Tucson is the first U.S. to be recognized as a World City of Gastronomy. That’s a big deal right? And while downtown is going through so many changes with their bar and culinary scene, we sometimes forget that the old school spots remain relevants and should be celebrated.
Like Club 21. The 2920 N. Oracle Road spot has been a Tucson for 70 years.
Started back in 1946 by the Taft family, Club 21 was the only game in the area, or most of the town really, to serve up authentic Mexican food with a full bar and lounge in a city that housed maybe 50,000 residents.
“Oracle Road, back then, was the only thoroughfare for travelers going to Phoenix,” notes Skip Taft, current second generation Club 21 proprietor. “It was a dusty two lane road and we opened up right at the old roaundabout.
There wasn’t a whole lot of businesses open in this location back then, so we were a destination for the locals and people driving up north. Although there was a racetrack nearby where they raced midget cars and that’s when things started to boom for us in a way … especially when Steve McQueen started coming here.”
Back when Tucson was a go to spot for movie locations, a lot of celebrities passed through the doors of Club 21, but it was the families, and the families of the families, that have kept the business going for so long. “We have been serving generations,” Taft says with a proud smile. “It’s basically why we do what we do and have for so long. I don’t think my dad had any idea that his place would last for so long but it’s the good people of Tucson, and those visiting, that keep the lights on and keep us motivated to continue putting out a delicious and consistent product. People simply love our food and we love that!”
It’s true, most of the items you see on the menu today are the same as when they were back in the ’40s and ’50s.
“Only the prices have changed,” he says, laughing.
Club 21 offers a wide selection of time-honored favorites such as an abundance of combination plates, a la carte items, a full children’s menu along with tempting desserts and Sonoran-inspired appetizers.
“But I’d have to say, if there was one signature item,” nods Taft as he points to the menu, “a dish that has not changed a bit in 70 years, it’d have to be the number four combo.”
The pretty classic plate of heaping homemade Mexican food features a ground beef taco, tamale, cheese enchilada smothered in a secret family red sauce and served with rice and beans. Biting into it you can almost taste the history of our city, you can hear the ghosts of the past whooping it up in the lounge, smell the dust coming off the old highway and above all get a glimpse of what it was like to enjoy a true standby plate of real food when the road grew too long and the day grew too warm. Even though the food is served historically piping hot.
Speaking of history, the name of the restaurant is one of local curiosity. The address isn’t 21 Oracle Road (it’s 2920 N. Oracle Road, just off of Miracle Mile) but perhaps it was when they first opened. Was it?
“Actually,” muses Taft as he eases back in his chair, “the name came from the first sign they had up for the place. Originally, there was no name, it simply read ‘Restaurant / Lounge’. That’s it. But there was a billboard up outside advertising ABC Beer which we served, at one time, that was produced up in Phoenix. In the center of its logo there was the number 21, which was, and still is, the drinking age. So when people asked where they were going they would say ‘Oh, we’re off to the 21 Lounge’, or ‘We’re going to Restaurant 21.’ Through time we just got to be known as Club 21 and the name just stuck.”