A restaurant's reputation is bound to soar once it's known for attracting certain elite groups. In Los Angeles, for instance, Hollywood big shots transformed one exquisite French place into such a celebrity hot spot a few years ago that the swamped owners requested an unlisted telephone number. And in New York, the literary sophisticates who nightly fill an East Side den of culinary mediocrity have practically turned the place into a tourist destination.
Unfortunately, there's no sure connection, one way or the other, between a restaurant's gastronomic quality and the celebrity of its patrons. Our Valley metropolis also sports a couple of establishments that have earned the loyalty of high-profile clientele. Both have been around since the early Fifties, and so have their menus. You won't see any accent marks or foreign words on them. Nor will you encounter artsy plate presentations or sparkling Italian mineral water. You will, however, run into oversize pepper mills, vinyl booths and God-awful baskets of plastic-wrapped crackers.
But most of all, you'll run into serious animal protein: These are places where the elites meet to eat meat.
At the Pink Pony, the arrival of elite diners occurs with the same unerring predictability as the swallows' stop at Capistrano--the first day of spring training.
In the month of March, the Pink Pony is the dining choice of hungry major leaguers coming out of winter hibernation. For hero-worshiping baseball fans, the Pink Pony does what Elaine's does for unpublished novelists, and the Orangerie did for aspiring actors: furnish the opportunity to stare at their idols.
For the other 11 months, though, you can still bask in the ballplayers' glow. That's because the Pink Pony uses the Hall of Fame as its model of interior design. Baseball memorabilia is everywhere. Player caricatures, uniforms, bats and a home plate from the old Scottsdale stadium provide the ballpark atmospherics. The only thing missing is a vendor moving about the place shouting, "Peanuts, popcorn, Cracker Jack!" The restaurant doesn't make the mistake of trying to appeal to everybody. You won't find puff-pastry appetizers or anything bathed in a Thai peanut sauce. The fare is strictly all-American, and it doesn't come in bush league portions. The Pink Pony caters to major league appetites. Take the barbecued-meatball appetizer. Anyone expecting three or four dainty morsels is in the wrong ballpark. We got 18 meatballs, at least a pound of meat. They sported an appealing crispy edge and a solid barbecue kick, too.
One of the unexpected treats was a monstrous caesar salad. To my astonishment, this wasn't an indifferent pile of crouton-studded greenery, the usual restaurant approximation of this much-abused dish. Though it's prepared back in the kitchen, not tableside, this worthy, anchovy-packed version doesn't have to be sent back to the minors for more seasoning.
But oversize ballplayers are not filling booths to nibble on meatballs or graze on romaine lettuce. They're here for big helpings of U.S prime-grade meat.
In some dishes, the grade of beef really doesn't matter. It's overkill, for instance, to use a prime cut of tenderloin filet in beef stew or in a meatballs-and-spaghetti platter. The next quality grade--choice--should do just fine. But when a restaurant risks all sending out big slabs of unadorned meat, there's no hiding the quality under other ingredients or sauces. If the meat's going to shine, it had better be prime. Happily, the first-rate beef at Pink Pony doesn't throw you any curves. When I got my initial look at the prime rib, my first instinct was to call a paleontologist. This is, without a doubt, the most massive hunk of meat on a bone I've run across in years. If Jurassic Park were a meat-packing operation instead of an animal preserve, the prime rib would look like this. But carnivores will be grateful. This prime rib is juicy, beefy and tender. Few people will manage to devour it in one sitting. If you do, the only evening activity you should contemplate is pulling the blanket over your head and logging a full eight hours of sleep and digestion. The 14-ounce New York steak has the same big league credentials. It packs a hard-hitting beefy kick, while it's as soft as the hands of a Gold Glove shortstop. Good thing, too. For some reason, the Pink Pony furnishes patrons with puny, lightweight cutlery that could have come from a Third World cafeteria. Prime meat deserves silverware with a little more heft and polish. Folks who shrink from the sight of huge slabs of beef might be better off with beef brochette. You'll still get about a pound of prime meat, but it doesn't look quite as intimidating divided into smaller chunks. The Pink Pony needs to work on its side dishes. French fries, rice pilaf, even the $2 … la carte cottage fries aren't fit consorts for the meat. And I bet a lot of diners would appreciate some sort of vegetable option. Desserts won't deflect your attention from the meat, either. Made-elsewhere pecan pie and Bailey's Irish Cream cheesecake aren't compelling enough to make you want to save room for them. In baseball, managers will overlook the shortcomings of players who can't run, throw or field, as long as they can hit. I also have my priorities. At the Pink Pony, I'm willing to overlook mediocre side dishes and desserts. As long as the kitchen continues to send reasonably priced prime beef to the plate, I'll be taking my cuts.
