Cover Story

21 Bygone Restaurants in Greater Phoenix: Then and Now

21 Bygone Restaurants in Greater Phoenix: Then and Now
Daniel Guidera
Though essentially gone, reminders linger everywhere. The My Florist sign on McDowell Road, stories of purse stools at Mary Elaine’s, and what the Obamas ordered at the old stair-step Macayo’s. The Phoenix area has had some fascinating restaurants.

Don & Charlie’s and Pink Pony fed famous athletes for decades. Designer Glen Guyett made Valley eateries legendary for iconic signs like the one outside Bill Johnson’s Big Apple. The first McDonald’s franchise put up the chain’s first golden arches in central Phoenix.

Their past is part of our present.

“Food is such a connector for so many things,” says the “hip historian,” Marshall Shore, who helped us with this project. “If you have a celebration, you go to a restaurant, and you start developing histories with those restaurants.”

For many, those moments live on in memory. But we could all use a refresh.

Here’s a look at 21 favorite Valley restaurants (slide left or right to see the entire image) that have closed, and what those same spots look like now.

click to enlarge Then, Beef Eaters. - BIG FISH CREATIVE GROUP
Then, Beef Eaters.
Big Fish Creative Group

Beef Eaters / Southern Rail

300 West Camelback Road

Beef Eaters was a British-themed restaurant, and the dining room certainly looked the part with its chandeliers, white tablecloths, wood-paneled walls, and suit of armor. The menu listed steak, seafood, and the like. Founder Jay Newton built the place in 1961, referring to it as “everything I ever dreamt of in a great restaurant.” And, according to Shore, this used to be a haunt of Rose Mofford — Arizona’s first female governor.

The classic Phoenix restaurant closed in 2006, after 45 years of operation, and sat vacant for seven years — giant sign and all. The area was revamped in 2013 as The Newton, and chef Justin Beckett’s second concept, Southern Rail, now occupies the spot.

click to enlarge Bill Johnson's is now a busy parking lot. - CHARLES BARTH
Bill Johnson's is now a busy parking lot.
Charles Barth

Bill Johnson’s Big Apple / Parking lot

3757 East Van Buren Street

Opened in 1956, Bill Johnson’s Big Apple was a themed restaurant on Van Buren Street. The family-run eatery was the type of place with sawdust on the floor and a menu of chuckwagon-style selections. Johnson was a cowboy actor, stuntman, and radio personality who had broadcast his show from the restaurant, with guests including Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings.

But that’s not what everyone remembers — it’s more the large sign reading “Let’s Eat” in glowing neon. “They were known for this humongous sign right on Van Buren. It went up at a time when signage was huge, when you had to have a bigger, bolder, brighter sign than your next-door neighbor to attract more attention,” Shore says. “I think he spent as much money on that sign as he did on the building.”

Bill Johnson’s Big Apple grew into a small Phoenix chain, but the company filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2014, losing its locations in Mesa and north Phoenix. Finally, the original location closed in 2015. The site was sold to Gateway Community College, and is now a parking lot and busy thoroughfare for strolling college students and pedestrians.

The Arizona Vintage Sign Coalition tried to preserve the sign when the restaurant was demolished, but sadly, that didn’t happen. Now it’s part of a large collection of memorabilia at Raceway Bar and Grill in Maricopa.

click to enlarge Then, Cowboy Ciao. - LAUREN CUSIMANO
Then, Cowboy Ciao.
Lauren Cusimano

Cowboy Ciao / Drunk Munk

7133 East Stetson Drive, #1, Scottsdale

Cowboy Ciao was a baby of Old Town Scottsdale, sitting on the northeast corner of Stetson Drive and Sixth Avenue. It opened in 1997, and inside, the place was Scottsdale to a T — white tablecloths but rustic décor, twinkle lights and saloon-style darkness, well-mannered diners mixed with rowdy spring training fans.

Owner Peter Kasperski closed both his Old Town Scottsdale sites, Cowboy and Kazimierz World Wine Bar, in October 2018 (though Kazimierz Wine & Whiskey Bar opened in 2019). A major testament to Cowboy Ciao’s influence is the Chef Bernie Kantak-created Stetson Chopped Salad — which eventually inspired merchandise and a Facebook fan page. The dish continues to thrive on the adopting menus at Citizen Public House and The Gladly as the Original Chop (and you can find it at the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport mini-location of Cowboy Ciao).

In March 2019, the tiki-themed Drunk Munk opened in its place, serving seafood, sushi, and a whole page of tropical cocktails.

click to enlarge Then, Don & Charlie's. - JACOB TYLER DUNN
Then, Don & Charlie's.
Jacob Tyler Dunn

Don & Charlie’s / Unoccupied

7501 East Camelback Road, Scottsdale

We once called Don & Charlie’s a reliable Old Town chophouse with a bit of a sports obsession. But as of April 2019, the Chicago-style restaurant and rib shack closed its doors after being in operation since 1981. The classic sports tavern thrived in what is now Scottsdale’s entertainment district for 38 years, slowly compiling a collection of sports memorabilia that became its signature.

There were framed jerseys, signed baseballs, trading cards, and the classic restaurant owner move: photos of Don Carson pictured with various sports figures. The place also hummed with servers bringing out orders of Chicago-style fare, beer, and old-school cocktails. Carson wanted to retire, and closed the place this spring. A new hotel is slated for the lot, but it now sits unoccupied.

click to enlarge Now, a closed El Charro Restaurant & Cocktail Lounge. - CHARLES BARTH
Now, a closed El Charro Restaurant & Cocktail Lounge.
Charles Barth

El Charro Restaurant & Cocktail Lounge / Unoccupied

105 North Country Club Drive, Mesa

Not to be confused with the El Charro Cafe in Tucson or El Chorro Restaurant in Paradise Valley, El Charro Restaurant & Cocktail Lounge was a classic in downtown Mesa. The family-operated eatery was a popular and prosperous Mexican restaurant according to the book Our Town: The Story of Mesa, Arizona 1878-1991. And many a former guest would agree.

The popular Florentine Room was all red booths, classic memorabilia, and neon beer signs. Think cold beer, chips and salsa, enchilada platters. The restaurant was orignally El Charro Cafe at 416 West Main Street in the 1940s, then it relocated to open as El Charro Restaurant & Lounge in 1958 at the Country Club Drive spot. Owner Fred Munoz started talking retirement in 2009, and the place closed for its annual summer vacation about three years ago. It never reopened.

The spot is now just an unoccupied El Charro, with a sign at the entrance reading, “CLOSED FOR VACATION OPEN AFTER LABOR DAY.”

click to enlarge The La Piñata spot is now Mariscos El Tiburon Seafood Restaurant. - CHARLES BARTH
The La Piñata spot is now Mariscos El Tiburon Seafood Restaurant.
Charles Barth

La Piñata / Mariscos El Tiburon Seafood Restaurant

3330 North 19th Avenue

If you wanted Sonoran-style Mexican food in the 1970s, you didn’t have to look further than La Piñata. It claimed to be the home of the chimichanga, along with margaritas, chips and salsa, and the other usual fare. La Piñata, like many of the restaurants on this list, was spotted by its absolutely outrageous sign. The hood of the family car shone bright with the neon glow of that big iconic arrow as guests entered the parking lot for dinner.

The restaurant seemed unchanged since the 1970s till it moved. La Piñata has since relocated to Seventh Avenue and Camelback Road, in the former Mary Coyle Ol’ Fashion Ice Cream place. But not to worry, the guiding arrow still remains in front of the new location.

The spot on 19th Avenue is now the under-the-sea-themed Mariscos El Tiburon Seafood Restaurant.

click to enlarge The stair-step Macayo's is now Alta Central apartments. - CHARLES BARTH
The stair-step Macayo's is now Alta Central apartments.
Charles Barth

Macayo’s on Central / Alta Central

4001 North Central Avenue

Macayo’s has a storied past, so let’s briefly recap. Woody and Victoria Johnson’s first establishment was the six-table Woody’s El Nido restaurant on McDowell Road in 1946. Then Woody’s Macayo opened in 1952, and in the late 1970s, the building got its Mayan-looking stair-step addition.

There it stayed, north of Central Avenue and Indian School Road, for years — even serving President Obama and family in 2009. Then the flagship Macayo’s moved across Indianola Avenue and reopened with a Midcentury Modern vibe in 2017 in a repurposed auto shop.

