Maybe this whole belt-tightening thing is getting to me. I suppose some pop psychologist would say I have Frugality Fatigue. Whatever the reason, it's occurred to me in recent months that I sorely miss Mary Elaine's. In fact, I want it reinstalled and I'd like to pretend the whole miserable economic downturn thing never happened.
Why does it have to be the end of an era? Don't we ever want to live large and eat ridiculously expensive food again?
I suppose this kind of daydreaming makes me a snob, an elitist, and a foodie (the horror!) — at least according to the fast food-eating, corporate restaurant-loving cretins who posted an appalling number of nasty online comments about the restaurant's demise when the story of its closing was first reported in January 2008.
Hey, I'd rather be a snob than a hillbilly. At least I'd never say, "We had to go eat fast food after our anniversary dinner at Mary Elaine's because the portions were so small." Really? Had to?
Truth is, I'm pretty sure I'm not the only allegedly pretentious person who was heartbroken over the news. This opulent fine-dining restaurant was situated in The Phoenician, the super-luxe hotel built by Charles Keating, principal architect of the nation's savings and loan debacle. The restaurant, in fact, was named after Keating's wife. And despite its rocky start (Keating went to jail and the Resolution Trust Corporation took over The Phoenician for a while), Mary Elaine's set the bar for everything related to fine dining — food sourcing, exquisite presentations, deliciously inspired interpretations of classic dishes, arcane ingredients, impossibly clever desserts, beautiful and obscure cheeses, impeccable service, and an outstanding wine program — and continued to, for many years after Keating's comeuppance.
For roughly 20 years, Mary Elaine's was the bomb — our local pride, our personal joy, our super-pricy, special occasion go-to when the budget allowed. Eating there was never just a meal but rather a mind-boggling, pull-out-all-the-stops experience. It was also indisputable proof that Phoenix wasn't a cow town.
Who else had a team of five sommeliers, presided over by a master sommelier? Or a $3 million, 40,000-bottle wine inventory with 2,000 to 2,400 labels? Um, exactly no one.
And how about the French-inspired menu, which, on any given night, offered up a $500 sample of Iranian Golden Osetra caviar, house-smoked salmon with sevruga ($125) hard-to-find American paddlefish, Santa Barbara spot prawns, Wild Burgundy snails casserole, orange-glazed sweetbreads and sauteed foie gras in brioche crust — as well as entrees that climbed to $60?
According to the morons on the Internet, Mary Elaine's was never worth the price. Yeah, right. That's why three of its most important chefs — Alex Stratta, James Boyce, and Bradford Thompson — were recognized by the James Beard Foundation during their tenure there. Stratta won Best Chef Southwest in 1998, Boyce was nominated for it in 2002 and Thompson won it in 2006.
Listen, I really like J&G (the Jean-Georges Vongerichten steakhouse that replaced Mary Elaine's), and I'll be the first to say we have a respectable number of terrific high-end restaurants in Phoenix.
I love Binkley's, and I'm excited every single time I go there. Kevin Binkley should've won his own Beard Award ages ago.
I'm also happy and proud we have a celebrated restaurant like Kai, which so adeptly blends French technique and grand service with our local Native American cultures.
But because most of them are independents with limited budgets, none of these stellar places captures the splendor that was Mary Elaine's.
And that sense of wonder, that thrilling, palm-rubbing "Oh boy!!" started from the instant you stepped off the elevator. Indeed, the elevator was part of the mystique: You punched the Mary Elaine's button, rode up in that mirrored carriage to the fifth floor, and when the doors opened — ta-da! — you had arrived.
A gorgeous arrangement of fresh flowers, placed on a table near the entrance, set the genteel tone for a series of expensively furnished rooms that gently unfolded, one into the other. Mary Elaine's was old-school elegant — a feminine compilation of gilt, curves, mirrors, wood, and pastels. Keating had built a monument to his wife, and no expense was spared. The sweep of windows looking out over the city was breathtaking at sunset. The linen thread-count was triple-digit, the china was French, the silver heavy, the stemware gleaming, and the carpet impossibly thick.
Yes, plush carpet. Imagine that! Nowadays, we can barely hear ourselves think — much less carry on a conversation — because restaurant design du jour invariably means hard-surfaced, high-ceiling rooms that amplify clatter and chatter. It's cafeteria-style dining made hip and I'm sick to death of it.
And of course, Mary Elaine's service was absolutely spot-on: formal but never snooty, informed but not so encyclopedic as to be boring and pretentious.
Guests were greeted warmly and then ministered to as if they were heads of state — without any of that "Very good, Madame" or "Excellent choice, Sir" that would have sounded like we were all characters in a 19th-century British play.
No one at Mary Elaine's would ever make that idiotic one-way introduction (Hi, my name is Amber) because in a world where service really counts, there's no need.
Near the end, Mary Elaine's relaxed the dress code a bit, but for years, male guests were required to wear jackets, which didn't seem unnecessarily stringent, given that male servers were in tuxedos.
Nowadays, we all go everywhere in jeans, figuring if we've put on a nice shirt and switched out flip-flops for closed-toed shoes we're good to go. Casual is great, but I'd also like to get spruced up once in a while and be among others who are also dressed for the occasion.
You know what else I miss? That little purse stool. How ladylike was that? Nowadays, we belly up to the bar and hang our monstrous duffle bags on the hook underneath. We're all about function, form be damned.
But most of all, I miss the reverential hush that prevailed at Mary Elaine's. The unspoken dictum was "Speak softly. You are in the church of food."
Sure, I like gourmet burgers and mac and cheese and all the rest. But every once in a while, I long to worship at Mary Elaine's altar again — to eat something elegant and esoteric and heart-stopping in a setting that allows me to pretend I'm a One Percenter. That's the old-time religion I can't forsake.
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