There would typically be a local judge present, as well as punk rockers, a weekend television weather man, an openly gay minister, a longtime Cubs fan who swore up and down that hummingbirds had no legs, my mother, my aunt, and our “family” on Thanksgiving day at a midtown sandwich shop called Easy Street in the late '80s and early '90s. The restaurant belonged to my mother, Diana Lowrey (then Reardon), and my aunt, Julie Goggin, and it was a social hub and gathering spot for our extended family, both blood-related and chosen, for almost 20 years.
The always quirky and wonderfully welcoming Easy Street Sandwich and Oyster Bar was a restaurant at 2407 East Osborn Road in Phoenix. It existed from somewhere around 1977 to 1995. Now, the space where the little sandwich shop once stood, right around the corner from where All the King’s Flags has been for about the last 30 years, is a hair salon called Daviana.
I wonder if the current owners have any idea of the history behind their spot?
My family got involved with Easy Street when my great-aunt, Lois McNair, bought the restaurant in the late 1970s after a career at IBM. She didn't know what she was getting herself into, and shortly after purchasing Easy Street, she enlisted the help of her niece, my aunt Julie, who had worked in restaurants before, including the wonderful Candy Kitchen in Jerome, which longtime Arizonans may remember. Aunt Julie got things going, and before long, customers began to become regulars, many of whom who had local businesses around the area or just loved a good sandwich.
Easy Street had a fairly simple menu. In those days, it was still an oyster bar, although there weren’t a lot of customers who came in for the oysters, which were fresh and popped open by my aunts when they were ordered. It was the sandwiches and soup that brought the customers back for more, though, including longtime regulars, artists Bob Boze Bell and Ed Mell.
In addition to Bell and Mell, officials from the nearby Creighton school district and Larry C. Kennedy Elementary School dropped by, as did the aforementioned TV weatherman (and esteemed journalist) Jay DeDapper, who was a daily visitor until he moved to New York City to work for WABC-TV in 1992. It was not uncommon for DeDapper to help out with taking orders or carrying out plates when things got really busy, and none of the Easy Street regulars were immune from being asked to help out if the situation called for it.
Easy Street had a large gay clientele, and many of our regulars are no longer alive, due to the AIDS epidemic that was prevalent in Phoenix in those days. I see pictures of the familiar faces and think about the laughs we shared and the sadness I felt as my friends and adopted family lost friends and partners all too often, including several of the young men my mom and aunt adopted into our own family over the years. The restaurant was a haven for all walks of life, and I know we’re all very proud of this when we look back at the experience.
It opened my eyes, as a young man, to know that people are just people, regardless of their job, their skin color, or who they like to have sex with (or in some cases, who they just like to look at the most). For me, after a while, it was much more interesting to learn about people’s sandwich preference than it was to know who they were dating, and when I picked up the phone to take a to-go order or saw a familiar car pulling up out front in one of the coveted spaces along Osborn Road, I knew what kind of sandwich I would soon be making.
As mentioned, the menu was pretty straightforward. All the basic sandwiches were available, and bread was delivered daily from Barb’s Bakery (still in business, although not owned by “Barb” anymore. Barb Sherman was a trip, by the way; great baker, but no nonsense was probably ever allowed in her presence) on North 24th Street, about a half mile south of where Easy Street used to be, except the pita bread, which came from the Middle Eastern Bakery on North 16th Street, across from Rips Fine Ales. Middle Eastern Bakery is also still there and still makes delicious pita bread.
The signature sandwich, the Easy Street, was ham, turkey, baby shrimp, and avocado. For myself, though, the sandwich to beat all sandwiches was the turkey, bacon, and avocado, preferably on some of Barb’s fresh pumpernickel bread. The TBA, as we called it, was by far the most popular sandwich on the menu, which also featured tuna sandwiches, as well as ham, turkey, roast beef, an avocado, cucumber, and cream cheese combination (that was also delicious), toasted cheese and jalapeno, and a variety of salads and soups, too.
In the summer time, probably from about 1980 on, myself and my cousin Ben Sanchez (Aunt Julie’s son) would work at Easy Street carrying out plates, taking out the garbage, and bussing tables. I believe we started at roughly a dollar or so an hour, which was good money for child labor in those days. We got to know the regular customers, of which there were many, and, at least for me, I could put the money I made in the summers to good use.
One summer, I made enough to buy a black Schwinn beach cruiser that I still own and occasionally ride to this day, and another summer, I made enough to buy two huge bags full of fireworks that I bought when my dad and I had taken a cross-country trip in 1981. I was the most popular kid around my apartment complex for months after that, but I was also learning the value of a dollar and the importance of working that many of my friends wouldn’t learn for years to come.
In those early days, Cup Bell, who died years ago, took orders and ran the register. Cup was my grandparents' next door neighbor and one of the most endearing and unique individuals you would have ever gotten the chance to meet. She swore hummingbirds had no feet because she had never seen one land anywhere, so surely, they must not have been able to do so, right? She loved her Cubs, though, and if there is a heaven, she’s still celebrating up there with Harry Caray and her beloved husband, Gerry. After Cup retired, I got the chance to work the counter full-time.
During my time at the counter, I had the privilege of taking the orders of many very cool people, including Al McCoy and Kevin Johnson of the Phoenix Suns. McCoy was a wonderful customer who came in a few times over the years, and even though Johnson only came in once, it was really cool to see him up close to get the full appreciation of what he did on the basketball court. There is no way that guy is over 6 feet tall.
As I grew older, my responsibilities at Easy Street grew. Aunt Lois eventually sold the restaurant to my mom, Diana, and Aunt Julie, and during high school, I began working every Saturday with my mom or aunt depending on who had the weekend off. I learned all aspects of the restaurant business and paid my dues doing dishes, prepping everything for each day (oh, the joy of slicing blocks of cheese on a commercial slicer), and eventually fixing sandwiches and baking the desserts. I even made soup a few times, although my soup was never anywhere as good as my aunt’s or my mother’s. I did manage to get pretty good at making cold soups in the summer time, though, with gazpacho and cantaloupe soups becoming a specialty.
When I was in college, first at Phoenix College, and later at Arizona State University, I began working at Easy Street full time and eventually worked Saturdays by myself. The restaurant was the social center for that side of my family and many of our regulars became adopted members of the family as well. I am always reminded of Easy Street at Thanksgiving time because we would often have Thanksgiving dinner, in the late 80’s and early 90’s at the restaurant, inviting a mix of family, friends, and regular customers who might not have a place to go otherwise.
It closed in 1995, but I still miss it.
There are still many of those great neighborhood joints around town, and lucky for us, we can still share in their continued history. This is the first in a series of profiles of longtime Valley restaurants.