You Don't Know Jack

He speaks from the murky shadows of Booth #55, a man in navy pinstripes with a voice like gravel frying in brown butter. "You wanna know about Jack Durant? I've got stories you won't believe." His hands are neatly manicured; his tie expertly dimpled; there's a felt hat on the seat beside him. He looks like every movie gangster the Warner Brothers ever caught on film: tallish, dark, with chin stubble and pomaded hair. Maxie the Mint. Bugsy the Boob. A dandy from another era who doesn't look the least bit out of place in this dark corner of Durant's, the Phoenix restaurant that time forgot.

"I've been coming here almost since the place opened," the man wheezes through a Tiparillo cloud. He lowers his vodka-tonic and leans forward. "And I know stories about Jack Durant no one has ever heard before."

Yeah. Right. You and a hundred other people, pal. Everyone here tonight -- the untucked trio of businessmen at the next table, the twentysomethings giggling over their cosmos, that old guy and his "niece" in the corner -- would likely say the same. They've all heard about Jack Durant, the late, some-would-say-great founder of this restaurant that's more than a restaurant; this time-warped, velvet-flocked chophouse where murders have been planned and where Minnie Pearl has been dissed right to her face. They've heard Durant was a hit man, a small-time gangster turned restaurateur; a pimp and a gambler and a drunk who liked dogs better than he liked people.

Whoever he was, Jack Durant left behind a reminder of Phoenix at its most glamorous and corrupt, an eccentric time capsule that's survived 50-plus years and barely budged an inch in its approach to fine dining. There are chicer places to eat; hipper places to be seen. But people come to Durant's at various times of the day for the same reason they fly across the continent to eat Christmas dinner with parents they barely know anymore: because it's good to check in on your roots. Because the food is good. Because you can.

A favorite of local power brokers, lawyers, journalists and theater types since it opened in 1950, Durant's steaks-and-whiskey ambiance says "Phoenix" like no place else. Locals like to talk about how Jack Durant, who died in 1987, was a former gangster who left his house and an annual allowance of $50,000 to his pet English bulldog, Humble. They talk about the Jack Durant who married a movie star; the Jack whose money helped build Good Samaritan Hospital; the foul-mouthed grandpa who boasted that the Don Bolles murder was planned in Durant's lounge; who ridiculed his patrons; and who, for a time in the 1950s, was one of the FBI's Top Ten Most Dangerous Men in Arizona.

Some cast Durant as a bad guy who made good, a local legend whose life inspired a stage play that's set to open in Phoenix this week. The play is set in 1988, one year after Durant's death, and tells his sometimes seedy life story in flashback. The dead-guy-talking-about-himself is an old stage device, and one that's oddly fitting where Durant is concerned, because there are plenty of people who think he's still hanging around the celebrated restaurant that bears his name.

"Well, if he is here," Pinstripes says, glancing around the room, "he's probably laughing his ass off, because we're all still sitting here talking about him."

Outside on Central Avenue, it's the 21st century: Hummers cruise past; a teenaged girl snickers into a cell phone; a woman types steadily into her laptop at the bus stop outside the big pink box that is Durant's. Inside that box, it's Chicago circa 1930, a Damon Runyon novel come to life: tuxedoed waiters circle tuck-and-roll leatherette booths; busboys wipe down shiny black tabletops; and everywhere you look, the restaurant's infamous red flocked wallpaper stares back. The staff in recent years has hooched the place up with fresh flowers and paintings of Jack Durant and his dogs; they even tried white linen tablecloths for a while. But Durant's dark-paneled interior somehow defies change, which is just fine with the thousands of people who pass through its humid kitchen entrance each month. For more than just the cocktail set, its unchanging velveteen walls and curving bar are as much a part of the Phoenix landscape as Camelback Mountain or the Arizona Biltmore.

"When he put that red flocked wallpaper up in 1961 and made it look like a whorehouse, he did it because he thought that was elegance," Pinstripes is saying. "You gotta remember that this guy's aesthetic was formed in casinos and cathouses, my friend."

The man in the pinstripes isn't Maxie the Mint or Bugsy the Boob. He's not a gangster at all, although he's played one or two on the stage. Local leading man John Sankovich visits Durant's so often, it's named a table after him. Seated at his namesake, puffing on an umpteenth after-dinner cigarette, Sankovich holds court without even trying. Waiters wink as they pass; a fellow actor stops by to gush about Sankovich's recent performance in Art; the bartender sends over a break-a-leg brandy and warm holiday wishes. Sankovich isn't playing Jack Durant in Terry Earp's play, partly because he's an Equity actor and Earp's show is strictly non-union, and partly because no one asked him to. But Sankovich probably could have played Durant without a script; he's covered in stories about the guy.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela