Off the Menu: Old Book is A Culinary Time Machine
I've lived in the same house for 35 years mainly because I'm mortified at the thought of cleaning out the closets. No, don't whisper "hoarder." It's not like that at all. There's just a lot of stuff–all of it good–in a house occupied for 35 years.
Despite my desire to avoid sifting through my accumulation, I succumbed over the summer. I guess I thought it was better than venturing out while the temps hovered around 118°!
While going through shelves of slightly dusty books, I found a gem: a Valley restaurant menu book from 1981. Gosh. It brought back memories of meals enjoyed with family and friends in restaurants, many long gone.
I know there are people who think Phoenix was a vast culinary wasteland until recently. Maybe our restaurants weren't always on the cutting edge (although I could argue that we had RoxSand's as well as others that were light-years ahead) but we've always had good food here.
According to Elin Jeffords, a long-time Valley food writer and observer of the culinary scene, "It wasn't just about beans and steak here. We had great resorts and they had great dining rooms. There was always fine dining here."
And, I might add, fine chefs.
I remember with great fondness the delightfully crunchy fried zucchini rounds at a long-since-closed Phoenix restaurant, Lunt Avenue Marble Club. Maybe fried zucchini came to Phoenix a year or two later than it appeared on menus in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles so the fried zucchini wasn't "new" when Lunt Avenue put it on their menu, but it sure was good!
Where is fried zucchini now? It's around if you search hard enough (Pssst. Just between us, you can still get old school fried zucchini at Feeney's) but for the most part fried zucchini rounds have morphed into a little more upscale and trendy fried zucchini blossoms.
So what else is off the menu and why? And what's on today's menus and why?
It's hard to know exactly what drives menu trends–certainly the economy has something to do with it. When times are bad not only are we looking for inexpensive dishes, but we're also looking for comforting foods.
There's no question that Americans' interest (maybe not their actions but their interest) in health has had an effect on what's on menus.We do have our healthy fare and our share of restaurants touting healthier cooking methods and ingredients, but it seems that in these difficult economic times, diners are also very much tempted by bacon, pastrami, chocolate, fried chicken and burgers.
Howard Seftel, a journalist who writes about food and restaurants for Arizona Republic, believes the changes in menu options have been somewhat driven by the influx of people from the coasts, especially from New York City and Los Angeles. "They brought with them an infusion of different tastes and food experiences that certainly influence what restaurants are offering on their menus."
If you were in the Valley during the '70s and '80s, you would know that many of our high-end restaurants served "continental" cuisine. We also had more than our share of restaurants serving classical French dishes–many very involved and over the top. Menus from the '70s list dishes like Dover Sole Meuniere and Duck a L'Orange, Lobster Newburg and a long list of beef dishes, some served with Sauce Béarnaise and my favorite, Steak Diane. Sadly, most of those are now off the menu around town.
Brochettes, rack of lamb and Veal Oscar were on many menus. Veronique, Florentine and Amandine, en croute and en papillote were common descriptors.
You probably won't find many of those options on present-day menus. What you will find are words like charcuterie and house-made. It's no longer just ice cream but house-made gelato. Sole has given way to salmon and halibut. Fresh and local and made from scratch are the buzzwords. There are gourmet burgers topped with house-made ketchup and there's kimchee and bacon and burrata on everything. Hey, I'm not complaining.
When I moved here in 1977, there were very few choices for ethnic dining. We had Mexican, Italian and a few Chinese restaurants. This might surprise you, but way back then we did have dim sum and a sort of pan-Asian restaurant with separate dining rooms for each region. And, if I recall accurately, the food wasn't too bad.
If there were any Thai or Vietnamese or Persian restaurants, I didn't know about them. As the population of the Valley has become more diverse so has the restaurant landscape.
Restaurants with longstanding clientele can encounter resistance when they attempt to make menu changes. The dilemma for the chef is that diners might balk if their favorites are removed from the menu whereas others might get bored with the same fare month after month, year after year. Some Valley restaurants are known for particular dishes and diners just won't tolerate having them removed from the menu.
Valley restaurants that have been around for a long time have held on to many regular diners' favorites. El Chorro, which has updated its menu a few times in the past several years to include a wider range of dishes, still offers old favorites like chateaubriand to satisfy their faithful regulars. They've moved on from chopped steak to buffalo burger, though.
The venerable Durant's, thankfully clinging to its past in many ways, now offers Kobe sliders and crab cakes with chipotle aioli alongside all the old favorites. And, yes, the cognoscenti still go in through the kitchen door.
Sometimes, the more things change, the more they seem to remain the same. In the '80s, garbage salad appeared on many menus: a mélange of various chopped vegetables, meats and cheeses. Cowboy Ciao's Chopped Stetson Salad seems to be a takeoff on that theme, although with a much more refined, upscale execution.
Cleaning out the bookshelves on a hot summer day has helped to bring back many delicious memories. Maybe nostalgia is 20/20 but I surely do miss some of those old dishes.
VINTAGE VALLEY MENUS
Feeling nostalgic? We found a website with vintage menus from the Valley.
Alison King from Modern Phoenix (modernphoenix.net/menus.htm) displays highlights of Chef Joe LaVilla's extensive menu collection and provides an excellent commentary on the Valley's dining scene. Many of the restaurants have closed their doors, but a few such as Durant's, The Stockyards and Monti's Casa Vieja survive (although at significantly higher prices–Durant's Delmonico steak for $6.50, anyone?)