The Blue Willow Special

If you've lived in Tucson for long, you've probably eaten at the Blue Willow on Campbell Avenue, and if you've eaten there when you were really hungry, you've probably had the Blue Willow Special, a wildly generous, profoundly satisfying mass of eggs, tortillas, chicken, green chiles, tomatoes, salsa, cheese and sour cream, with fried potatoes and raisin toast on the side--a steal at $7.95. It's the epitome of what the restaurant is about, and an unsung, unpretentious example of Southwestern cuisine before the fact.

Long ago, it was called Marianne's Special. Sooner or later, you asked who Marianne was, and the server would just say that she was somebody who used to work there.

The Marianne of the special was, naturally, Marianne Banes.

Banes was 19, studying archaeology at the UA and working at B. Dalton--where she'd been borrowing cookbooks, taking them home and reading them "like novels"--when she heard about a new restaurant that was opening up, where they were hiring people who could cook from scratch. The year was 1978.

There weren't any jobs for archaeologists, anyway. To her parents' horror, Banes quit school and went to work on the line at the Willow, which was modeled after a coffee house co-founder Janet Seidler (then Janet Ramsey) had owned in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. The Willow served home-cooked, healthful, ungreasy breakfasts all day in a town that before had been strictly Denny's. You could get fresh fruit and yogurt, along with fresh-baked croissants at the old house on Campbell, and huge, scrumptious omelets cooked to order--even a strange and powerful coffee called "espresso."

"Back then," Seidler recalls, "Tucson had nothing, and California, especially the Bay Area, had everything. I just stole a whole bunch of ideas from places out there, and of course, people liked it. Those tall heaters on the patio? I got the idea from a place in California. Now they're everywhere."

Soon the place needed a bigger, heavier dish for dinner.

"So I came up with this thing," Banes says.

It was such a hit that it's been on the menu ever since, surviving the restaurant's down period under different owners in the mid-'90s, and subsequent restoration after Seidler bought it back in 1999 in partnership with her daughter, Rebecca Ramsey. Since then, the dinner menu has expanded and gone in a new, more sophisticated direction. But the special is still available all day, albeit under a pseudonym.

Seidler decided to change the name in the early '90s, after Marianne had been gone for more than 10 years.

Banes laughs, remembering Seidler's account of the overwhelming concern of regular customers about this disturbing innovation:

"She told me that one guy had come up to her, really upset, and said, 'Where is Marianne?! Did she leave? Did she die?'"