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Arizona Centennial- 100 Years of Desert Dining by Elin Jeffords

The great American restaurant cities share certain traits. They are generally long-established, situated on waterways or the coasts and have a rich tradition of emigration (think New York City, Boston, Chicago, New Orleans and San Francisco). To some extent that leaves the Western interior of the country playing hospitality catch-up. Phoenix is a prime example of a frontier desert outpost that didn’t spread its mythical wings and take off until after World War II and the advent of air-conditioning. Before that, culinary pickings were mighty slim.


Considering the harsh environment and temperatures that range from freezing to broiling hot, often in a single day, it wasn’t surprising that the population was tiny. In 1900 there were only 122, 931 hardy souls who inhabited the territory with 20,000 of them living in Phoenix.


In the early days, cattle provided fresh meat and jerky and non-perishables such as beans, sugar, coffee, flour, cornmeal and dried fruit were transported from the east. The settlers planted gardens, learning the vagaries of their new climate and picking up agricultural tricks from the Native Americans who’d been building irrigation canals and raising squash, corn and beans for centuries. They also borrowed chiles, tortillas and many indigenous dishes from the Mexicans populating the territory. As for leisurely dining out in fine restaurants, that experience lay in far the future.


That’s not to say a cowpoke or miner couldn’t grab a bite, or certainly a drink. There were saloons aplenty and some, like The Occidental in Tombstone were known for their Sunday dinners. The ‘bigger” settlements like Phoenix, Tucson and Prescott also had hotels that served basic meals. Those who lived in boarding houses got breakfast, dinner and a room in exchange for their rent.


There were plenty of enterprising senoras and senoritas that sold tamales house-to-house or even served simple meals from their own kitchens. The Chinese who helped to build the railroads brought, and bastardized, their own cuisine when they settled along the way and opened restaurants serving chop suey and chow mein.


Fred Harvey deserves a special mention for his part in bringing good food (and the famed Harvey girls) to Arizona. Building along the Santa Fe railroad, he opened the Escalante Hotel in Ashfork and the Havasu in Seligman in 1905. 1930 saw the debut of La Posada in Winslow, Arizona, which is still in operation under different ownership.


Arizona’s clement winter weather has long been a magnet for wealthy Easterners fleeing the cold and snow. A thriving resort culture began to develop in the desert. Both the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix and the Wigwam Resort in Litchfield Park debuted in 1929, followed by Paradise Valley’s Camelback Inn in 1936. In Tucson, the Westward Look opened for business in 1912. All eventually opened their dining facilities to the public, which helped introduce “fine dining” to the West. The style of food served was “Continental”, a premium ingredient-intensive mash up that leaned heavily on the haute French culinary canon. Interestingly, Wright’s, the Biltmore’s high end restaurant’s has recently introduced a menu that features updated Continental specialties like beef Wellington and lobster Thermador.


The 1936-37 Phoenix phone book (about the size of a children’s Little Golden Book) had one column of restaurant listings including approximately 100 businesses. Most are designated “Café”, “Coffee Shop” or “Buffet” There is a light sprinkling of the aforementioned Chinese and Mexican eateries and one place called The Italian Garden.


There has been a thriving Italian-American community in Phoenix dating back to the 1870’s. Many of the men became saloonkeepers who eventually dragooned their wives into cooking and serving meals. Donofrio’s Confectionary, a sweet shop, opened early in the early years of the century and sold ice cream, sodas and crystallized cactus candy which was shipped all over the country.


The 1942 phone book (not much bigger than the ’36 – ’37 edition) has a couple familiar names. Green Gables, which later became John’s Green Gable’s, was known to all thanks to an actual knight on a white steed who patrolled the parking lot each evening. The exterior is still embedded in the office building located at the southwest corner of 24th Street and Thomas Road.  The Jokake Inn is represented by its main adobe building with its double tower, which is on the grounds of The Phoenician Resort. But perhaps most intriguing is a mention of Scotty and Rose’s Café, said to serve Phoenix’ finest fried chicken with “dinners by appointment”. That must have been some chicken…


Nine years later there were seven columns of restaurant’s in the yellow pages including Riazzi’s, which is still in business, and Toy’s Shangri La on 16th and Camelback. The capacious building has housed some variation of Chinese restaurant up until today.


It was the returning World War II veterans looking for fresh opportunities who provided the second wave of Western pioneers. That influx coincided with the growing use of air-conditioning in homes, first window units, then the luxury of a central system. If that wasn’t proof Arizona was on the cusp of major strides into the future, the world’s second MacDonald’s franchise bowed on Central Avenue in Phoenix in 1953. Mickey D.’s got a fair amount of competition from Bob’s Big Boy, another California export. For many years Bob’s was the nexus of the popular adolescent past time known as cruising Central.


