Yule Tank

Organ Stop Pizza, 1149 East Southern, Mesa, 813-5700. Hours: Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.

'Tis the season to be frazzled.
It's not easy coping this busy time of year. And anyone who has kids knows that their long school vacation--will it never end?--only adds to the late-December stress.

Feeding the homebound youth of America is part of the problem. No amount of parental authority will persuade them to eat the green turkey salad that's been molding in the back of the refrigerator since the day after Thanksgiving. It's impossible to get them interested in building dinner around a festive container of leftover cranberry sauce and a bowl of mixed nuts. Suggesting they add eggnog to the Chex trail mix in the living room probably won't win you any culinary points, either.

At some point this holiday season, you'll have to take the family out to eat. But, in my household, this sanity-saving move requires planning.

That's because I refuse to set foot in McFast-food joints or those ear-splitting pizza arcades that have all the folksy warmth of Bedlam.

On the other hand, I'm not interested in bringing my daughters to a fancy, budget-busting, white-linen restaurant, either. The last time I did, they divided their time between ogling the good-looking staff ("Can I take our waiter home?" asked one kid) and ogling the $45 Cháteaubriand for two.

I'm old enough to believe no longer in the existence of Santa Claus, kindly landlords or Christmas bonuses. But I still believe that there are restaurants in this town where the food is cheap and tasty, and both grown-ups and kids can have fun.

Visits to the delightful Organ Stop Pizza and charming MacAlpine's Soda Fountain have shown me that my faith hasn't been misplaced. Right now, I'm so giddy with goodwill that I'm reconsidering my position on Santa Claus. (However, on the possibility of kindly landlords and Christmas bonuses, I remain profoundly skeptical.)

Organ Stop Pizza has been around these parts for more than two decades, at several locations. Its current East Valley digs have been home for the last two years, and it looks like the moving vans won't be necessary for quite some time.

What a place, as big as a warehouse store. There's multilevel room for 700 customers, who eat off long, heavily varnished picnic tables. The padded benches are a nice touch, and you'll find plenty of sturdy highchairs for the little ones. Faux Tiffany hanging lamps, pulley-drawn fans and old movie-star photos furnish some visual diversion. If the kids get on your nerves, you can always send them off to the gift shop or video arcade.

But that probably won't be necessary. They'll be just as fascinated as you are by the centerpiece of the Organ Stop Pizza experience--the Mighty Wurlitzer Organ.

This massive instrument will take your breath away. Originally built in 1927 to provide silent-movie musical accompaniment, it's been lovingly restored and enlarged. Governed by 276 keys and 675 stops, the more than 5,000 pipes range from the size of a pencil to 32-foot, one-ton monsters. The organ requires four huge turbine blowers to generate the wind it needs to produce sound. (Too bad it can't tap into the Arizona Legislature.)

Showtime begins nightly at 5:30, when the organ rises into view on a hydraulic rotating stage. One of the four accomplished house organists sits at the controls. Amid flashing lights, he brings forth some mighty chords, and you'll be dazzled by the sounds of xylophones, drums, pianos, chimes, cymbals and dozens of other musical effects that surround you. During a typical set, you might hear Scott Joplin, patriotic marches and old-time favorites that, under other circumstances, your kids wouldn't tolerate for five seconds. Mine were particularly mesmerized by a memorable rendition of "Amazing Grace," which sounded like it was being played by a hundred bagpipes.

In between sets, you and the family can give your full attention to dinner. It's basic Italian-American stuff--pizza, pasta, sandwiches and a salad bar. While no one will confuse Organ Stop Pizza with Pizzeria Bianco or Franco's Trattoria, the fare here is reasonably palatable. And, just as important this time of year, it's extremely budget-friendly.

You order just inside the entrance, and, after you pay, you'll receive a number. Head on upstairs and get seats in the balcony, where the view is best. You'll notice several big, electronic number boards hanging from the walls. When your number is lighted, send the kids back down to pick up the food.

If you're counting either pennies or calories, there's no need to bother with the fried combo appetizer plate. You've seen these battered, oily, out-of-the-freezer-bag mozzarella sticks, mushrooms and zucchini before. If you're looking for a pre-pizza nibble, go for the soup instead. The hearty split pea and ham soup we had was one-fifth the combo price, and five times as good.

