Arizona eatery helps celebrate state’s centennial
PHOENIX, Az. — Arizona doesn’t seem as old as it really is.
It is just like me.
Arizona is celebrating its 100th anniversary of statehood this year. When you think of old Scottsdale and Mesa you envision cowboys and ranchers. Flagstaff, of course, embraces Route 66.
But the more metropolitan Phoenix has always been a sprawling city of tomorrow. You don’t expect to experience any downtown history — until you see Durant’s. It is desert sand in an hourglass.
Durant’s opened in 1950 at 2611 N. Central Avenue in downtown Phoenix. It’s a Southwest version of a midwest supper club with red leather booths that blush like the cheeks of a first kiss. Steaks sizzle in dim lights that glitter off of red flocked wallpaper. Vintage exterior neon signs promote cocktails and impresario Jack Durant; a huge color portrait of Durant, born 1904, hangs in the bar.
There is a front door entrance to Durant’s. But regulars take you through the back door where you amble along a red carpet through the kitchen into the bar area. The secret entrance embraces Durant’s legend as something of a mobster.
Durant, who died in 1987, was pals with Bugsy Siegel and was on site in 1939 when Siegel built the Flamingo Hotel and all its secret passages in Las Vegas. Durant was a Flamingo pit boss and remained at the casino after Siegel’s 1947 murder. He later got involved with the murder of another casino owner and was “persuaded” by authorities to leave Nevada.
Durant was married five times. He was twice married to actress Helen Gilbert (from the Andy Hardy film series). He died without heirs;
his English bulldog, Humble, was the chief beneficiary of his will. Late-great Chicago Sun-Timesman Tom Fitzpatrick was writing for the Phoenix New Times in 1989 when he unearthed Durant’s will: “To my dog, Humble, I leave my home, furniture and cash in the sum of $50,000.” Fitzpatrick reported that the will also provided for a caretaker for Humble so he could remain in Durant’s home.
Fitzpatrick had met Durant and ranked him with larger-than-life nightlife personalities like Toots Shor in New York and Eli Shulman in Chicago.
“It was pretty much like a steakhouse and it still is,” said Durant’s owner and general manager Carol McElroy over dinner at the historic hot spot withits pink exterior.
McElroy married the son of Durant’s business partner Jack McElroy Sr., so the business has been all in the family for its entire 62 years. The elder McElroy was an Arizona rancher who met Durant in Las Vegas. McElroy died in 1993, but Durant had left him the business shares of the restaurant in his will.
“Dad and Jack traveled to Chicago and the east coast to feel out what they wanted the place to be,” McElroy said. “When I was a teenager dating Jack (McElroy)Jr. in the 1960s we would come here for dates. I met Jack Durant, of course, and we had many dinners here on many occasions. In the early 1950s we had a small area where you could dance. One of my favorite people is (former Arizona governor) Rose Mofford. She recalls all these weekend after work parties in what is now our South Room. And they would dance.”
Besides the South Room, there is a North Room. And the bar area seats 20.
Be sure to ask about the Celebrity Tables at the 148-seat establishment. Baseball Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean liked Booth 27 because of its proximity to the bar. Harry Belafonte prefers Table 331. Liberace, Mel Torme, Jack Benny and Kris Kristofferson all favored the South Room’s Booth 12..
“Booth 12 accomodates more people,” McElroy said. “They would have their guests, or I think the the term nowaways is ‘posse’.”
Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe? They were left alone at Booth 53.
Durant played minor league baseball in the mines around Arizona and operated a casino in Las Vegas. Some of his teammates allegedly were Chicago White Sox players who played under alisas after being banned in the 1919 Black Sox scandal.
In 1996 M.R. Leo wrote the fact and fiction mash-up The Saga of Jack Durant. The book has been transformed into the popular Phoenix-area play “In My Humble Opinion,” written by Terry Earp — who is married to Wyatt Earp, the namesake grandson of the legendary frontier cop. The play suggests that the 1976 murder of Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles was planned at Durant’s. (No word onwhich booth was the site of the alleged scheme.) The title of the play gets its name from billboards that Durant posted around Phoenix:
“In my humble opinion, Durant’s is the finest eating and drinking establishment in the world” — Jack Durant.
“Jack Durant was a larger than life guy,” McElroy said. “He loved being in the front of the house and loved the role of Jack Durant. He was over six feet and wore tailored suits, Italian-type dress. Crisp shirts. He was very gallant. He was respected yet had a few little feuds. Because this was his place and he was going to run it his way and if you didn’t like it, ‘Buddy, there’s the door’.”
Modern downtown Phoenix began to open up with the birth of Durant’s.
The Palms Theater opened in 1945 showing “Bring On The Girls” across the street at 2612 N. Central (the theater was razed in 1981). The popular Golden Drumstick served outstanding fried chicken from a small diner next to the theater. The sleek Arizona Business Bank tower was built in 1982 across the street from Durant’s.
McElroy was born in Cologne in the Republic of Panama. Her father built locks on the Panama Canal and her grandfather Bartalome Tilde built hotels in Panama and Spain. Her family came to Phoenix in 1952. Her husband Jack McElroy Jr. checks out the restaurant about once a week and oversees the Durant’s extensive wine list.
Durant’s is featured in the “100 Years, 100 Chefs, 100 Recipes Centennial Cookbook” (MMPR Marketing, $32.95) for the state of Arizona.
The book highlights Durant’s original cheesecake recipe (with six tablespoons of butter for 8-10 servings). “There are no eggs in this recipe,” she said. “You watch it like a hawk and bake it at low temperature. When you bake it after exactly one hour you want it to shimmy in the pan. Throw away anything you know about cheesecake.”
And throw away anything you think you know about Arizona dining. Durant’s is old school at its best.