The spot where the restaurant was located is now a flat-faced apartment complex called Alta Central.

click to enlarge Then, Mary Elaine's at The Phoenician. - THE PHOENICIAN
Then, Mary Elaine's at The Phoenician.
The Phoenician

Mary Elaine’s / J&G Steakhouse at the Phoenician

6000 East Camelback Road

Ever heard of a purse stool? Over time, that is what The Phoenician’s former tenant, Mary Elaine’s, became known for — a pocketbook getting its own seat. Named for Mary Elaine Fette, the wife of big banker Charles Keating, Mary Elaine’s opened in 1988 with a hard-matched fine-dining vibe.

In addition to the French-inspired menu — think caviar and foie gras — there was a team of five sommeliers, a master sommelier, and a 40,000-bottle wine inventory worth $3 million. The James Beard Foundation recognized chefs Alex Stratta, James Boyce, and Bradford Thompson during their tenures.

After 20 years, the spot closed in 2008, then became and remains J&G Steakhouse.

Then, the first McDonald's franchise. - BOB DRESTE/CC BY-SA 2.0/FLICKR
Then, the first McDonald's franchise.
Bob Dreste/CC BY-SA 2.0/Flickr

McDonald’s / Yoshi’s

4050 North Central Avenue

Watch 2016’s film The Founder and you might get a shock: Phoenix was home to the first McDonald’s franchise. It was located north of Central Avenue and Indian School Road, and was the first of the Mickey D’s to feature the golden arches when it opened in 1953.

Designed by California architect Stanley Clark Meston, the arches were not part of the sign as we know now, but part of the building itself. The first to purchase a franchise license was Neil Fox of General Petroleum Corporation, along with some colleagues. They paid $1,000. They named it McDonald’s, a surprise to the brothers back in California, but it did lead to most succeeding restaurants to also be named as such.

The structure was demolished in the 1960s, and Yoshi’s now fills the spot.

click to enlarge Then, Monti's La Casa Vieja. - TEMPE HISTORY MUSEUM
Then, Monti's La Casa Vieja.
Tempe History Museum

Monti’s La Casa Vieja / Unoccupied

100 South Mill Avenue, Tempe

Known as Tempe’s oldest restaurant, Monti’s La Casa Vieja operated at the southwest corner of Mill Avenue and Rio Salado Parkway for nearly 60 years. In fact, it was also the oldest continually occupied building in greater Phoenix.

Monti’s was opened in 1956 by Leonard Monti, a military veteran and, later, a restaurateur. He’s the one who decided the Hayden House (the little abode where Arizona’s first U.S. representative, Carl Hayden, was born in 1877) would be the ideal site for a restaurant. The eatery became a classic dinner spot along Mill Avenue, serving prime rib and steaks to diners surrounded by Southwestern decor. Son Michael Monti took over in 1993 till it closed in 2014 because of rising operational costs.

Today, the corner spot sits shuttered and seemingly untouched.

click to enlarge Then, My Florist Café. - KATHERINE AMY VEGA/KATAKLIZMIC DESIGN
Then, My Florist Café.
Katherine Amy Vega/Kataklizmic Design

My Florist Café / Potbelly Sandwich Shop

534 West McDowell Road

Young bucks and those who’ve recently moved to the Valley may have noticed the large, purple, retro-looking sign atop the plaza northeast of Seventh Avenue and McDowell Road. The sign for My Florist no longer advertises an actual tenant, but now instead, the plaza as a whole.

That’s because the bohemian-esque My Florist Café closed in 2010, but Glen Guyett’s artwork remains, thank goodness. The spot was a flower shop under the same name from 1947 to 1996 when it was morphed into My Florist Café by California land developer David Lacey.

A Potbelly Sandwich Shop now occupies the same suite.

Then, the Pink Pony.
Courtesy of the Scottsdale Historical Society/Scottsdale Public Library

Pink Pony Scottsdale / Unoccupied

3831 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale

Where to begin with the Pink Pony, the old baseball fan or player hangout and steakhouse planted conspicuously in Old Town Scottsdale? Claudia Ogden opened the joint in 1947 at Scottsdale Road and Main Street (though it moved down a few suites in 1970), but it was immediately, and famously, sold to Charlie Briley in 1948, who ran it for five decades.

Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and Sandy Koufax were among its many famous diners. It was closed in 2009, reopened in 2011 by Danny Little and Tim Smith, and closed again in 2013. Though added to Scottsdale’s Historic Register in 2004, the old-school sports bar tried to modernize after being purchased by Mark Shugrue in 2013. Pink Pony closed for the third and final time in summer 2016.

Some of the decor was auctioned off in 2017, and the spot has sat untouched since.

click to enlarge From 1989 to 2017, the building was home to Riazzi’s Italian Garden. - TEMPE HISTORY MUSEUM
From 1989 to 2017, the building was home to Riazzi’s Italian Garden.
Tempe History Museum

Riazzi’s Italian Garden / Quartiere

2700 South Mill Avenue, Tempe

Riazzi’s Italian Garden lit up the corner of Mill Avenue and Alameda Drive for three decades — since 1989, to be exact. But the family-owned Italian restaurant originally opened in 1945 at 15th Avenue and McDowell Road before moving to a second location at 53rd and Van Buren streets in 1947. The Tempe spot was its third and final destination till its closing in 2017.

But not much changed, food-wise. The spot is now Quartiere, Italian for “district” or “neighborhood,” and serves traditional Italian food. It also kept the lights on, literally, for that cozy front patio.

Then, Rose & Crown in Heritage Square. - LILIA MENCONI
Then, Rose & Crown in Heritage Square.
Lilia Menconi

Rose & Crown / Anhelo Restaurant

628 East Adams Street

For years, the Silva House, built in 1900 in what is now Heritage Square, operated as the Rose & Crown — an English-themed pub and haven for downtown drinkers, college students, and soccer fans. There was a pool table, drink specials, a monstrous wall mural of humans with limbs certainly not to scale, and funny smells patrons blissfully ignored after another pint. But then, Rose & Crown closed in 2018.

Swiftly, in spring 2019, the house became Anhelo Restaurant (though it was briefly under the name Hidden Kitchen), an upscale dinner spot with a soft, modern interior. This is where chef Ivan Jacobo is operating. However, the Silva House’s general layout within has been, as the law requires, preserved.

Then, RoxSand Scocos McCreary operated RoxSand Restaurant and Bar. - PHOENIX NEW TIMES ARCHIVES
Then, RoxSand Scocos McCreary operated RoxSand Restaurant and Bar.
Phoenix New Times Archives

RoxSand Restaurant and Bar / Removed

2594 East Camelback Road

The Biltmore Fashion Park restaurant RoxSand operated as an upscale eatery from 1986 till it suddenly closed in 2003. Food & Wine magazine listed it as one of the top 25 restaurants in America, and it was named for chef and owner RoxSand Scocos McCreary — a James Beard Award-winning chef who was the first person to grace the cover of Bon Appetit magazine.

Inside, the decor was modern, fashionable, or “stark” as Zagat Southwest Top Restaurants Guide called it, with fancy light fixtures, expensive artwork, and an international menu. RoxSand was Shore’s favorite restaurant that has since closed. “It was such a unique place, and the food was always spot on,” he says. “It was one of those places where I could take out-of-town guests and they would just be amazed.”

Stories of how McCreary closed the restaurant overnight without a word, to members of her staff or otherwise, are neither here nor there. Today, the site, as well as that second floor, no longer exists at the Biltmore.

click to enlarge Then, Sing High Chop Suey House. - VISITOR7/WIKIPEDIA
Then, Sing High Chop Suey House.

Sing High Chop Suey House / Unoccupied

27 West Madison Street

This downtown staple was supposed to be named Shanghai Chop Suey House, but lines were crossed, something was misheard, and the sign read Sing High Chop Suey House for 90 years till it closed in 2018.

The Cantonese restaurant was opened in 1928 by the Lee family, who took to Facebook in the final days to actually mail out the restaurant’s decor, including menus and placemats, to former diners and fans. In the last days, guests began writing their names and memories on the walls of the downtown restaurant staple.

Today, Sing High Chop Suey House is closed tight.

click to enlarge Then, the Original Wineburger's location on Seventh Avenue. - THE ORIGINAL WINEBURGER FACEBOOK
Then, the Original Wineburger's location on Seventh Avenue.
The Original Wineburger Facebook

The Original Wineburger / Short Leash Hotdogs & Rollover Doughnuts

4221 North Seventh Avenue

While the paint job on the Seventh Avenue location of The Original Wineburger had read “est. 1965,” this is actually its second site after relocating from a longtime spot at 19th Avenue and Bethany Home Road.

