For the past decade or so, the trend in Phoenix dining has been outdoor eating environments. Restaurants have invested in patios, sometimes larger than their indoor dining rooms, and many have built rolling garage-style doors that open the inside to the outside during mild weather. There is, however, one restaurant that has shunned the sun for 65 years now. Durant’s, the classic steak and seafood restaurant on Central Avenue halfway between the Encanto / Central and Thomas / Central light rail stations in Phoenix’s Midtown district, is deliberately dark and likely to stay that way.
To understand why Durant’s is so dark in such a sunny city, it’s important to understand the role the establishment has played for so many decades. Durant’s is not just a place to eat, it’s a place to meet discreetly — whether for romance or dealmaking. It has long been a hangout of legislators, business leaders, and other power brokers, and the absence of windows in the boxy building contributes to a sense of privacy. The lack of natural light, coupled with dark leather booths and crushed red velvet wallpaper, creates an unmistakably pre-Instagram feel in the dining room.
Durant’s has a front entrance facing Central that is seemingly ideal for customers arriving on foot from either of the nearby rail stations. Bike racks are found behind Switch, a neighboring restaurant. Everyone, however, should come in via the back door at least once, regardless of mode of transport. That’s because the rear entrance passes through the kitchen on its way to the host station, and it’s a ritual to see the food being prepared by friendly staff, many of them long term employees who take the time to greet customers even as they juggle plates and trays.
The dining room is divided into two portions, and there’s also a barroom with a J-shaped counter from which classic cocktails are dispensed. In the center of it all is another retro touch — an actual working phone booth. Even for those who may not have change in their pockets, it’s a reminder of a bit of etiquette that never seems out-of-date: a gentle admonition on the menu against talking on cell phones at the table. Tuxedo-clad servers provide service that is, to use one of the restaurant’s favorite terms, “humble.” The approach is formal but not overwhelmingly officious or insincere.
In another nod to nostalgia, all dinners begin with a relish tray of chilled crudites — carrot and celery sticks, radishes, olives, and scallions with a bit of dip. It’s a little something to nibble on while savoring a potent martini from the bar and contemplating the menu and wine list. Most entrees come with a choice of soup or salad. The former varies each day, but is usually something suitably indulgent such as shrimp bisque or cream of mushroom. The salad is a sizeable bowl of mesclun lettuces tossed with cherry tomatoes, croutons, and a choice of dressing.
In addition to the soup or salad choice, meals at Durant’s also include bread. By itself, the small loaf would be serviceable for mopping up sauces, but Durant’s tops the slices with plenty of butter and chopped leeks. Even with all those precursors to the main dish included, Durant’s still offers appetizers. Durant’s Debris, two small skewers of beef trimmed from the larger cuts served as entrees, are a sort of meat-before-meat starter. Oysters Rockefeller, chicken livers, and shrimp cocktail are some additional appetizer choices as classic as the decor and the drinks at Durant’s.
Entree selections include, as expected, a dozen types of red meat and an equal number of seafood entrees. The tender eight ounce filet is the most manageable cut of steak; at the other end of the spectrum lies the 48-ounce porterhouse, consumption of which earns the diner a place on the wall as a member of an elite club. In between, there’s a larger 12-ounce filet, New York strip steaks, a Delmonico steak, lamb chops, pork chops, and sirloin and ribeye selections. Prime rib is offered in three sizes, and daily specials have included pot roast and pork tenderloin.
On the seafood side, the lightly breaded trout or catfish are mild, flaky fish choices. The crab cakes are popular both as an appetizer (one on the plate) and as an entree (two per serving). Shrimp come in simple grilled or fried presentations, as well as in a scampi style served over linguine. For those torn between surf and turf, combination entrees such as a small filet with three plump scallops represent the best compromise, and for those who don’t care for either steak or seafood, there are a handful of chicken entrees. Meatless options are limited to a few entree-sized salads.
The entrees come with a choice of starch. The roasted garlic mashed potatoes are probably the richest choice, and the rice pilaf is the lightest option. Fries come in both regular and sweet potato variations. Vegetables sides are a la carte and include portions of mushrooms, asparagus, and spinach suitable for sharing. At midday during the working week, Durant’s is often packed during lunch, when the menu shifts in the direction of patty melts, French dip sandwiches, burgers, and reubens. Big Caesar salads augmented with a choice of protein are also popular at noon.
For customers on Durant’s mailing list, free dessert cards are customary on birthdays and anniversaries. Sweet ends to the meal include a towering strawberry shortcake for two and classics like key lime pie. After all this cloistered indulgence, an abrupt return to the sunny streets of Phoenix can be a bit of a shock, but think of it as a bit of time travel across 65 years of the city’s history. Patios, indoor-outdoor bars, and open doors represent the dining culture of 2015, but Durant’s has thrived since 1955 by staying essentially the same dark space it has always been.
2611 N. Central Ave., Phoenix AZ 85004
Encanto / Central Station