A feast of history Arizona's oldest restaurants stand the test of timeJuly 19, 2011
by Roger Naylor – Apr. 3, 2011 12:00 AM
Special for The Republic
With the Arizona Centennial just months away, now is the perfect opportunity to explore the state’s delicious past.
Treat your taste buds to a tour of the places that represent every era of Arizona history. They can be found in sun-baked desert and cool mountain meadows; on the edge of lonely canyons and in the heart of downtown. Some are still run by the same family while others have acquired new caretakers carrying on old traditions.
We’re not claiming these are the best eateries in the state or that our list is comprehensive. We’re spotlighting some of the businesses that have survived for decades. They must be doing something right.
From boomtown saloons to high-end resorts to diners perched on the shoulder of Route 66, here is a collection of historical restaurants all across the state.
1. Palace Restaurant & Saloon, Prescott, 1877
The Palace is the historic heart of Whiskey Row.
Back when Prescott was still Territorial Capital, such notables as Wyatt Earp, his brothers Virgil and Morgan, and Doc Holliday were bellying up to the bar at the Palace shortly before they departed for Tombstone.
In 1900, when fire swept Whiskey Row, customers of the Palace interrupted their drinking just long enough to carry the ornately carved 1880s Brunswick bar across the street to safety.
There they continued to toss back the hooch as the fire raged, making the Palace the site of one of the all-time great drinking stories.
By 1901, the Palace Hotel and Bar, complete with Chinese restaurant and barber shop, had reopened and was known as the most elegant pleasure resort on the Row. Three large gambling tables were kept going full tilt.
The movie “Junior Bonner,” starring Steve McQueen, was filmed there, as well as scenes for “Billy Jack” and “Wanda Nevada.”
Today, the Palace has been lovingly restored and serves a full menu of grub and libations.
Details: 120 S. Montezuma St. 928-541-1996, historicpalace.com.
2. Longhorn Restaurant, Tombstone, 1881
Almost every building site along the boardwalk streets of Tombstone comes with a vivid, often bloody history. The Longhorn Restaurant is no exception.
On the night of Dec. 28, 1881, gunmen huddled near a window in the office of the Huachuca Water Co. As Virgil Earp crossed the street, the roar of shotguns split the night.
One load hit Virgil above the left hip, and another shattered his left arm above the elbow. Gunmen fled out the back as Virgil staggered to safety, collapsing in the arms of his brother Wyatt. Virgil survived his wounds but forever lost the use of his arm.
Later, the Tourist Hotel and Owl Cafe occupied the spot where unknown assailants sought retribution for the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. In the 1950s, it was Rossi’s Restaurant; it became the Longhorn Restaurant and Hotel a decade later.
Steve and Gloria Goldstein purchased the property in 1977. They got rid of the hotel, expanded the restaurant and restored a look compatible with Tombstone’s historical status. The Longhorn Restaurant has become a landmark in a town filled with family-friendly dining options.
Details: 501 E. Allen St. 520-457-3405, bignosekates.com.
3. El Charro Cafe, Tucson, 1922
When Monica Flin opened the one-room El Charro in 1922, businesswomen were a rarity in Tucson.
Maybe that explains why she had to work on such short-term credit. Extremely short-term. After taking a customer’s order, Flin would slip out the back door and procure the necessary items on credit from the neighboring Chinese grocery.
Back to the kitchen, she whipped up the meal, served it, collected the money and hurried back to the grocery to pay her bill. Despite this shaky business model, the restaurant thrived.
El Charro occupied three locations before 1968, when Flin moved the restaurant to Court Avenue into the family home she had inherited and where it stands today. The high-ceilinged house was built by her father in the 1890s using volcanic basalt quarried from the foot of “A” Mountain.
The restaurant is still run by members of Flin’s family, making it among the nation’s oldest Mexican restaurants in continuous operation by the same family.
Besides the original Court Avenue location in the historic El Presidio district near downtown, the family has opened four El Charro restaurants in Tucson, each known for the vibrant carne seca.
Details: 311 N. Court Ave. 520-622-1922, elcharrocafe.com.
4. Mormon Lake Lodge Steakhouse, Mormon Lake, 1924
Hand-cut meats have been grilled over an open pit of mesquite wood at some version of the Mormon Lake Lodge Steakhouse for generations.
First known as Tombler’s Lodge, the modest facility was built in 1924 about 20 miles southeast of Flagstaff. It became a gathering spot for ranchers and loggers working in the area. It was renamed Mormon Lake Lodge in 1938 with a change of ownership. The lodge changed hands a few more times before being leveled by fire on July 4, 1974.
In testament to its popularity, local cowboys and ranchers pitched in to have the structure rebuilt and open by Labor Day of the same year, just in time for the next rodeo. Naturally, a big party was held, and the ranchers burned their brands into the walls of the steakhouse.