Durant's, 2611 North Central, Phoenix, 264-5967. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight; Sunday, 4 p.m. to midnight.
The elites who gather at Durant's don't play ball in public. They're politicians, lobbyists and attorneys, people of influence who play their hardball in smoke-filled rooms, behind closed doors.
Durant's should make them feel right at home, since the restaurant lacks a no-smoking section. The place has a rugged, bustling, no-nonsense air about it, the kind of room where it's easy to imagine public servants trading favors, sidestepping ethics and bilking taxpayers. But even if you're not important, the smooth, tuxedo-clad servers make you feel as if you are. A great deal of Durant's charm derives from its look. If you want to pass yourself off as a regular, enter from the rear, by the parking lot. You'll slide through the kitchen, where the help briefly looks up from its chores, sizes you up and asks, "How ya doin'?" If you have an aversion to the color red, don't step through the swinging kitchen doors into the dining areas. The restaurant will have you blinking and rubbing your eyes: Walls, booths, carpeting, all are bathed in vivid red hues. The red, though, does give Durant's an ornate feel, despite the vinyl booths and Formica-topped tables.
Durant's helps you get down to business immediately, greeting diners with a welcome chilled relish tray, a ketchupy dip and a pleasant basket of warm biscuits. The appetizer of steamed fresh clams is a Durant's trademark, and we looked forward to dipping them in the cups of butter and clam broth. But the bivalve mollusks we got seemed a bit long in the tooth, chewy and gritty. There were, however, a zillion of them. Meals here come with a cup of nothing-special soup and a routinely uninteresting house salad. A couple of … la carte salads, though, perk things up. Caesar salad fans can indulge their whim without fear--there's no stinting on the anchovies. The German salad, meanwhile, is basically a romaine-and-bacon mix. It's doused with a warm, pungent vinaigrette that has enough vinegar in it to strip the porcelain from a bathtub. It's tart, all right, but the taste grew on me. Like the ballplayers at the Pink Pony, the Important People here have come to sink their teeth into red meat. And Durant's does a creditable job gratifying those urges. The eight-ounce filet mignon delivered just what I expected: a superbly soft hunk of juicy meat, cooked exactly to specifications. A hefty portion of charcoal-broiled tenderloin tips also inspired growls of delight. And the prime rib, while not as prodigious as the Pink Pony's, packed a moist, beefy punch.
Don't anticipate additional enjoyment, though, from anything else on the plate. The baked potato and French fry options are strictly stomach fillers. And the only vegetables you'll find here are the scallions, carrots, celery and radishes on the relish tray. Don't bother with dessert, either, unless you plan on stopping elsewhere. There's ice cream, sherbet and a homemade cheesecake that sets back the art of cheesecake-making a hundred years. It's got no cheesy taste or texture, only the incredibly sugary goopiness of sweetened condensed milk. Even if you haven't come to Durant's to cut a deal, it's still a comfortable, old-fashioned kind of spot to share drinks with buddies, munch some greenery and absorb animal protein. It was a good dining idea in the undemanding Fifties; with some fine-tuning, it can work in the sophisticated Nineties, too.