Before the car became the dominant mode of travel and the Salt River was dammed, Tempe was defined by Hayden’s Ferry. At that site, Monti’s la Casa Vieja in Downtown Tempe is built around an original structure from 1871. Considered the oldest continuously occupied building in the area, the restaurant’s core has since been surrounded by numerous rooms added over the years. Appropriately, the restaurant remains accessible by multiple modes of transport. There’s no more ferry, but the Mill Avenue / Third Street light rail station is just a block away.
|Hayden’s Ferry historical marker|
All those rooms mean that diners can eat steak dinners at Monti’s several times without sitting in the same place. It also means that the journey from the lobby to an assigned table usually results in a quick walking tour with the host on duty explaining the origins of the rooms being traversed. A large patio facing Tempe Beach Park seems underutilized. It’s unattended except during special events and adorned only with plastic patio furniture and beer pennants. Maybe the copious seating inside has resulted in little attention to the outdoor space.
|patio with the flour mill in the background|
A wait for a tables seems a reality most of the time, partly due to the large number of private parties and local civic groups that meet in Monti’s various dining rooms. The best option for more immediate service is to sit in the bar, which serves the restaurant’s full menu and is located right in the center of the labyrinth. Service is consistently friendly, but not always prompt. Of course, many customers come to Monti’s to enjoy the historic atmosphere and therefore have little interest in rushing through the experience.
|exterior from Mill Avenue|
Opinions of Monti’s food are varied. Fans praise it as an affordable steakhouse while detractors say the food is not as good as it was in decades past. To its credit, the restaurant has tried to increase its kitchen credibility with recent guest appearances by recognized local chefs such as Matt Carter, Beau McMillan, Payton Curry, and Eddie Matney. For many customers, though, the charm of Monti’s seems to lie in its accessible familiarity. Classic steakhouse fare dominates the menu with a few updated touches. Entree prices peak at $30 and include two sides.
|chicken tortilla soup|
Monti’s is mostly about meat, but there are some worthwhile starters before the steak knives come out. Chicken noodle soup, a classic full of poultry and vegetables, wide strands of pasta, and plenty of salt, is always available. A second soup varies by day of week. Chicken tortilla adds a spicy dimension, and broccoli cheddar is a pleasant meeting of sharp flavor and creamy texture. Beyond the standard soups, shrimp gazpacho, offered every day, is a vibrant choice with its mix of minced crustaceans and tomato in a martini glass.
Salads include a garden salad based mostly on iceberg lettuce. Skip it in favor of the Caesar, a solid version of a dependable favorite with generous portions of crisp romaine, grated parmesan, salty dressing, and crunchy croutons. At lunch, servers will encourage a purchase of the restaurant’s signature Roman bread. At dinner, it’s provided automatically. Either way, it’s a worthwhile addition to the meal. Basically, it’s focaccia, lightly brushed with olive oil that makes the accompanying butter superfluous.
No matter how a meal at Monti’s begins, its likely to progress to beef as the main course. Monti’s approach to steak predates enthusiasm for Kobe beef and contemporary debates over cattle fed on grass as opposed to corn. Instead, the main choices here are known varieties such as sirloin, filet mignon, and prime rib. The filet is predictably tender, and prime rib benefits from a flavorful herb crust and au jus. Monti’s offers a house brand steak sauce, but the best accompaniment is probably a side order of grilled mushrooms and onions.
|lunch filet with grilled mushrooms and onions|
Beef at Monti’s comes not only in big slabs on a plate, but also in some seemingly lighter preparations such as the balsamic steak salad, which features sliced sirloin on top of mesclun greens with pecans and gorgonzola cheese. Likewise, the prime rib tacos, four corn tortillas filled with thinly sliced meat, effectively blend the tastes of salsa and cilantro with the juicy roast beef flavor of the meat in this southwestern platter. The steak sandwich is also good, but would be even better if made with Roman bread rather than a standard roll.
|balsamic steak salad|
Beyond red meat, Monti’s serves poultry, fish, and even a little pasta. The southwestern chicken sandwich is reasonably good with a grilled breast topped with fried onions, jack cheese, and jalapenos. Like the steak sandwich, it could benefit from better bread. The fish and chips is attractively presented, although both the seafood and potato components have a mealy texture. Among the sides, the onion rings and the baked potato are dependable choices. The seasonal vegetable seems to be zucchini nearly every day.
|fish and chips|
Pies from Rock Springs Cafe are listed on the menu but no longer available. Instead, Monti’s house desserts like peach cobbler are served in sizes large enough for an entire table to share. The bar has an adequate beer and wine selection with some local brews from SanTan and Four Peaks on tap. After more than five decades, Monti’s seems to be settled into a comfortable routine. Go at least once for the historic location. Stay for a steak and some Roman bread before deciding if the restaurant should be a regular destination.
100 S. Mill Ave., Tempe AZ