Best of Phoenix

Vintage Phoenix Q&A: Monica Heizenrader of MacAlpine's

MacAlpine's is it: the last of the vintage soda shops. First opened in 1928, the former Birch's Pharmacy became MacAlpine's Rexall Drugs 10 years later -- a popular pharmacy with a lunch counter and soda fountain. In 1991, Monica Heizenrader bought it and has been running it, with her two daughters and son-in-law, as a diner and antiques shop ever since. Monica stopped slinging vintage hash one recent weekday, just long enough to talk about ghosts, and victory rolls, and the chewing gum of Wayne Newton.

Robrt Pela: Way back when, lots of famous people hung out at MacAlpine's.

Monica Heizenrader: Oh, yes. Back in the old days, it was a real Who's Who of customers around here. Frank Lloyd Wright used to drive downtown just to eat here. Barry Goldwater was here for lunch a lot. And Wayne Newton.

RP: Not Wayne Newton.

MH: Yes. I heard he was discovered here. I've been told he used to sit at the counter and sing along to the jukebox with his brother. We think his DNA is in the bubblegum stuck under the counter.

RP: Is that why you bought the place? Are you planning to clone Wayne Newton? Because one Wayne Newton appears to be enough.

MH: No! I knew the man who owned MacAlpine's, and I knew it was struggling. Before I had children, I had owned and operated restaurants and really enjoyed that. I came down here and fell in love with the place. I knew they were going to close it, and the plan was they were going to auction off the entire contents on eBay. I couldn't let that happen.

RP: So you bought MacAlpine's to save it. But who eats here now? I mean, do local celebrities still come in for a Chili Size?

MH: No. We do have a lot of attorneys, I suppose because we're downtown and this is where they work. When we first reopened, there would be days where literally every table was seated with lawyers. Now we've got a more diverse customer base -- lots of people from the neighborhood and from all over.

RP: All over where?

MH: Europe! We've had people come in from however many miles away Europe is -- maybe 8,000? -- because one of their friends told them they just had to eat here, or because they saw us on the Internet and made this a stop on their trip to America. Sometimes, people are shopping at our antique store next door and they wander in and discover our diner that way.

RP: Speaking of your antique shops, I have never seen so many outdoor furniture sets in one place in my life.

MH: It's true. We have a ton of them. The older stuff is so well made, it never falls apart. And it looks better than the new garden furniture from Walmart. We buy entire estates, and there seems to always be an old garden furniture set.

RP: What's left at MacAlpine's from the old days? I mean, besides Wayne Newton's gum.

MH: The shelves that line the walls are from the original pharmacy. The soda fountain is original. The booths were brought in from a restaurant back east. They're very old, and they look original to MacAlpine's, but they're not. We put them in where the cough syrup and the shampoo and the comic books used to be, back in the '30s.

We finally had to replace the original flooring. It was all different levels, and I kept tripping. We went with a period-correct look. We did Jadeite green. Very '20s.

RP: But everyone seems to think of MacAlpine's as a '50s diner.

MH: That's probably because people associate soda fountains with the '50s, thanks to, you know, Happy Days and the fact that so many rock 'n' roll movies have scenes set in diners where someone is playing a jukebox and someone is sitting at the counter, drinking a malted. But pharmacy diners and soda fountains go way back. You know, it was a pharmacist who invented Coca-Cola, which was originally something to settle your stomach, back in the '20s.

RP: Well, just about everyone knows that.

MH: Our décor is from the '20s through the '50s, but the '50s is the decade people are entranced with. They find it more interesting than the '20s. Greasers and rock 'n' roll are more iconic than big band music from the '40s, I guess. When my daughter Holly waitressed here, she wore her hair in a victory roll, from World War II.

RP: I always thought a victory roll was a kind of a biscuit.

MH: It's a hairdo. It's in the shape of a V, for victory.

RP: I'll have to try that some time. So, is there such a thing as vintage menu items?

MH: Well, our most popular thing here is our Sloppy Joe.

RP: Is that a food from the '30s? Or just something that no other restaurant around here serves?

MH: It's more of a comfort food thing -- people like to eat things from their childhood. It's the same with chocolate malteds, and phosphates and egg creams. Do you know what those are?

RP: Sort of. They're like malts, but made with cream and eggs. Right?

MH: Well, there are no eggs in an egg cream. And no cream.

RP: Of course not.

MH: But they're delicious. We have 99 flavors of syrup to put into our shakes and malts and egg creams. My favorite is one called Wedding Cake Ice Cream. It tastes just like wedding cake.

RP: I should hope so. So, is MacAlpine's haunted?

MH: I think it is. By quite a few ghosts -- but good ones, not bad ones. A man who worked here from 1946 to 1991 heard ghosts walking around in the attic. One night my daughter and I were here late, baking, and we went to sit on the couch, and it felt like someone came and sat down next to us. And one of our customers sees a man sitting at the back table, and then he vanishes. The same customer sees another ghost, sitting at the counter and watching me very closely.

RP: Maybe he's afraid you're going to steal someone's tips.

MH: I like to think he's watching over me. And MacAlpine's.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela