Retro Restaurants

While these longtime Tucson favorites are gone, the memories of them remain

Every longtime Tucsonan has a story or two about the dining scene back in the day.

Tucson always has been a restaurant town. Just ask a couple of longtime Tucsonans where they used to eat, and you're bound to hear some interesting tales.

These three restaurants provided the setting for many of these tales:

Mexico Inn

2640 E. Speedway Blvd.
Open: 1955-1990
What's there now: The proverbial parking lot

I worked at this tiny little spot in the mid '70s, left, and then returned a few years later when I needed a job. Rachelle and Alfonso Araneta were great in that way: They were always willing to help people in need, and they treated staff members like me as if we were their daughters, even though they had three of their own.

There wasn't anything fancy about the place. A few booths in faded pink vinyl lined the outside wall that was made up of huge windows overlooking the small parking lot in front. A seldom-used counter separated the dining room from the kitchen. A jukebox stood on one wall; a huge picture of a famous bullfighter hung above the jukebox.

The Aranetas were ahead of their time in so many ways. Many menu items were vegetarian, something unheard of in the mid '50s when the Mexico Inn first opened. Special menu items were named after their daughters--Rowena, Ginger and Michelle--other employees and even regular customers.

"Every time I watch the Food Channel or some chef," says youngest daughter Michelle Araneta, a deputy Pima County attorney, "one of their catchphrases is, 'I put so much love into my cooking.' The slogan on their business cards (at the Mexico Inn) was 'Made With Love.' That was ages before it became a catchphrase."

Rachelle made sure we made salsa the right way. Al sorted through the dry pinto beans, one bean at a time, making sure only the best made it into his secret-recipe refried beans. We weren't allowed in back while they cooked; Al didn't want us to know his secret ingredients. (Eventually, we discovered his trick, but I won't tell.) The beans were some of the best in town. The enchilada sauce set a standard.

When time permitted, Rachelle and Al would stop by tables to make sure the customers were happy. And they were.

Al taught classes at Pima Community College for a while, and both Al and Rachelle were active in the community after they closed the place in 1990. Al and Rachelle are gone now, but the fond memories of that loving food are not.

The Palomino

2959 N. Swan Road
Open: 1942-1948, 1968-1994
What's there now: McMahon's Prime Steakhouse

The Gekas family has a long and storied history in Tucson's hospitality scene. They ran the Coat of Arms and the Cliff House, to name a few of their joints, but it is the Palomino that most old-time Tucsonans associate with them

The Palomino was the definition of Continental dining in Tucson. Dining, dancing and superb hospitality ruled the night thanks in large part to the matriarch, Mary Gekas. Mary and her husband, John, opened the Venice Garden in 1942, but several years later renamed it The Palomino in deference to the many horse ranches that dotted the area. They sold the place in 1948, but bought it back in 1968. When John died in 1982, Mary and son Jim took the reins.

Regulars talk about walking in and, within minutes of being seated, having their usual highball delivered at the table. Others remember The Palomino as the place to go for that special occasion--an anniversary, a marriage proposal, prom night. Over the years, everyone from presidents (Gerald Ford and some guy named George W. Bush, before he became famous) to movie stars to longtime Tucsonans ate there. The bouillabaisse was a house specialty, as was the rack of lamb.

Many staff members, from busboys to chefs, worked for the Gekas family for decades. Kiki Kinkade, Mary's daughter and Jim's sister, talks about how her mom had a special place in her heart for the busboys. "The busboys were her pet project. She counseled them. She was respected by adolescent kids. People would send their wayward children to her. She'd whip them into shape, put them to work." When Mary died, many of those same busboys sent letters of condolence, because Mary had made such a difference in their lives.

Other stories about Mary speak of her tenacity, her business acumen and her good heart. She once fought a billboard company that had erected a sign that blocked the right of way to the restaurant; within hours, the offending structure was cut down. Another time, she opened the restaurant to help out a needy family; she raised more than $11,000.

Mary remained an active part of Tucson's arts scene until her death.

The Palomino may no longer be around, but folks still talk about their experiences there. One couldn't ask for a better legacy.

The Tack Room

7300 E. Vactor Ranch Trail
Open: 1965-2003
What's there now: A gated housing development

The Tack Room went through many incarnations: It was a racetrack, a dude ranch and an alfalfa farm before it became the legendary restaurant.

The dude ranch, known as Rancho del Rio, was home to the Vactor Family: husband, David; wife, Alma; and their three children. They'd moved there in 1952 to help out Alma's brother, Jud Kane, who received the place from their parents, Fan and Marvin Kane.

"I grew up on the property. It was our home. We worked pretty hard at it, even as kids. We'd entertain (the dude-ranch-visiting children) in the evening, square dancing or whatever. Then those kids would go to bed, and we'd still have to do our homework," says Drew Vactor, the son of David and Alma.

Dude ranching couldn't offer year-round income, so in 1965, the Vactors opened what some consider the state's first fine-dining restaurant, The Tack Room.

Thanks to outstanding food and gracious service, The Tack Room received Arizona's first Mobil Travel Guide Four Star Dining Award. Many more awards followed, including eight consecutive AAA Five Diamond Awards.

Service was seamless; anything you wanted or needed was at the table at a moment's notice. The menu featured tableside Caesar salad, grilled escargot and Chateaubriand for two. Famous guests included everybody from Paul Newman to Frank Zappa, but there were many local regulars. Men didn't have to wear ties and jackets, although everyone dressed nicely.

Drew became general manager in 1974. In 1984, when David died, he took over complete management. Richard Tyler would become a manager and part-owner. Alma stayed active in the business until 2000.

In 2000, after 26 years of 80-hour work weeks, Drew Vactor retired. Bob McMahon's Metro Restaurants group ran The Tack Room for another three years, and in 2003, the place closed for good.

Today, Vactor and his wife, Kandie, spend their time traveling and teaching. Their home is filled with many mementos of the restaurant. Both are active in local charities; Alma lives across the street from them.

While Drew doesn't miss the old, hectic life, he cherishes the memories. You can still see the old boot that was the sign on Sabino Canyon Road.

Pack 'Em Inn

22 W. Drachman St.
Open: 1964-2003

The menu had maybe a total of five entrées. The waitresses cooked the steaks on a grill in the dining room and then served them on sizzle plates. It was the kind of place for a romantic date, a family gathering or a solo dinner.

Ports O' Call

2201 N. Miracle Mile
Open: Originally known as Aku Aku in the 1960s; closing date unknown

Over the years, this restaurant had several names, but this is the one I knew. Happy hour included mounds of free appetizers and half-price tropical drinks. "It was the best meal I had all week," says one longtime fan.

Ye Olde Lantern

1800 N. Oracle Road
Open: 1959-2006

With the same owner as Ports O' Call (Dean Short, who also owned Kon Tiki, El Corral and the Cow Palace), Ye Olde Lantern's claim to fame was red meat. A little pricier than its sister restaurants, this was a special-occasion place for many Tucsonans.

Golden Pagoda

Located next to the Grant Road Tavern, this teeny spot was not just mom-and-pop-run; the rest of the family was there, too.

Unicorn Café

Later known as the Helen Street Café, this was one of Tucson's first real coffee houses.

Da Vinci's

"It smells like Italy," a friend once remarked--and he knew, having spent more than two years there. The Ali family taught Tucsonans how to "eat Italian."

The Sixth Street Café

This was the only place in town where you could get a peanut-butter-and-pineapple sandwich. The same site later housed Leopoldo's, an affordable place with great Italian food.

The Crying Onion

Located in a house on Fort Lowell Road, the original Crying Onion was one of those places to stop on your way home from a night on the town. The restaurant featured immense, killer omelets and Texas toast. According to Tucson lore, this is where a mysterious Mr. Jim ate every day. One night after leaving a $100 bill for a $5 meal, he left, never to return.

The Last Chance Pizza Mill

This place introduced deep-dish Chicago-style pizza to Tucson. If you could finish an OD pizza--with all the toppings--within a certain amount of time, it was gratis.

Old Adobe Inn

Later also known as El Adobe, this place was a downtown favorite due in part to the lovely and quaint patio in the back. You'd never know Broadway Boulevard was just a few feet away.