Seen from the street, the Valley's most fabled restaurant doesn't look like much, just a boxy, Pepto Bismol-colored building badly in need of a paint job. The only decoration is the sad-looking awning over the front door, an entrance that doesn't get used much, anyway. On the roof is the '60s-style sign--a series of seven yellow, plastic boxes that spell out the name of the place, one letter to a box. Pull into the parking lot behind the Central Avenue steak house, and the view declines appreciably. Over the ramshackle service porch that serves as the restaurant's main entrance is a weather-beaten placard bearing the credo of the eatery's colorful founder. The sign reads: "In my humble opinion, Durant's is the finest eating and drinking establishment in the world"--Jack Durant.

Welcome to Durant's, the Valley institution that once prompted a local food critic to comment, "Without prior exposure, the first visit to a landmark [of this kind] can seem like an elaborate practical joke"--a culinary museum piece that prompts the uninitiated to wonder, "You really like this?" For hundreds of thousands of devoted customers who've traipsed through the restaurant's back door--the cognoscenti's entrance of choice, probably because it involves a homey, if hellishly hot, schlep through a Dante's Inferno of a kitchen--the answer is an unqualified "Yes." A favorite of local power brokers, lawyers, journalists and sports figures since former Las Vegas pit boss Durant opened it for business in 1950, the place is simply like no other restaurant around. The tuxedoed staff has been there since relish trays were still in style, and the guests, most of them regulars, continue to slather Saltines with iced butter like they've never heard of health. This is the restaurant that Heart Smart forgot, the place Phoenix goes to eat steaks, caesar salads and stuffed celery. The place where a waiter of 16 years' tenure explains, "I'm still in training." The place where diners squint at the booth across the room and realize, yes, that really is Charles Barkley, Robert Mitchum or Russ Meyer. The place where people celebrate job promotions and Grandma's birthday or hold an opening-night cast party for a local theatre production and watch everyone pretend they're at Sardi's.

Several years ago, one of this newspaper's writers paid the restaurant what may be the ultimate compliment. He told readers he could think of no better place from which to monitor the end of the world than the TV in Durant's bar.

For fans of this downtown bastion of beef 'n' booze, Armageddon of an only slightly less earthshaking variety is fast approaching. Citing the need to update the physical facility and broaden the restaurant's customer base, Durant's management last week confirmed rumors that the restaurant was gearing up for a major face-lift.

Sometime in August or early September, customers will march through the kitchen for the last time. With a slick new food-preparation area on line to open in October, the old walk-through blast furnace will be demolished to make way for a private banquet room. In addition, the interior decor will undergo a variety of nips and tucks. The existing rest rooms--barely larger than those on an airplane--will be razed, and new wheelchair-accessible lavatories will be built at the back of the restaurant. The pop-art-like cigarette machine will be replaced by wine racks. To facilitate working lunches, the dim lighting will be goosed several notches during daytime dining. The condiment-jammed bus stations will be modernized. And though the restaurant will retain the throbbing red interior that reminds many guests of the bloodstream sequences from Fantastic Voyage, the scruffy flocked wallpaper and carpet are being replaced.

The restaurant is also updating its menu, a bill of fare so frozen in time that a fried-zucchini appetizer represents one of its few concessions to any food trend of the past 25 years. By fall, a startling array of culinary Johnny-come-latelies will join the eatery's retro roster of chicken livers, sweetbreads and apple brown Betty. Although exact dishes have yet to be determined, expect to see things like Cajun blackened swordfish, fresh fruit salsa and angel-hair pasta. Have room for dessert? How about an order of something called Sex in the Pan?

Heimlich maneuver, anyone?
Upon learning of the restaurant's renovation plans last week, many of its devotees couldn't have been more surprised had former governor Rose Mofford, another local institution, swapped her trademark beehive hairdo for a pixy cut. Predictably, reaction to the news ranged from civic outrage to something approaching personal betrayal. "There's so much change in the world, the last thing you want to change is something like Durant's," says Valley media-ite Jana Bommersbach. One of Durant's biggest boosters, Bommersbach has been holding election-night vigils at Durant's since the Seventies, and, in a recent Arizona Republic article, identified the spot as her favorite eatery in town. "This is a venerable Phoenix institution that is near and dear to the hearts of most of the citizenry," she says. "There is no reason to change Durant's."