Every time I walk into Durant’s, I think of the opening line of John Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row, which goes like this: “Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.”
Durant’s, of course, is not in Monterey — it’s on Central Avenue in Phoenix, and has been since 1950. And unless freshly sliced prime rib or clinking cocktail glasses offends your sensibilities, it certainly does not stink or grate the ears. But, on a purely sensory level, there is something literary about the place.
Durant’s is an old hardback novel. Durant’s is a car with fins. Durant’s is your grandfather’s cologne. Durant’s is a place where the walls retain the memory of cigarette smoke and lies, and the tablecloths are as stiff and white as papal robes. Durant’s patrons are movers and shakers, regulars and lifers. Even first-timers to Durant’s seem to have an eye for history and a story to tell.
Put simply: Durant’s is the Cannery Row of Phoenix dining.
The namesake of Durant’s is Jack Durant. In Phoenix’s pantheon of colorful characters, he falls in right behind Jack Swilling and Jacob Waltz and Barry Goldwater. Google him. You’ll learn he was a gambler, a gangster, a drinker, a grandpa with a gold heart. You’ll read that he loved his dogs more than his wives, that his taste in décor was influenced by bordellos, that one of Phoenix’s most notorious murders was planned in his bar.
Jack Durant died in 1987, and I don’t know the real man from the legend. (Though I’m pretty sure he would detest the idea of being Googled.) I do know, however, what Jack Durant left behind: a classic American steakhouse.
This is old news for the beef-eating lawyers and lobbyists who convene at Durant’s for lunch and happy hour, and for the playwrights and reporters who linger until closing time. But for a new generation of journalism students and light-rail riders, Durant’s stands to be a revelation.
On a recent Saturday night I encountered a hipster couple at the bar who wondered aloud about the difference between an apertif and a digestif, then left without finishing their martinis. I have a feeling Mr. Durant’s English bulldog, Humble, would have growled at them were he still prowling the bar instead of hanging on the wall, immortalized in oil paint.
College students and cool kids should know that Durant’s ain’t cheap. You could buy a year’s worth of Top Ramen for what it costs to order dinner for two. Expect to pay $49 for a filet mignon, $72 for a porterhouse and $32 for crab cakes. For those of us not impervious to the recession, splitting a shrimp cocktail or a late-night dessert at the bar is a more reasonable option. (I’m a fan of the simple-yet-sublime vanilla ice cream with fresh berries.)
And here’s a memo to light-rail riders: I know the trains drop you off on Central Avenue, but if you use the restaurant’s streetside entrance, you’ll miss out on the true Durant’s experience. Instead, walk around to the valet stand in the rear parking lot, then follow the red mats through the kitchen to the dining room. For a few seconds, as the cooks and wait staff issue greetings over the din of sizzling meat and clattering kitchenware, you’ll feel like you’re the star of that long tracking shot in Goodfellas.
Once inside, request a booth. They’re covered in wine-colored vinyl and set against red-flocked wallpaper. They’re also shaped like capital “C’s,” which might make you feel like you need to close a deal or engage in a game of footsie, depending on your dining companion.
When it’s time to order, go big. Eat like a gangster. Every entrée is as monumental as Jack Durant’s backstory, but I recommend something old-schoolish like the Delmonico steak or prime rib — you know, something with a little fat on it. And don’t be shy about asking for seconds of Durant’s famous bread, which comes drenched in butter and garlic and crowned with minced basil and leeks.
Jack Durant’s motto was this: “In my humble opinion, good friends, great steaks and the best booze are the necessities of life.” I don’t know if you’ve ever read Cannery Row, but let me tell you: That little novel’s cast of characters would have loved Jack Durant and the poetic, nostalgic, habit-forming restaurant he gave Phoenix.