Pizza is by far the best dining option, both financially and gastronomically. The crust is thin and a bit crunchy, but not too cardboardlike. Cheese and toppings are generously piled on. A two-item, 14-inch pizza, enough to feed two or three kids, will set you back $11.29.

Pasta is somewhat less entrancing. Spaghetti comes with four meatballs so rubbery that even my kids gave up. They were also suspicious of the too-sweet tomato sauce. The smallish sub sandwiches certainly won't remind you of what you used to get in the old neighborhood. But the various meats coated with melted cheese should tamp down young hunger pangs until the organ concert starts up again.

The salad bar is a wise, adult-friendly alternative. Don't look for anything out of the ordinary in the tubs--there's nothing here but the usual suspects. But it serves more than a nutritional purpose. Since you're only allowed one trip through the line, you can entertain yourself watching folks attempting to arrange huge, architecturally precarious piles of greenery and fixings on their plates, and trying to make their way back to their tables before the edifices collapse.

Mom and dad can linger over a pitcher of beer or glass of wine, while the kids can be bought off with ice cream cones, sundaes and shakes.

Organ Stop Pizza is as corny as Kansas in August, and just about as wholesome. If you're searching for family values, your search has ended.

MacAlpine's Soda Fountain and Espresso Bar, 2303 North Seventh Street, Phoenix, 252-7282. Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Lunch, Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.

MacAlpine's is just the kind of place where Archie, Jughead and the gang would have hung out, if they had lived in Phoenix. Heck, it's where the gang's parents would have hung out when they were kids.

This neighborhood landmark has been around since 1928. For most of those years, it operated as a mom-and-pop pharmacy, complete with a Formica-topped lunch counter. Then, a few years ago, new owners took over and redesigned the place as a nostalgia-themed drugstore soda fountain. They've done a great job.

Step into MacAlpine's, and you enter a lost world: a time when waitresses could call you "Hon" without fearing a sexual-harassment suit; when you could get two plays for a quarter out of the jukebox; and when the kitchen could automatically assume you wanted your sandwich smeared with mayo.

The Norman Rockwell setting is wonderfully evocative of simpler days. Nestle in one of the dark-wood booths, armed with old-fashioned coat-and-hat trees. Check out MacAlpine's tubs of jelly beans, vintage phone booth and antique Coke, Pepsi and Prince Albert tobacco signs. The antique jukebox is filled with antique 45s. If you haven't heard the "Bunny Hop" and "Chattanooga Choo Choo" in a while, you can make up for lost time.

Sitting at the counter is also fun. How many of today's kids know the joys of enjoying a frosty milk shake while swiveling 'round and 'round on a counter stool?

The menu and prices are rooted as firmly in the past as the decor. Think basic, very basic: sandwiches, hot dogs, hamburgers, soup, chili, ice cream cones, shakes, cakes and pies. Somehow, it all tastes better here. And it doesn't hurt that you'll get change back from a five.

MacAlpine's charm comes from more than its looks. This is a working restaurant, and somebody in the kitchen actually does some cooking. One day's soup special, a homemade vegetable beef, was exceptionally tasty and hearty. "Look at the big honking pieces of meat," exclaimed my kid, as she polished off a bowl. Friday's creamy clam chowder was equally worthy.

The thick bowl of chili, which can be fleshed out with cheese and onion for two bits, brings several hours' worth of sustenance. The homemade egg salad in the egg salad sandwich resembles what you'd make yourself, if you could get yourself to use mayonnaise with abandon. The BLT, ham and cheese and tuna fish offer uncomplicated sandwich pleasure. So did a sandwich special featuring turkey and avocado. And the burger also gets high marks, two juicy patties loaded up with lettuce, tomato and onion.

Put another quarter in the jukebox and stick around for dessert. The homemade chocolate-pecan pie is a knockout, as good as it gets, and the coconut-cream pie isn't far behind. The kids will want to dig into an ice cream soda. Still reluctant to leave? Take advantage of MacAlpine's one concession to modernity, an espresso bar. The cappuccino is first-rate.

To the decor and food mix, add a friendly staff who remembers faces and serves with old-time style and good cheer. MacAlpine's is one place where the kids won't complain that you're living in the past.

Organ Stop Pizza:
99 cents
Submarine sandwich
Cheese pizza (large)
Ice cream (double scoop)

MacAlpine's Soda Fountain and Espresso Bar:
Soup (bowl)
Egg salad sandwich
Chocolate-pecan pie


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