Death of a Diner

2 EGGS 2 PANCAKES 2 PC. BACON or SAUSAGE $2.95 reads the colorfully hand-scribed sign in the front window of the 42-year-old diner. A few feet to the east, on the darkened marquee of the languishing motel sign, it says, "Your home away from home restaurant will close Aug. 15."

Under the smoke-stained cottage-cheese ceiling and hanging wrought-iron lamps is the overwhelming bouquet of gravy.

Along the counter, a few bowls of soup are manned by loll-backed customers.

In one of the beige-toned booths, a man sits with a bottle of Budweiser and a plate of half-eaten French fries, watching three whores meander along a dim section of Van Buren.

The dinner menu offers such traditional staples as homemade pie, liver and onions, hot breaded veal cutlet sandwiches and Miller High Life beer.

The waitresses could be named Marge.

The scene is one that time forgot -- until recently.

Built in 1957, the Desert Rose motel and diner have changed ownership numerous times. Jim Novak has owned the restaurant for 20 years. Last month, the city shut down the motel to make way for a rehab center.

And this is the last Thursday night a cup of coffee can be had in the Desert Rose diner on Van Buren near 32nd Street.

"It's depressing for me," Novak says. "I have been here since 1979. I didn't want to leave, the help didn't want to leave, but it comes to a point where we didn't have a choice."

Not long after signing a five-year extension, Novak recently gave up his lease to his landlords.

Then, upon learning that there were two businesses on the same property, the city came in and offered Novak relocation money for his diner.

"The city has been very cooperative. You know what it would be like to run a restaurant in a homeless shelter?" he says. "My odds for success would not [have been] good. They paid me off, or whatever you want to call it, but the deal was fair."

The diner relies heavily on foot traffic, those business people who work in the area and those who live nearby.

Last Friday morning, a regular group from the Gateway Center had its last breakfast meeting at the Desert Rose. The circle had been forming here each Friday morning for 12 years. Tears flowed when some of the people left -- as if there had been a death in the family.

It is a death of sorts.

Novak says business had improved in the past few years. In the winter, he had been averaging between 7,000 and 8,000 patrons a month. In July, he says, the restaurant served 5,800 meals. Not bad for a mom-and-pop restaurant located on one of the city's most dispossessed streets.

"But like I used to tell my wife, we'd do the breakfast special for three dollars each, it takes 100 people to make $300 out of this place."

Novak purchased the diner after relocating here from Chicago. In the late Seventies, Van Buren still attracted thick-walleted snowbirds. And Novak's biggest asset was tourism -- Midwesterners and Canadians who had been calling Phoenix their winter home for years.

"When we first opened in '79, we still dealt with tourists," he recalls. "And a lot of them were retired, so-called wealthy people who came here on Van Buren. They spent money, and we got to be friends with them. Everybody knew everybody through the years. I knew customers' kids and grandkids and everything else.

"Now the tourists that used to come here are going out to Apache Junction, Cottonwood and all the smaller towns. Tourists from back East don't want to come to a big city."

The Desert Rose was remarkable in that it had survived much corporate cloning, which has turned the face of Phoenix into a generic wash of retail chains and sterile eateries. The motel and diner offered a connection to the city's former self -- cheap entrees, quaint service and inner-city strife notwithstanding.

There are very few of these places left that can uphold any sort of heritage.

Recently, a filmmaker approached Novak with interest in using his diner to shoot scenes for a movie with a Fifties motif.

"I had to tell that guy, 'Sorry, we won't be here.'"

Novak's secret to survival is as antiquated as the diner he just lost. He says success comes from building a base with the neighborhood, establishing personal contact with the people while eschewing all things corporate.

"Who wants a bunch of managers running around that don't care who you are or what you are doing?" he says with a laugh. "And we always had the so-called hooker problem. But I don't have a problem dealing with people in this area. I enjoy it."

Novak says the restaurant will become a commissary for the rehab center, and the old upper-deck lounge will become a meeting room. The motel will serve as the center's living quarters.

Novak says he wants to remain in the area and open a similar restaurant, one in a building he actually owns.

"The real estate agents are crawling through the woodwork trying to sell me restaurants, but I'd like to stay here, right in this area," he says. "This next time I want to own my own property so nobody can throw me out."

One ivory-haired man named Richard says he has come to the Desert Rose nearly every day for seven years. He says he lives alone, is without a car, and has come to depend on this place, not only for nourishment, but also as a social outlet.

"Yeah, one more place down the tubes," he says. "Where can I walk to now? Denny's? That's a laugh."