Cafe Reviews

The Duce Defies Your Preconceived Notions of Downtown Phoenix

Where am I again?

To set foot in The Duce — a quirky mix of retail and dining in a cavernous, circa 1928 brick warehouse at Central and Lincoln south of downtown — is to experience a delighted sort of bewilderment, as if you'd stumbled into a funhouse-meets-time-machine, or at least somewhere very, very far from Phoenix.

Part all-American diner, part old-timey cocktail joint, and part soda fountain — not to mention boxing ring, clothing shop, and antiques dealer — it's an alternate vision of what a downtown hangout should be. And named after the neighborhood's old moniker, The Deuce, it references the gritty decades before revitalization became a buzzword.

Truly, The Duce is unexpected. For one thing, people don't take advantage of historic properties here the way they do in some cities, where preserved buildings bring unique character to the urban fabric.

The proposed entertainment district in this part of town — in the orbit of the arena and the ballpark — never materialized, and the city's set its sights instead on a very different vision, one embodied by the contemporary architecture and pristine walkways of CityScape, just a few blocks north of here.

And yet, here it is — a spot that pretty much defies what you think you might imagine about the downtown Phoenix experience.

The Duce is the brainchild of two Chicago transplants, husband-and-wife team Steve and Andi Rosenstein, who sold their vintage-inspired Fitigues clothing empire in 2006. In the meantime, they rounded up so many antiques that the dudes from American Pickers would drool if they saw the treasure trove in here. A highlight is the exquisite wood-and-glass Art Deco bar, plucked from a legendary Chicago jazz club called The Black Orchid. You can feel the history just oozing from it, as you sip a Cuba Libre and lean into its smooth wooden surfaces. It's oddly glamorous.

While The Duce's streetside façade is fortress-like (it was stripped to reveal original signage from the days when the building housed a metal forgery and bus body builder), the two rear entrances are huge and open — one reveals an incredible patio stocked with vintage bar seats, a gleaming silver Streamline trailer that serves as the restaurant's kitchen, antique soda coolers, and a cheerful Hamm's Beer bear statue holding a tray.

The other doorway leads to a retail space filled with racks of military surplus clothing and sportswear, vintage bicycles, soaps and lotions, antique kitchen accessories and ceramics, another impressive Art Deco bar, old bleachers, and a retro soda fountain. Just past the honest-to-goodness boxing ring at the far end (where you might see real action some nights of the week), there's another entrance to the dining area, which is filled with communal tables and heat lamps.

By day, the surreal quality of The Duce seems exaggerated, if only because it's largely deserted. The stereo blasts everything from Aerosmith's "Dude Looks Like a Lady" to Elvis' "Love Me Tender," and one lone bartender will take your lunch order. There might be a handful of other people eating here, but in general, it feels like a place that time forgot. It's a novelty that makes you wonder how it can exist and whether it will survive.

But things do rev up in the evening. There could be a DJ spinning an eclectic mix of oldies, and young dudes might be working up a sweat in the boxing ring. Twenty-somethings crowd around the bar for classic cocktails (think Moscow Mules or Greyhounds, served in Mason jars) or working-class beers like Schlitz or Pabst Blue Ribbon, while middle-aged couples with kids in tow gather around linoleum-covered communal tables scattered with baskets of ribs, rolls of paper towels, and bottles of sugary, old-fashioned soda pop. Conveniently, there's a bunch of Hula Hoops on hand for kids (or adults, for that matter) to work off some steam.

And amazingly, despite the free-for-all atmosphere, the food is pretty decent. Sliders make up the biggest part of the menu, and I gobbled up all of them. The tuna salad and egg salad were both classic, homey versions done up with mayonnaise — about what I'd expect, given the emphasis on Americana here. Juicy chicken sausage, simmered in PBR and then grilled, had a tasty bit of char, while meatballs soaked in marinara were plump and tender. Smoky, melt-in-your-mouth brisket sliders were my favorite.

Although I wasn't keen on the pear and pecan salad — somehow, the lettuce lacked a satisfying crispness, like it had wilted a bit — I was more than content with a brown paper bag full of "organic potato crisps" (basically, homemade potato chips), and a side of baked beans.

Simply a naked hot dog in a poppy seed bun, the Chicago-style dog disappointed me at first. Apparently, it was do-it-yourself, with relish, tomato, pickle, onions, ketchup, and mustard at a station by the kitchen, so I went back and piled on all kinds of goodies. Not bad, after all. I longed for a pile of crispy fries, but for some reason, they're not on the menu.

Maple-roasted baby back ribs, served in a wooden fruit basket with a cup of warm maple glaze, were easier to love because of the instant gratification — each bite was meaty, tender, and sweetly caramelized.

All-day breakfast was decent, especially the generous portion of baked French toast, thick slices of sweet, crisp bread topped with candied pecans and maple syrup. A mini-skillet of scrambled eggs, goat cheese, tomato, and avocado was also filling, although I found myself longing for something else this time: breakfast potatoes. How about some hash browns or home fries to go with the eggs? You can get a side of bacon or toast, but not the essential starch of the morning. Hmm.

This is no ordinary restaurant, obviously. Here, it's up to you to find a seat, make your way to the bar to order food, and listen up for someone to announce that your order's ready for pickup at the trailer. Oh, yeah — get your own silverware and drinks, too. Eating here is a like going for a picnic in the urban jungle.

Are you up for an adventure? If so, don't miss The Duce.