According to historic records, La Casa Vieja, a historic adobe structure in Tempe, has been in use as some kind of restaurant since the 1890’s. In 1954 it was purchased by Leonard Monti, whose family still owns it. Meanwhile, the tiny suburb of Scottsdale was already ringing in as a culinary hotspot. The Pink Pony started serving steaks and cocktails in 1950, followed soon after by Lulu Belle’s. In nearby Paradise Valley, El Chorro Lodge had been going strong since 1937.


Woody’s El Nido, which was opened by Woody Johnson in 1946, grew from a simple luncheonette to what might have been the cities’ first upscale Mexican restaurant. (He and his family later started the Macayo chain.) Jordan’s Mexican Food has also been around since the ‘fifties. Other favorite Phoenix restaurants of the day included Durant’s, Newton’s Prime Rib and the Stockyards.


Beef has always ruled in Arizona and “cowboy” steakhouses became the place to take folks visiting from the East. Pinnacle Peak Patio in north Scottsdale has been pulling steaks off the grill since 1957 and many a tenderfoot gent has his tie lopped off and hung from the rafters there.


Food Courts such as The Pepper Tree and Town and Country Village which opened in the 1960’s helped make ethnic cuisine more approachable for the average diner and began to nibble away at steak’s stranglehold. In the ‘70’s, diversity ruled with Harvey Iida’s Sukiyaki, Doug Lee’s Asia House (which was the first in town to serve sushi and sashimi), Blue Grotto, The Figg Tree, Neptune’s Table, La Chaumiere, Chez Louis, Raffles (owned by Gene Cavallero who formerly headed up The Colony in Manhattan), Vito’s Scampi, The Islands and Trader Vic’s.


By the end of decade, “fern” bars were also beginning to infiltrate the market; Victoria Station was housed in an authentic old railway car and was a singles magnet, as were  B.B. Singer’s and Oscar Taylor. The era’s operative pick up line was “What’s your sign?”


Bobby McGee’s, founded by local Bob Sikora, eventually became a national chain. Big 4 restaurants owned Oscar Taylor, along with Lunt Avenue Marble Club and a number of other restaurants that opened over the years. They were a major Valley player in the late ‘70’s and throughout the  ‘80’s.


The state got its first full-time restaurant critic in 1978 just in time for the “foodie” blast that hit in the ‘80’s. Two young chefs pretty much owned the decade. Vincent Guerithault, owner of the eponymous Vincent’s was born and trained in France and developed an imaginative and exciting amalgam of French culinary techniques and Southwestern and Mexican ingredients and preparations. Arizona-raised Chris Gross introduced rigorously authentic French food served with all the elegant bells and whistles at Christopher’s.


Top restaurants in the ’80’s were primarily chef-driven and included Steven with Nancy Weiss heading up the kitchen, Eddie Matney’s Kous Kooz, Roxsand, and Fina’s Cocina, a Mexican eatery whose idiosyncratic chef/owner Norman Fierros had a fanatically devoted group of followers for dishes such as oysters with cilantro pesto and green tamale hash topped with a poached egg.


While there have been chain restaurants aplenty in Arizona, dating back to the Bob’s Big Boy days, the ‘80’s and ‘90’s saw them proliferate. For better or worse Black Angus, Romano’s Macaroni Grill, Olive Garden, Carrabas, Claim Jumper and Cheesecake Factory’s seemed to sprout a branch on every corner. Then local restaurateur Paul Fleming had a huge hit with P.F. Chang’s China Bistro and outposts spread across the country like virus. Some chains thrived, some not so much. When Wolfgang Puck opened his Chinois restaurant at Biltmore Fashion Park it was greeted with at best, yawns, and it closed shortly thereafter.


New American (Rancho Pinot and Convivo), fusion (Restaurant Hapa) and ethnic authenticity (Such is Life and Pizzeria Bianco) ruled the 90’s and beef came roaring back with high-end steak houses continuing to open throughout the first decade of the century. Mastro’s, City Hall, Ruth’s Chris, Harris, Morton’s, Fleming’s, Donovan’s, Capitol Grill, Mastro’s, Jean-Georges, BLT and Bourbon Steakhouses all continue to share the market. Tucson entrepreneur Sam Fox brought Bloom to Scottsdale and followed it with a slew of concepts that ranged from inexpensive pizza (Sauce) to, yes, beef (Modern Steak).


The juggernaut of trendy new restaurants, like Binkley’s and See Saw, screeched almost completely to halt in 2008 and many other places shuttered. But the backlash was a lot of space and equipment for lease at bargain prices that allowed ambitious chef/owners to open places such as F&B and St. Francis. Growing appreciation for small, mom and pop ethnic restaurants also added color and texture to the hospitality picture.


Despite discouraging summer temperatures, “gourmet” food trucks, a hit on both coasts, have begun to show up in town the last couple of years – neatly illustrating how in one hundred years, Arizona has literally gone from chuck wagons to, well, chuck wagons.