-owner of Christopher's & Crush, in Biltmore Fashion Park, just blocks away, as its new chief executive officer. (Read an interview with Embry.) Embry's business acumen, high energy, and background as a sommelier made her a shoo-in for the position. And the move also kept the arrangement among friends. Embry's ex-husband and business partner, Valley legend chef Christopher Gross, is also Jamie Hormel's current boyfriend.
Embry got to work right away, hiring a new general manager, food and beverage manager, and catering manager. She retained chef Chad Bolar, Christopher Gross' former chef de cuisine at Christopher's, as The Wrigley's executive chef. With Bolar's help, and that of Gross, entirely new lunch and dinner menus were quick to follow, still featuring the mansion's upscale American bistro fare but with more contemporary dishes and a focus on seasonal ingredients.
The Wrigley Mansion's brunch, once a ho-hum, chafing-dish cornucopia, was transformed into a boutique-like selection of exquisite eats served up in bright, colorful vessels. The wine list went from 50 to more than 300 selections, and Embry, in addition to building a new wine cellar requested by Hormel, launched new house wines, appropriately called Geordie's, utilizing artwork created by the former owner as labels.
Embry also sought a more efficient way of doing business for the restaurant and looked for savings anywhere she could find them. She cut utility and outdoor maintenance costs, utilized such found treasures as stemware, and re-organized key spaces like the kitchen. Finally, she gave the mansion a "mini-facelift" last summer with a top-to-bottom cleaning, new furniture, and a fresh coat of paint.
The Wrigley's history, luxurious surroundings, and astounding views mean that weddings and special occasions fill the mansion regularly. But, Embry says, memberships have increased as more people discover the new life breathed into the old building.
And although the majority of Embry's changes to the mansion have been positive, the revamping of the cuisine can lead to two different experiences for diners.
The Wrigley's updated Sunday brunch is nearly as wonderful as its views. At $45 a person, the colorful and contemporary buffet is flush with fine cheeses, fresh fruits and produce, jumbo shrimp and crab legs, and house specialties like baby lamb chops and pan-roasted salmon. There's also an omelet station, an enticing eggs Benedict, and a dazzling array of desserts. Perfect for indulging or simply a way to impress guests, the brunch is luxurious yet unstuffy, set in large open rooms with ornate ceilings and awash in natural light. Even a non-mansion type could get used to the place.
More of an "old money" experience is at Geordie's Restaurant.
Plush and intimate, a single, intimate room with a fireplace, oil-painted portraits, and cloth-covered chairs invites guests to relax amid the sounds of clinking wine glasses and jazz. But unfortunately, Geordie's food seems to have retained some of The Wrigley's past culinary missteps. A small menu of regularly changing fare is certainly a commendable concept, but many dishes lack the artful presentation and good taste found at brunch.
An attractive roasted baby beet salad, with creamy housemade burrata and zingy arugula pesto, started off the meal on a hopeful note, but it also proved the high point of the evening. A butternut squash risotto arrived next, nearly flowing over its serving dish. And although its topping of crispy duck confit was tasty, the risotto barely hinted at its butternut squash flavor.
Entrees didn't fare much better. The filet mignon was a fine piece of beef, and nicely cooked, but the dish arrived at the table looking as though it had sat under a heat lamp for far too long. The same could be said for the pan-seared red snapper, which tasted and appeared overcooked on a rather unflatteringly huge – and scalding hot — bed of coconut sticky rice. The sticky rice suffered the same fate as the risotto, all heft and little flavor.
Thankfully, a luscious chocolate blackberry pudding with crunched whipped cream helped to lift spirits somewhat. But sadly, despite its exclusive operating hours (Geordie's is open only Thursday through Saturday) and fine-dining price tag, dinner at the Wrigley was anything but special.
THE PINK PONY
In 1947, when Old Town Scottsdale was dirt roads, horses, and hitching posts, the Chamber of Commerce wanted to capitalize on the city's Old West identity. Almost immediately, merchants, wishing to attract tourists at nearby resorts and dude ranches, began to remodel their buildings with natural oak-grain fixtures, overhanging porches, and rustic signs.
