Gone Gourmand

Rita Connelly’s “Lost Restaurants of Tucson” explores the dining history of the Old Pueblo

Like the book's author says, "I've been eating since I was a child."

Working in the restaurant industry as a server and a pizza maker, getting to sample goodies from various kitchens, reviewing their culinary feasts (or flops) and getting to write about those experiences is what occupied Rita Connelly for 20 years. Ten of those years were spent writing about food and its purveyors for the Tucson Weekly.

It was those initial columns that ultimately led to a contract to write about "Lost Restaurants of Tucson." The book looks into eateries that sprang up, captured their share of the dining public and then, for a variety of reasons, disappeared.

Connelly says she wanted to do a book like this for a while, but didn't know how to go about it. After doing some research and reading articles Connelly had written for the Weekly, a publisher asked if she'd like to work on a book.

Connelly started her research in April, and by the end of July she had 30,000 words, about 80 pages and the book was done in time to go to press and have a product ready for Christmas sales.

The editorial begins in the late 1800s when the saloons that existed between 1860 and 1870 added comestibles to their whiskey offerings. "Back then, the saloons had to serve canned food, like sardines in a tin, because food had to be transported via stagecoach. When the railroad arrived, that's when things started picking up, and menu offerings expanded," she says.

One of Connelly's favorite old-time stories involves a saloon-type restaurant owned by a fellow named Rossi who had been a chef in England and California. Opening up downtown near the Fox Theatre as The Columbia (later, Rossi's), "It was the place to go in the Old Pueblo," she says. "Everybody dined there from the mayor to all the area miners."

Then along came prohibition. The night before it became illegal to dispense liquor, Mr. Rossi extended a big welcome to the entire town to join him and they drank the joint dry. By the morning, the only things left were empty bottles and lots of hangovers. While the one-night party was enjoyed by many, within a couple of years, the restaurant that previously relied on liquor sales to make its profit had to shut down.

"Although the owner personalized his service—'If you don't find your favorite dish on the menu, let us know and we'll make it for you'—booze was what kept the restaurant going, and when it was no longer available, the doors were closed," Connelly says.

Eating out in the late 20th century involved three-and-four-course offerings, and restaurant dining was reserved for one-of-a-kind, memory-making events. "Dinners used to be special," she says, recalling a few examples. "The Gekas family (Johnny, Mary and son Jimmy) at the Palomino; Doug Levy, who started at The Dish before he opened Feast; Donna Nordin, Don Lauria, Dean Short, Joe Scordato, the Jacobs family at El Parador—while the book is about restaurants, it's also about the people behind them."

Keeping the people in mind, Connelly also notes meals so good they've left decades-long memories. One of her favorite now-defunct eateries was The Iron Mask on Grant Road—a spot now occupied by Kingfisher.

"Doug Marvin was old school from England who got started at the Santa Rita Hotel as a chef. When The Iron Mask opened, the taskmaster in him came out, and he insisted on making everything from scratch, even to the point of rendering his own fat to cook French fries.

"The Mask was one of those places people went to for special occasions. I remember going there for my birthday some 38 years ago. Because the food and service was that good, I can still recollect that particular meal," Connelly says.

Although fine dining could be found at places like Katherine's, Charles and The Tack Room, other past eateries catered to a different crowd. One of the precursors of the healthy food movement was the Good Earth Restaurant, where servers carried a pager in their aprons to be notified when orders were ready. A trademark/franchise dispute caused the facility to close in 1997 after a 20-year run.

Then there's the three-story barn-like Bum Steer on North Stone Avenue, which drew college students and other fun seekers from the early 1970s until it closed in 2010. While food and drink was the draw, so, too, were the decorations like ceiling-mounted wagons salvaged from Hollywood movie sets.

Another standout was the brainchild of Diego Valenzuela (or "Gordo"), who conceived and ran Gordo's Mexicateria. "He had five restaurants in the 45 years he was in business," she says. Food was cooked fresh, never reheated, and Valenzuela developed a catchphrase that made him famous. "If you like chimichangas. I mean, if you really like chimichangas." While they never counted them all, daughter Marguerite estimates the number of chimis sold was in the millions.

"Tucson doesn't get its fair share of national press about the many kinds of food we have here," says Connelly. "We may not be as big or fancy as New York or Los Angeles, but our food is just as good. I want people to know that Tucson has, for a long time, been a great place to eat. It's a rich history that goes way beyond mesquite-grilled steaks and hand-made tamales. What's really cool about the book is the many connections drawn between restaurants, people and food."

"Lost Restaurants of Tucson" is available now for pre-purchase via

www.arcadiapublishing.com and Amazon and will be in local book outlets by Monday, Dec. 7. Connelly will be signing copies ($21.95) at Mostly Books (6208 E. Speedway Blvd.) on Saturday, Dec. 12 at 2 p.m.

Editor's note: This post has been updated for quote accuracy.

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