Day Drinker: Lunches for a Buck, the Must-Wear-Panties Rule, and Sam Elliott at The Recovery Room
Who says you have to wait until the sun goes down to have a good time?
"I'm later than I thought," the tall, white-haired, white-mustached man apologizes to Tana and I as he jumps out of his pickup in the back parking lot of The Recovery Room. It's a little past 10 in the morning. "I'll just unlock the doors and let you ladies right in."
"Whose car is that?" We ask, pointing at a Camaro that's seen better days.
The tall, white-haired, white-mustached man laughs. "Not mine," he says. "That's a leftover from last night."
Inside, The Recovery Room itself appears to still be recovering from St. Patrick's Day. Green beads, clovers, and streamers cover walls, ceilings, and mirrors. It's a welcoming joint: dark, low ceiling, blue-lit pool tables, claw machine in one little nook, Beatles Rock Band in another. Tana and I select our stools and belly up.
The tall, white-haired, white-mustached man appears behind the bar after opening the front door to let the morning light in, and sticks out his hand. He's got a grip and looks at us straight on, a little smile on his face.
"Name's John," he tells us. We introduce ourselves and order up some morning brews.
John's owned the Recovery Room for 26 years ("I named it myself"). Originally from the Netherlands, he moved to Denver when he was 4 and traveled the world working in the airline business. Now, at 62, John's permanent home is in Phoenix, where he and daughter Shannon manage the Recovery Room. John's got an easiness about him that makes you feel you've known him for years. Strong, but with that understanding twinkle in his eyes that says he knows a lot but isn't going to give away the farm. Within seconds, he's the Sam Elliott to our Patrick Swayze, and we're hanging on his every sage-like word.
"I couldn't live in Europe," he tells us. "I like my wide-open spaces. Narrow streets, flats that all look the same, it's not for me. A lot of my relatives would like me to move back, but I've made a nice life for myself here."
His daughter, Shannon, should be in around 11 for the day shift. We ask John what she's like.
"She's a smart one," John tells us. "Just got her Masters and is working on her Ph.D. She's traveled a lot, too. Lived in Germany for a while and worked as a bartender at a Chi-Chi's [Mexican restaurant] out there."
"They've got a Chi-Chi's in Germany?"
"Yup. Plus, she brought her car out there with her. Know what her car had that all the ones in Germany didn't?"
We couldn't guess.
"Air-conditioning. When it got real hot, which was rare, all her friends would pile in her car and run the air-conditioning. That's somethin', huh?"
After another brew and some smoke breaks, Tana and I return to our stools.
"This fellow's looking for a little conversation," John says pointing to a man in a cowboy hat and construction boots, and doing what all good bartenders do: make folks feel comfortable. Of course we'll talk to him. If we've learned anything from Roadhouse, it's that you can trust Sam Elliott.
The cowboy gets up and sticks out his hand, "I'm Andrew. Nice to meet you."
Andrew is a solid as John. His family used to own a dairy farm in Tolleson but had to close it down after the big corporations took over.
Recession-ready lunches, and brews to boot.
"You just can't be an independent farmer now," he tells us. "The big corporations make it too hard. Plus, a bunch of new housing developments went in and people complained about the smell, which was funny to us 'cause there was a sewage treatment plant right around the corner. I used to tell them, 'that's not the smell of cows. That's the smell of money.'"
Andrew's dad taught him how to lay concrete, so he did that for a while until the bottom fell out of the residential housing business. He lost everything, including his house, and lived on nothing for months.
"We're so sorry," we say.
Andrew passes over our comment. He doesn't want a pity-party. "It's much better know. I've picked up a few jobs. One, from someone I met here. He could tell from my boots I laid concrete."
Andrew shoes us his boots. They both have holes at the top. The signature of the concrete worker. Good people. We ask Andrew whether he comes to The Recovery Room a lot.
"I used to. Then my friends all started getting' married and havin' babies. But it's always like this in here," he sweeps his arm around the bar, "John runs a quiet, casual bar. No trouble. Plus, he makes a mean pot of chili every Sunday for his customers. I had three bowls last week. I almost had four."
John returns to behind the bar and we ask him about his chili night.
"Yeah, everyone wants to know what my secret recipe is, but there's no secret to it. I just put whatever I have available into the pot. I make it around 11 a.m. It's self-serve, right over there (he motions to a wall by the pool tables), and when it's gone, it's gone."
"That's a great deal for your customers," we say.
John tells us, like most of the bars in Phoenix, business has been tough thanks to the economy and people being out of work.
"Do you get a lot of business from the hospital across the street?" we ask him. "Used to. But then they went and did something that was bad for the bar: They put their staff on three, 12-hour shifts. You ladies heard about our lunch specials?"
John points to a sign above the bar. What? Is that a misprint? A hamburger, chicken sandwich, or two tacos for a buck? How's that for recession-ready?
"Not really," John admits. "I've been doing it for 26 years."
Order up. Made to order, with chips on the side, this dandy dollar burger with brews equals one double-delicious lunch for under a fiver.
"You ladies doin' okay?" Shannon, John's kid, arrives on the scene. She's definitely her father's daughter: tall, confident, calming. We tell her John's told us all about her, and she smiles and shakes her head.
"I've also got a Schnauzer named Goose. Did he tell you that?"
Shannon confirms the casual crowd scene at The Recovery Room.
"We run a tight ship," she says. "Our philosophy is that customers treat the staff by the way they're dressed. The girls wear T-shirts and pants. If they do wear skirts, they have to have panties on underneath."
"You'd be surprised. I've had to send a couple of them home for that, and I always make sure to tell them when they're interviewing."
"We get a great crowd in here, but once in a while people wander in who ask me for a spoon, or aluminum foil, even a Brillo pad -- anything they can cook with. They don't stay long."
We ask Shannon the question we're dying to know, "So, you've got your master's, you're working on your Ph.D. -- you're a smart lady. Why do you work here?"
Shannon puts on her Sam Elliott face -- the smile, the twinkle in the eye -- the one she got from John.
"I've got my whole life to hone my career," she says. "But my dad's 62 years old, and right now, this is what's important. Spending as much time as I can with him."
We're silenced. We're welling up. We're thinking we're glad we stopped by.
The Recovery Room 2027 West Bethany Home Road 602-246-6456 therecoveryroom.org
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Phoenix dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.