"Oh, that?" quipped the valet parking attendant, pointing toward what turned out to be a plumbing excavation. "They're installing either a wine cellar or a live lobster tank."
Based on the dizzying array of "improvements" that has swept the steak house in recent months, it took a minute for the pair to realize the employee was kidding. Had the employee jokingly announced plans for a drive-through window and carhop service, neither customer would have been too surprised.
Which is in itself pretty surprising. The Eisenhower-era eatery's biggest strength has always been its complete lack of surprises. Except for the amount of the check, an evening of red meat and martinis at Durant's is still pretty much the same as it was back in 1965--and you might even wind up with the same waiter or waitress.
But as a result of a second-generation owner's apparent desire to give the restaurant his personal stamp, the Central Avenue time warp now finds itself in the throes of the most tumultuous period in its long history. And since new management was brought in three months ago, the restaurant has seen more changes than it did in all the years since late founders Jack Durant and Jack McElroy opened for business in 1950. Longtime regulars and veteran employees--many of whom resigned en masse in protest--fear that the onetime landmark has lost its soul.
The Valley first caught wind of the turnabout last May, when New Times revealed absentee owner Jack McElroy's (the son of Jack Durant's partner) plans to drastically overhaul the restaurant with a remodeling job that would have meant the end of Durant's famous walk-through kitchen. Proposed changes also included revamping the meat-and-potatoes menu with such frou-frou additions as parchment-poached halibut, mango salsa and an espresso bar.
Bowing to public pressure (as well as the financial burden of funding the rehab), McElroy scrapped those plans, opting instead for a puzzling series of newspaper ads alternately characterizing the restaurant as "tacky and unrefined" and "the same as it ever was."
Former employee Betty Bailey laughs bitterly. "The same as it ever was? Not anymore, it isn't."
A Durant's employee for 22 years, Bailey was one of eight waitresses who quit on July 14, a mass exodus triggered by the resignation of Durant's longtime daytime hostess the previous day. Since then, say insiders, a number of other employees have also walked off the job or been fired.
"That new manager drove us crazy with the constant changes," says Bailey. "The menu changed from day to day; no one could keep track of it. And every time we came in, there was a new way to do something." Bailey says, sighing. "The place was always packed. How do you improve on that? It was change simply for the sake of change. These things they were asking us to do now haven't improved anything."
Even the most oblivious regular can't help but notice that the place is in a state of perpetual--and apparently pointless--flux. The complimentary relish trays have vanished. The chopped shrimp cocktail has been reconfigured. And not even the butter dish has escaped: In recent visits, those iced pats have gone through nearly as many transformations as Gumby, alternately showing up as butter balls or as a frozen slab.
And unless diners are precognitive enough to request tableside preparation, Durant's signature caesar salad is now tossed in the kitchen--which, judging from the new recipe now being used, is exactly where it should stay.
Asked why the restaurant has tampered with one of its most famous dishes, the new general manager offers a bewildering explanation. "To [prepare a caesar salad] tableside in any restaurant takes away from the service, and when you don't have the proper tools to do the job, it makes it very difficult," says Bruce Erony, who has been overseeing operations since July. "In this case, not only were we taking away from service, but we didn't have the tools to do the job."
That reply is enough to make at least one former employee's blood boil. "They have a caesar cart and they've used it for 45 years--that's why people order it. What's the problem?"
So says ex-daytime hostess B.J. Thompson, who ended her ten-year stint at the restaurant in July after being called on the carpet for (among other things) being "too friendly" with staff and guests.
"[Jack] Durant set out a plan, and it worked," says Thompson. "For years, I heard nothing but compliments from the customers. So here comes [the new manager] and I'm suddenly getting complaints on the service, the food, people wondering what's going on. Two weeks after he got here, the morale was shot to nothing. Everything that he's been undoing has been done for 45 years in a restaurant that's a gold mine. I just felt that this was something I no longer wanted to be part of. It breaks my heart--but the place just isn't the same."
Former waitress Patty Goetz sadly agrees. "When I first got that job at Durant's, I was ecstatic," says Goetz, who spent three years trying to land the prestige spot. "It was the place to work, and I was thrilled to be working there." Lately, though, says Goetz, "it got to the point where it was getting hard to come to work. We were not allowed to speak to each other on the floor, we couldn't play the radio and bop around the kitchen. They couldn't even decide on petty things, like how they wanted us to put the salt and pepper on the table."
Although none of the former waitresses ever figured out what was behind all the changes (some theorize that McElroy might be working out "a resentment thing" against his father), all agree that the top brass shed no tears when the reminders of the old regime shoved off.
"All of us old ladies got the feeling that we were going to be phased out because the restaurant wanted a new look, a younger crowd," reports one ex-employee who requests anonymity. "We were told that the old customers were not valuable anymore, that they were dying off. I thought to myself, 'But those people have friends, relatives, children.' A lot of families have been coming here for generations, and they were telling us that it just wasn't the same."
The member of one such family expects that her clan will be severely curtailing its sentimental journeys to Durant's.
"We'd always been a big Durant's family," says longtime customer Patti Tucker, explaining how her father proposed to her mother at the restaurant back when it was still known as Wayne's Midway Inn. "Now it's the only place my Dad will eat." Or at least it was until the family had a multigenerational dinner there a few weeks ago. "The waiter we'd had forever was quitting that night, there were no radishes in the relish tray and the prices seemed to have gone through the roof," recalls Tucker. "It was very different than it used to be. I don't know that we'll be back soon."
But owner Jack McElroy maintains that "we've really had very few people voice any concern" over issues like kitchen-tossed caesar salads, butter presentation and MIA employees.
"There are certain things we're going to try that we'll probably just have to say, 'Well, this isn't what we really want to do' and back off on it," explains McElroy. "There are other things we're going to look at and say, 'This is to provide a better service and a better quality product.' Some of it will work and some of it won't." Equally philosophical about the mass walkout among his staff, McElroy says, "Any time you change the management for any reason, there's going to be dissatisfaction."
Meanwhile, local industry observers scratch their collective head.
"Durant's is--or was--what you dream about when you get into the restaurant business," says New Times restaurant reviewer Howard Seftel. "Your place is presold. You have a clientele that doesn't even think about where they're going. They're coming to you. You have to actively alienate them to make them go away. Yet this appears to be exactly what restaurant management is trying to do. Frankly, I don't get it."
Neither does longtime Valley food writer and restaurant consultant Elin Jeffords.
"This defies common sense," says Jeffords, who nevertheless offers some free words of wisdom. "If this guy honestly believes that the place doesn't work as Durant's anymore, my advice to him is to just start over. Close the doors. Redo the place inside and out. Rename it McElroy's. And see what happens.