Lost Brunch

Legendary as it is, the Sunday brunch at El Chorro Lodge has never come close to the culinary excess of the Valley's more sumptuous spreads. Gluttonous brunchers looking for piles of boiled shrimp, roast beef carving stations and elaborate dessert buffets lavishly displayed around six-foot ice swans have always had to sate their appetites elsewhere.

In fact, with the possible exception of El Chorro's trademark sticky buns, the well-heeled throngs who've kept the historic Lincoln Drive patio restaurant bustling for nearly a half-century of Sundays have been lured by attractions that have nothing to do with the restaurant's kitchen. El Chorro's non-food delicacies include spectacular desert views of nearby Camelback and Mummy mountains, creosote-scented breezes and great people watching--in short, a mecca for anyone in the mood for mimosas, eggs Benedict and a heaping helping of the finest examples of cosmetic surgery Paradise Valley has to offer.

Although the restaurant continues to be open all week long for dinner and weekday lunches, many regulars wouldn't dream of showing up anytime but Sunday morning. "It was the place to be," says professional social butterfly Danny Medina, publisher of Trends, a Scottsdale society tabloid. "I think they were serving brunch before anyone had heard that term in Arizona."

Ironically, the 61-year-old restaurant that put Sunday brunch on the local menu is no longer serving that meal. So disappointed regulars discovered when they attempted to make reservations on a recent Sunday--one of the first of the "season"--only to learn that the brunch had been discontinued last June.

"It was a management decision," says Deby Caraway, El Chorro office manager. "Basically, when we were open seven days a week [during the day], it just wasn't profitable for us. Everything went into labor costs. . . . You had to have the staff; everybody's on overtime, and it's just a lot of money."

Caraway, who claims that on an average Sunday the restaurant played host to between 500 and 800 brunchers, says response to the lost brunch has been "shock and dismay."

"It was a tough decision to make, but it had to be done."
That decision strikes some local restaurant observers as half-baked--if not a recipe for disaster.

Longtime Valley food writer Elin Jeffords is baffled by the restaurant's claim that the brunch--"one of the closest things we've got left to a Valley tradition"--is suddenly no longer profitable.

"What has changed?" wonders Jeffords. "If you've got a place where you're turning away customers and you still can't make a profit, then it's a business problem--and you fix it. Right now there's so much scrambling for the restaurant buck that if you had something that had been a winner, you by-God find a way to keep it a winner."

Howard Seftel, New Times restaurant reviewer, echoes Jefford's sentiments. "Maybe the proprietors don't want to be there [on Sundays] or they have enough money that they don't need the aggravation. But if you've got 800 people coming through your doors, and you're serious about making money, you'll find a way to do it."

El Chorro's brunch shutdown is the latest shakeup to hit the historic restaurant in recent years. In 1994, owner Joe Miller nearly lost the property in a bank foreclosure after he and six partners put the lodge up as collateral for a $2.6 million loan for a land investment that fell through. However, the crisis was averted when Miller sold off other property he owned. (Miller did not return New Times' calls about the discontinued brunch.)

Asked whether there's any chance brunch will be reinstated, El Chorro's Deby Caraway answers, "You never know. Who could have guessed that we'd ever have had to [discontinue] it?"

Contact Dewey Webb at his online address: dwebb

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Dewey Webb