Menu Memories

While restaurants come and go, the memories they provide remain

This morning, I had the best pancake I have ever had at the B&B Café in Albert Lea, Minn., and, late this afternoon, a very passable Thickburger in Mitchell, S.D.

But one of the things I thought about while speeding west across the plains on Interstate 90 with my godson, Raul, and Andrew, who flew in to spend a few humid days on the farm before we left on this roadtrip home, were the Tucson eateries which are no more--places from childhood and high school.

Actually, I started musing on them a few weeks back as a result of reading The Tucson Murders, a book by John Gilmore about Charlie Schmidt, the so-called "Pied Piper of Tucson," who went on a murder rampage in the late '60s. There were a lot of familiar names in the book, many of them people who became prominent in the Old Pueblo (including our current sheriff, my draft counselor and an attorney I once spent a day with as a student intern), most of them dead.

One name that kept coming up was Johnny's, a burger place that was evidently a fave of Schmidt & Friends, and was a sometimes-eatery for my family. While I am fairly confident that I came into contact with Charlie Manson one evening when I was working for the California Park Service at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park in 1969-70, I don't think I ever sat in a booth next to the Schmidt crew at Johnny's. But the burgers there were great, the fries greasy and hot, the shakes thick. That Johnny's is long gone, like most of the characters in the book.

So are so many other memorable places. La Cucina had excellent pizzas loaded with almost-minced sausage and was a great place for a date. It's now home to the Wild Boyz and, I suppose, still an interesting place for a date. Vito's on Speedway Boulevard was another regular watering hole for my family; we'd go to Kiddyland and then head there for Italian.

Helsing's on Stone Avenue, just north of Speedway, was a much-patronized high school hangout--great grilled cheese-and-tomato sandwiches. Marco's, at First Avenue and Fort Lowell Road, delivered a dynamite pizza. Another pizza place--Mario's--occupies the same spot today, and I hope it has as happy a clientele. As I think about it, we probably ate far too much pizza.

The Panda, also on First Avenue, just north of Grant Road and the venerable El Cortez Market, was always a special place as I recall it. Dad took us there for Occasions, and I still had that reverence for it decades later when Pam Parrish and Jill Schensul took me there to hear Giant Sandworms.

The Fourth Avenue Cafeteria was another major weekend destination for the clan: our four Pecks, the grandparents, uncles and aunts and cousins at times. The open-faced roast-beef sandwiches were de rigeur, and the chocolate-cream pie was just fine. There used to be a lunch counter at Ledyard's on the northwest corner of Park Avenue and Speedway, and sometimes we would walk there from my grandparents' home for a sandwich. Our hangouts for Mexican food are, I am happy to say, still around: Club 21 and El Charro.

We didn't do fancy much while I was growing up. It was always an event to go to the old Elk's Lodge at the Manning House for dinner, and I remember eating at the Pioneer Hotel. The Arizona Inn was a big deal, and I think I liked it better then than I do now. The Reuben sandwiches at the El Con Levy's were always a treat. An oft-common denominator for the places we did frequent was that Dad seemed to know the owners. Some of them were Roskruge or Tucson High School buddies; others were people he'd met through work or around a card table.

As I grew into semi-adulthood, so many of my favorite restaurants were those owned or managed by friends--another paternal legacy, I suppose.

The Palomino was a regular part of my life, as was the Gekas family. Jimmy taught me the difference between Five- and Seven-Star Metaxa, and, while it sometimes took us into the wee hours of the morning, it was an important education. The Palomino was a place at which I had to do nothing after a difficult or long day: Captain would take me to my booth; Sally would bring me a J&B; my Palomino meal would magically appear--oysters Rockefeller, a Caesar salad, rack of lamb. Maybe a wine Jimmy wanted me to try or something I had asked them to keep for me. Mary would take a break and slide into the booth. The check was always a pleasure to pay. When Jimmy opened Harpo's at Fourth and Sixth Avenue (where Plush now is), it was a happy time for us all. His uncle ran the Old Pueblo Club for years, and that, too, was a comforting downtown refuge. When they closed it to move to fancier digs at the Williams Center, I bought several cases of odd bottles of wine and champagne Mr. Sfarnas decided not to move.

Boccata was another place you could walk into and happily give yourself over to the mercies of the staff and owners. Ellen would decide in a nanosecond what was needed--in drink and food and companionship--and that was that. Janos downtown provided the same kind of friendship and security (as I imagine it does today, although I no longer live literally around the corner), but in those days, Ellen was the front of THAT house, so it figures. Her reign gave way to the ever-sensitive Elizabeth, and with Janos in the kitchen and Randy at the bar, there was simply no way to not be more than satisfied. Last week at the farm, going through yet another box of things, I found a series of holiday cards sent to me by the Janos crew during the years--lots of notes, lots of memories.

Charles Kerr, the soul of the Tack Room, gave Tom Brown and me a preview of his own restaurant, Charles (and it could have had no other name, if you remember Charles Kerr), before he opened it to the public. He lined up the house staff--front and back--and inspected them in our somewhat-startled presence (we had been invited to be there at 6 p.m. without really knowing what was to happen) and then fed us a splendid meal. During the course of it, he took a few moments to share with Tom the course-by-course details of a pre-prom meal I had had at the Tack Room 10 years earlier. Tom graciously pretended interest; I was astonished at his memory. A major part of his success was his wife and partner, Katherine. Her own restaurants--on Campbell Avenue and Tanque Verde Loop--were later the scenes of mostly wonderful and only sometimes dramatic happenings.

While I miss all these places, the point is that they are still with me, richly satisfying long after the meals of childhood and early adulthood. They helped teach me to value food for more than simply a presentation or a single experience, and respect the people behind the menus--in the front or back of the house. Past, present and future, I thank them all.