As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, I’m not a huge fan of fancy Michelin 3 star-type restaurants. I admire them, but I not only chafe at the cost, I find most of them a little too precious and full of themselves. Plus, dinner takes too long and my butt gets sore.
The fact is, there’s just an incredible number of rising star chefs out there – innovative, well-schooled and trained, and blessed with just the right amount of wit and whimsy to satisfy my culinary wants and needs – without the pomp, circumstance and inflated egos that too often accompany the 3-star joints.
But along with that, I’m just a sucker for the time-tested, shop-worn, old-timey institutions that have survived the fads, trends and gimmicks in remaining true to their original promise. A few weeks ago, I posted about Dan Tana’s in Los Angeles. Now I need to tell you about another one of my all-time favorites: DURANT’s, located in Phoenix – not in trendy Scottsdale, but downtown, an area that’s only recently reemerged as a dining destination, but for 66 years has been home to this Rat Packy, retro steakhouse.
The dining experience begins in the parking lot behind the restaurant, as you enter under the sign marked BACK DOOR, and reach the dining room by walking through the kitchen on red floor mats as the sweaty cooks wave to you from their massive, overheated stoves.
The dining room looks like the set from a Dean Martin movie – rich with period details, from tufted red leather booths and red flocked wallpaper to the red floral carpet.
The tone thus set, the experience that follows won’t surprise, but I promise you: It will delight.
Cocktails are poured with a heavy hand. The urinals are filled with ice (adding a lemon might be a nice touch). And dinner starts with an iced relish tray, replete with stuffed celery, green onions, carrot sticks, and pitted black olives (the canned kind, no Kalamatas here), along with ranch dressing for dipping and sometimes cottage cheese.
The bread basket, I recall, is a masterpiece: a loaf of wonderfully salty sourdough, smothered with melted basil butter and sautéed leeks. (What more could you possibly ask for from a bread basket?)
The main courses are absolutely predictable, but in a reassuring way, and of course they include your choice of soup or salad, and a potato (I’m partial to the foil wrapped baker, served with butter pats and a sour cream caddy).
That said, one thing about the entrees surprises me: Durant’s is reputed to have excellent scallops. I’ve never tried them, though … scallops? really? … in Phoenix? Slow roasted prime rib … comes in 8 oz., 12 oz. and 16 oz. … tender, flavorful and juicy, almost fork tender. The liver with bacon and onions – a classic old-school dish you hardly ever see these days – is too perfect to pass up. Ditto their signature steak: a porterhouse for two, much along the lines of Peter Luger in Brooklyn. It’s $106, but easily feeds three people.
Though Durant’s falls securely within a genre of restaurants, it does have quirks and features that are uniquely its own. For example, if you order a steak, it comes with a dainty pitcher of “Night Sauce.” I asked our server, a walking cadaver who probably started out as a busboy in the ‘50s, what Night Sauce was. He shrugged and said, “It’s for the steak.” Trying again, I asked, “Well, why’s it called Night Sauce?” “Because it’s made at night.” (Not ending that sentence with “Duh” was probably a struggle for him.)
After polishing off your last bit of Night Sauced steak, perhaps you’ll have room for Durant’s signature dessert: strawberry shortcake laced with chocolate chips, which strike me as kinda unnecessary, but WTF, get it anyway.
I last dined at Durant’s with friends from Phoenix, one of them, Paul, a most interesting individual (among other things he’s a video artist who shot a scene-for-scene remake of the The Poseidon Adventure in his garage – with himself playing every part). He filled me in on another Durant’s quirk, which is that they’ll prepare a hamburger for you at dinner, even though it’s not on the menu (or at least it wasn’t when we were there), but ONLY if you ask for it by its proper name – a “Hamburger Sandwich” – and only if you can content yourself with the fact that it comes between two slices of Wonder Bread.
Paul ordered it. It came out precisely as described.
“YOU DON’T KNOW JACK!”
That’s Jack Durant, the founder and owner who died in 1987. Quite a bit has been written about Jack, much of it apocryphal, but if only part of his story holds up, he’s still a fascinating figure. The word is, he started out as a smalltime gangster who worked in Vegas for Bugsy Segal at the Flamingo Hotel in the late 1940s. But even if he was a crook, he was also a born restaurateur who once dumped a huge delivery of steaks right on his asphalt parking lot because they were of inferior quality – thus “cementing” Durant’s reputation for quality.
Durant was also married five times, and it’s said that he loved his dog, Humble, more than any of the women in his life. Is that true? Well, if you look closely at the paintings over the booths there stands Humble … proudly.
When Jack died, his estate provided that Humble live in Jack’s house until his death. After Humble died, Jack’s estate, including the proceeds from the sale of his house, was divvied up among 21 long-time employees.
Pretty cool guy. Very cool restaurant.