One of the first businesses to adopt this "Old West" appearance was Whitey's Café, in business at the corner of Scottsdale Road and Main Street since 1947 (known at that time as Pings). Owner Ping Bell was bought out in 1949 by partner Claudia Ogden, who changed the name to The Pink Pony, hiring Charlie Briley to work for her as the bar manager. In 1950, Ogden sold the restaurant to Briley for $50,000, and Briley remained the Pink Pony's proprietor for over 50 years, until his death in 2002.
But Briley's journey to owning the Old West-themed Pink Pony was just the first step in what the Valley landmark was yet to become. With a serious passion for the game, and ball clubs beginning to base their spring training camps in the Valley, Briley would be instrumental in making his Pink Pony the go-to steakhouse for fans of America's favorite pastime, longtime locals, and some of baseball's greatest players on the hunt for strong pours and slabs of juicy steaks.
One of them, pitcher Jay "Dizzy" Dean, became friends with Briley in the 1950s and came to the Pony regularly, giving the restaurant instant celebrity cred. In 1955, Briley and other local businessmen built the original Scottsdale Stadium a half-mile away, and the Pink Pony's status continued to grow with legends such as Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Rogers Hornsby, Jimmie Foxx, Joe DiMaggio, and Billy Martin stopping by.
In 1970, after a dispute with his landlord, Briley was forced to move the Pink Pony to its current location, just a few doors down on Scottsdale Road. But the relocation didn't diminish the restaurant's popularity. Over the years, Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood came in for their wedding night dinner, and Clark Gable, Senators Hubert Humphrey and Joseph McCarthy, and movie star/California Angels owner Gene Autry also paid visits. Briley's baseball-themed Pink Pony also had become a shrine of sorts to the game, with an interior boasting signed memorabilia, photos, and caricature drawings of players and coaches done by Disney cartoonist Don Barkley.
And with national acclaim — The New Yorker's Roger Angell called it "the best baseball restaurant in the land," and Sports Illustrated named it "the most popular hangout for baseball people in the civilized world" — the Pink Pony seemed to have secured its place in Valley history.
But, like baseball, longtime restaurants have their slumps. And the Pink Pony's came after Briley's wife Gwen, who ran the restaurant after her husband's death in 2002, sold the restaurant in 2009 to Scottsdale residents Danny Little and Tim Smith. (Read an interview with Smith.) Closed for several months, the Pink Pony was resurrected in February 2011 with an updated interior and a continued emphasis on steaks, cocktails, and many of the restaurant's original dishes.
Unfortunately, the changes weren't enough to keep the Pony kicking. Just seven months later, concerned that steaks and seafood alone weren't cutting it, Little and Smith brought on a new owner, chef Reed Groban, who formerly led restaurant operations for 20 years at the Fairmont Scottsdale, to serve as the Pony's culinary component.
Walking the line between steakhouse classics and twists on American comfort foods, Groban focused on maintaining the Pony's legendary reputation while updating its menu for a new generation of diners in an Old Town Scottsdale distinctly different from the one of over 60 years ago, when Scottsdale was the "West's Most Western Town."
Now, of course, it's decidedly more cosmopolitan, both in dining and nightlife, as well as its high-priced gallery scene. Keeping the classics like steak, including the popular and budget-friendly Pink Pony special, a top sirloin with a choice of soup or salad for $26, Groban added twists on American comfort food classics such as his meatloaf "cupcake" and escargot-topped flatbread in addition to adding an array of unique and delectable desserts.
Despite the new dishes, the Pony's traditional prime rib is still the restaurant's shining star. Available in three cuts and crusted with a pastrami-spice rub, it's a meat lover's dream. The hearty slab of beef is thick-cut, perfectly pink in the middle, and brown around the edges, with the pastrami rub giving it the right amount of crusty crunch. The beef's side of creamy mashed potatoes is just as delectable.
For the most part, the appetizers are a solid bunch. An old-school beef tenderloin tartare comes topped with a quail egg and "The Best Damn Pan-Seared 'No-Filler' Crabcake Ever" is very nearly worthy of such a dramatic name.
For decades, Pink Pony has been synonymous with America's pastime, so there is no more fitting dessert than the Nostalgia of Baseball. As artfully composed as it is scrumptious, this chocolate, meringue, and peanut butter tower sits next to a stenciled-in-chocolate image of baseball legend Ted Williams and his famous swing. As Williams did so often during his Hall of Fame career, the dessert hits the sweet spot.