But the unassuming, single-story structure along the Melrose curve was previously home to Harley's Italian Bistro, and, later, to Toasted — a place serving mostly grilled cheese. The same spot is now Short Leash Hotdogs & Rollover Doughnuts, there since 2018. The popular food truck (and still that) made its second attempt at a permanent location here on Seventh Avenue after relocating from Roosevelt Row.

click to enlarge Then, the Restaurant at Hotel Valley Ho. - HOTEL VALLEY HO
Then, the Restaurant at Hotel Valley Ho.
Hotel Valley Ho

The Restaurant at Hotel Valley Ho / ZuZu at Hotel Valley Ho

6850 East Main Street, Scottsdale

The quintessential example of Midcentury Modern architecture, Hotel Valley Ho was built in 1956 and since has offered some sort of onsite restaurant. In fact, the first one was called just that — the restaurant at Hotel Valley Ho.

In 1973, the Ramada chain acquired the hotel and the restaurant was named Summerfield’s. The spot is now ZuZu — named for a mother and grandmother cook who’d passed down a secret family recipe or two.

Then, Trader Vic’s.
Courtesy of the Scottsdale Historical Society/Scottsdale Public Library

Trader Vic’s / Citizen Public House

7111 East Fifth Avenue, Scottsdale

When tiki culture was hot in Phoenix (much, much more than it is now), Trader Vic’s was definitely the spot. The Polynesian-inspired chain mentioned by Warren Zevon and many others had a post in Old Town Scottsdale from 1962 to 1990 (and again at Hotel Valley Ho from 2006 to 2011).

Phoenix’s piece of the chain was one of roughly 25 around the world and offered costumed dancing and certainly drinking — especially of the signature mai tai cocktail. The spot is now Citizen Public House, and still marked by the structural steeple at the entrance off Fifth Avenue.

And, found on the house cocktail menu, The Rise of Vic mixes rum cask Irish whiskey with the house orgeat, dry curacao, lime, and pineapple.

click to enlarge Then, Upton’s Ice Cream Parlor. - GLENDALE ARIZONA HISTORICAL SOCIETY
Then, Upton’s Ice Cream Parlor.
Glendale Arizona Historical Society

Upton’s Ice Cream Parlor / Lemoncade

5754 West Glendale Avenue, Glendale

You can’t spit in Old Towne Glendale without hitting a historic structure, not that you’d want to. Most of the restaurants in the historic downtown were something else entirely in the area’s classic American early days. But one place in particular seemed to have a clear vantage point — Upton’s Ice Cream Parlor.

Looking out onto the intersection of 58th and Glendale avenues, the ice cream and candy shop was a popular hangout in the 1940s. Neighboring the Sprouse-Reitz Building, Upton’s was usually packed with after-school kids, after-movie teens, and after-work farmers.

The suite eventually became the apparel store Kathy’s Corner and Old Town Antiques, and is now Lemoncade.

click to enlarge Now, HobNob’s Food & Spirits. - CHARLES BARTH
Now, HobNob’s Food & Spirits.
Charles Barth
Willow House / HobNob’s Food & Spirits
149 West McDowell Road

The Willow House was a coffee shop and local artist hangout, housed in a 1903-built home on the corner of Third Avenue and McDowell Road. People drank coffee, chatted, lit up cigarettes, listened to music, and read. It smelled like a head shop, the decor was a little low rent, and the service was probably friendly if you were a regular, not so much if you weren’t.

It was an especially happening spot in its time and place — the alternative ’90s and aughts. Plus, there was free Wi-Fi before that really became expected. It shuttered suddenly in 2008 over what was said to be rent disputes, but who really knows? Now, the iconic bungalow is HobNob’s Food & Spirits, with more or less the same vibe, but certainly less of a legacy.

Phoenix New Times would like to thank Marshall Shore for his assistance with research for this story. Editor's note: This article has been updated from its original version.
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Lauren Cusimano is Phoenix New Times' food and drink editor. She is a journalist and food waste writer based in Tempe. Joys include eating wings, riding bikes, knowing everyone at the bar, talking too much about The Simpsons, and falling asleep while reading.
Contact: Lauren Cusimano