The Landmark Phoenix Steakhouse Where It Always Feels Like 1964

A very stiff martini at Phoenix's most legendary steakhouse.
A very stiff martini at Phoenix's most legendary steakhouse. Patricia Escarcega
Welcome to The Essentials, our catalog of indispensable and quintessential Phoenix food and drink. From now until May, we'll be sharing 50 dishes, drinks, and food experiences that make up the culinary backbone (and personality) of metro Phoenix. This list is highly eclectic, mixing classics with newer and lesser-known favorites. But all The Essentials have one thing in common: We think they're required eating (and drinking) in metro Phoenix.

4: Power Lunch at Durant's

The first time I went to Durant's, a man stopped me in the parking lot, just outside the restaurant's famous back entrance.

"This is my favorite restaurant in Arizona," the man said, with strains of real emotion in his voice. "There's just nothing else like it."

When I told him it was my first visit to Durant's, his eyes widened and he took a deep breath. Then he proceeded to dole out a few pieces of advice: When you walk through that door, you're going to be in the kitchen, he told me. Don't worry, you're in the right place. Just keep walking straight ahead and push through the swinging doors. Go to the bar first, he instructed. Have a drink. Let your eyes adjust to the dark. When you get to your table, take your time. Don't rush it.

This, it turns out, is sage advice whether it's your first or 50th time at Durant's. Phoenix's most storied steakhouse is one of the few restaurants around town where calling it a local legend is not a fluffy piece of PR hyperbole. You want to savor your time here. You want to savor the brief seconds you spend in the kitchen, the staff nodding at you in acknowledgment like you're Henry Hill swaggering through the Copacabana kitchen in Goodfellas. And, certainly, you want to savor every moment in the Durant's dining room, a sunless place where you might never know whether it's spring or winter outside. The damask wallpaper never seems to go out of style, and everything's upholstered in so much red velvet that it feels like you've crossed over into a time-bending universe where it's always 1964, and the world is slightly more glamorous and rose-colored than it ever really was.

Durant's opened in 1950, and it's famously wrapped up in the mystique of local Phoenix legend, stories of power brokers and mafiosos working over crooked local politicians from the comfort of one of the restaurant's rounded leather booths. It's rumored that more than one murder was planned at Durant's, and its founder and original owner, Jack Durant, was recently the subject of an indie movie that tries to unravel the mysteries of the larger-than-life character. The movie was poorly received by most critics, but still, it's not every day that a Phoenix restaurateur is the subject of a full-length movie.

Durant's longevity, thankfully, isn't based on legend alone. It's still one of the best spots in town for an old-fashioned power lunch, and the steaks are consistently good. Even if you wield no particular power to speak of, there's something about sitting in one of those plush leather booths that can make you feel as if you and your lunch companion are up to something bigger and more important than gnawing on chicken livers and gossiping about co-workers.

It's hard to resist ordering a cocktail here, particularly something Mad Men-ish like a martini or an Old Fashioned. The martinis at Durant's are so stiff, it's like drinking morphine in a glass. You probably want to take it slow, especially if you plan to get anything done after lunch.

Eating at Durant's is never cheap; a porterhouse steak with two lobster tails is roughly equivalent to the size of a month's car payment. A good middle-of-the-road option is the so-called Humble T-Bone Steak, which is deliriously juicy and well-seasoned. It comes with the usual salad and side, but you may want to leave enough room for dessert. There's a famously decadent strawberry shortcake that demands to be eaten, and a very thick slice of cheesecake beckons from the dessert menu, too. It's wise to linger over dessert, if you can spare the extra minutes, because pretty soon you'll have to go back outside and face down modernity, not to mention the blinding force of the Arizona sun.

As a wise stranger once told me, when you go to Durant's, you want to take it nice and slow.

click to enlarge The famous back entrance at Phoenix's most storied steakhouse. - PATRICIA ESCARCEGA
The famous back entrance at Phoenix's most storied steakhouse.
Patricia Escarcega
The Essentials so far:
50: Tequila Sunrise at the Arizona Biltmore.
49: "Dragon" Dumpling Burger at Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour.
48: Dizzy Fig Empanada at Republica Empanada.
47: Linguine Carbonara at Avanti.
46: The Food Court at Mercado de los Cielos.
45: Chicken Feta Salad at George’s Kitchen.
44: Spinach & Cheese Chimi Burro at Mi Patio Mexican Restaurant.
43: Dinner at Rustler's Rooste.
42: Gyro Omelet at Mel's Diner.
41: Zipps Wings at Zipps Sports Grill.
40: Organ Stop Pizza in Mesa.
39: Asian Nachos at Moto.
38: Olive Oil Tasting at Queen Creek Olive Oil Mill.
37: Baby Back Ribs at Don & Charlie's.
36: Limoncello at Cibo.
35: Chili Salt Chicken Wings at Asian Café Express.
34: Smoked Prime Rib at Texaz.
33: Steak Salad at Feeney's.
32: Tasting Menu at Kai Restaurant.
31: Toffee Banofi Sundae at Sweet Republic.
30: Big Jim at Welcome Diner.
29: Sonoran Hot Dog at El Caprichoso.
28: Sashimi at Nobuo at Teeter House.
27: Oysters at Casey Moore's Oyster House.
26: Spring rolls at Da Vang.
25: Bruschetta and wine at Postino.
24: Hot green chili fry bread at Fry Bread House.
23: The Big One at The Chuckbox.
22: Cahuamanta Stew at Cahuamanta El Yaqui.
21: Dim Sum at Great Wall Cuisine.
20: Fried chicken at The Horny Toad.
19: George & Dragon’s Famous Fish & Chips.
18: Macaron Ice Cream Sandwiches at Pho 43rd Express.
17: Cerreta Candy Co. Factory Tour & Candy Sampling in Downtown Glendale.
16: Steak Dinner at The Stockyards.
15: Margarita + Guacamole del Barrio at Barrio Cafe.
14: BBQ Plate at Joe's Real BBQ.
13: Fried Chicken & Pork Chops from Mrs. White's Golden Rule Cafe.
12: Breakfast Burrito at Yucca Tap Room.
11: Mesquite Chocolate Chip Cookies at Super Chunk.
10: Doro Wat at Cafe Lalibela.
9: Lunch at Middle Eastern Bakery & Deli.
8: The Chef's Counter at Posh.
7: Flour tortillas and machaca at Carolina's.
6: Wining and dining at FnB.
5. Shopping at Lee Lee's International Supermarket.
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Patricia Escárcega was Phoenix New Times' food critic.