After being rebuilt, the steakhouse occupied two stories done in casual Western decor, with an adjoining saloon. While waiting for their meal, customers can browse the Zane Grey collection. Mormon Lake was one of the author’s favorite settings.
Details: 1991 S. Mormon Lake Road. 928-354-2227, mormonlakelodge.com.
5. Rock Springs Cafe, Rock Springs, 1924
One business that illustrates a facet of the state’s business history – from stagecoach travels of the 1800s to Internet sales – is little Rock Springs Cafe, north of Phoenix.
From 1884 to 1917, the original building was on the Phoenix-Prescott stagecoach route for the Black Canyon Stagecoach. Decades later, it would end up on the interstate between Phoenix and Flagstaff.
The building dates to 1918 when founder Ben Warner settled on the property and named his business Rock Springs. In 1920, he started a store in a canvas tent to sell supplies and groceries to cowboys, sheep herders and prospectors. That same year, Warner began building a general store, hotel and saloon that opened in 1924.
Over the years, the hotel and restaurant attracted such notables as movie stars Jean Harlow, Tom Mix and Jane Russell, as well as Sen. Barry Goldwater.
Also over the years, Rock Springs Cafe became known as one of the best places in the state for pies. Part of the appeal comes from the secret recipes, dating back to the cafe’s earliest days. Another incomparable element is the water, sourced from the natural rock spring behind the restaurant, according to owner Augie Perry.
Top pie sellers include chocolate cream, lemon meringue, rhubarb crumb, apple, blackberry and Jack Daniel’s-spiked pecan.
Details: 35769 S. Old Black Canyon Highway. 623-374-5794, rocksprings cafe.com.
6. El Chorro Lodge, Paradise Valley, 1937
After 72 years, El Chorro Lodge had served as an unofficial social club for Paradise Valley and had begun to seem like a monument to its own history.
The building was constructed originally for the Judson School for Girls in 1934 by developer John C. Lincoln. And the menu hadn’t changed much since it converted to a restaurant. Shad roe and chateaubriand for two were being served long after such dishes were ordered as much for nostalgia as for taste. The restaurant even had been designated an American Classic by the prestigious James Beard Foundation.
Over the years, such vacationing celebrities as Clark Gable and Milton Berle dined at El Chorro. It also was a hangout for Frank Lloyd Wright’s son David and his friends in the ’50s.
In 2009, the restaurant was sold to philanthropist Jacquie Dorrance and underwent a major remodel.
Seating was increased, new fireplaces were built and solar panels and bocce courts were added. But two casitas still stand on the front lawn. The woven-metal patio furniture remains. Private dining rooms still share their original bathroom, complete with a retro tub and “Loo” door sign. – – –
And the menu? Special occasions are celebrated with flash-fried lobster tail, artisan cheese and charcuterie plates, bone-in rib eye and pan-seared grouper.
But old-fashioned liver and onions remain. And so do the famous sticky buns served with every meal.
Details: 5550 E. Lincoln Drive. 480-948-5170, elchorrolodge.com.
7. Charlie Clark’s Steakhouse, Pinetop-Lakeside, 1938
Eating at Charlie Clark’s Steakhouse back in the day was about as far from fast food as you could get.
A customer was expected to bartend while Clark prepared the meal. And because nothing was premade, that meant steaks had to be cut, potatoes had to be peeled and salads had to be assembled.
Before Clark bought the property, it had been a high-country version of a speakeasy: a log cabin selling moonshine from a barrel. Following the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the owner operated a cafe, but maybe his heart just wasn’t in a legitimate joint. He sold to Clark in 1938.
The business grew, reaching the point that customers no longer had to sling the suds while Clark grilled their steaks.
Clark died in 1952, but the steakhouse continues to be a popular White Mountain destination. Today it features multiple dining rooms, a bar and patio, and enough memorabilia lining the walls to make a museum envious. Out in the orchard, an open-air bar and dance floor are open in summer.
Details: 1701 E. White Mountain Blvd. 928-367-4900, charlieclarks.com.
8. Lute’s Casino, Yuma, 1940
Lute’s Casino is the perfect spot for people who feel T.G.I. Friday’s decor is too austere.
This downtown icon was built as a general store in 1901 with a hotel on the second floor. In 1920, the place was turned into a pool hall, complete with a trap door leading to a basement for illegal gambling.
R.H. Lutes took over the pool hall in 1940 as repayment of a loan. A couple of pool tables still remain, making this one of the oldest continuously operating pool halls in Arizona, but Lutes has evolved into a popular tavern and eating establishment.
The decor? Think swap-meet explosion.
Collectibles gobble every spare inch of space in the barnlike hall. Paintings, posters, neon and mannequins cover walls; barber poles, airplanes, bicycles and jackalopes dangle from the ceiling.
The only gambling that goes on now is between customers and their cholesterol levels as they tuck into the burly burgers, of which there are plenty. The Especial is a heavenly union: a cheeseburger topped with a hot dog.
Details: 221 S. Main St. 928-782-2192, lutescasino .com.