If longtime Scottsdale locals miss the restaurant's one-time dark and close atmosphere, they aren't complaining. A raised roof, open dining area, and a window wall to the street make for a more comfortable, upscale feel. And although the Pony's new owners have retained décor accents like the cowboy boot lamps, the baseball memorabilia, reduced from the original collection, is far less prominent — a move that seems to be speaking to a new generation of diners far less interested in the sport's bygone era and more curious about the fare, which, at the updated Pony, offers more hits than misses.
MONTI'S LA CASA VIEJA
The adobe hacienda that is now Monti's isn't just a building in Arizona's history — it's a cornerstone in the creation of one of its cities. In 1871, just after the Civil War and years before Tempe was called Tempe, Charles Trumbull Hayden used materials from the area — rough-hewn logs from upstate, reeds from the nearby and then-turbulent Salt River, and surrounding clumps of earth — to build the home his family would later call La Casa Vieja (Spanish for "The Old House"). Later, the home would become a hotel and the birthplace of U.S. Senator Carl Hayden, and it would assume various operators from the Great Depression until 1954, when Leonard F. Monti Sr., who had been operating a small diner in Chandler, purchased the landmark and started his family-friendly steakhouse two years later.
Today, Tempe's original pioneer home is the oldest continuously occupied structure in the Phoenix area. And preserving its history — which includes visits from celebrities like Carmen Miranda, John Wayne, and Bruce Springsteen, and stories of ghostly apparitions — is the responsibility of Leonard's son, Michael, who took over Monti's in 1997 with partner Eddie Goitia. In addition to running the landmark restaurant, Monti is also running for mayor in Tempe. (Recent polls suggest Monti is neck-and-neck with Mark Mitchell, with less than two months before the May 15 general election.)
Inside, the mostly windowless, low-ceilinged, and dark wood interior is an expansive and chaotic labyrinth of rooms and hallways with that "lived in for centuries" look. A self-guided tour allows visiting patrons to observe the over 130-year-old walls of thick adobe, feel the original river rock floor beneath their feet and view countless photos, newspaper clippings, and memorabilia from the building's past.
Over the past half-century, the steakhouse has remained remarkably consistent in its food. Yes, there was the addition of sweet-potato fries, and prime rib has been substituted for the filet on the $12 Monday night dinner special, but these are mere ripples in the restaurant's cuisine history.
Mike Monti, like his father did, prefers to err on the conservative side when it comes to change. Besides, when you're a Valley legend that keeps guests happy with standard steaks, good service, and prices that won't break the bank, why fix what isn't broken?
And for a steakhouse, Monti's isn't the snooty kind. Never has been. Its generations of guests in casual to very casual attire, assembled for family gatherings or celebrating an event with friends, can, and do, feel comfortable enough to get rowdy in one of the restaurant's small dining rooms or at the bar. And a sizeable menu of meat, seafood, pasta, sandwiches, and salads ensures they won't go home hungry.
The steaks, where one should start and stay, include an Arizona-raised filet mignon, a 21-ounce porterhouse, and a slow-roasted prime rib. Seasoned with herbs and spices, carved to order, and well prepared, the prime rib doesn't disappoint and can be had with decidedly standard but generously portioned sides like Monti's classic spaghetti topped with signature marinara, bulky baked potatoes, or garden salads with lots of iceberg lettuce.
Those simply looking for an appetizer to share over drinks with friends would be wise to choose the simple but satisfying artichoke and spinach dip, topped with house-made guacamole and roasted red pepper flakes for a little kick. For the burger-bound, there's the Full Monti, a half-pound creation of Angus beef topped with tangy barbecue sauce, bacon, onion rings, and cheddar and pepper jack cheeses.
Last year, to help celebrate the historic steakhouse's 55th anniversary, Monti brought gourmet eating to his restaurant, and to his guests, with his Culinary Masters Series, a program in which visiting culinary powerhouses, such as celebu-chef Beau MacMillan, Eddie Matney of Eddie's House, and Matt Carter of The Mission, created special menus of innovative eats.
The concept seemed to be Mike Monti's way of giving his guests a taste of something different without changing what's kept the legendary steakhouse in business for more than half a century.
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