Consider the following an homage to a few of those fine local eateries that epitomized "the best" of their time. Passing years may have gilded my memories some, but, oh well; call it one of the pleasures of growing older.
My criteria are simple: One, none of these restaurants exists anymore; two, it had to be a well-known restaurant; three, I had to have eaten there at least once. Lest any of you argue that last bit, please note most of these places were popular long before I arrived in Tucson in 1972 and stayed in business long after.
The Solarium6444 E Tanque Verde Road
On the menu (circa 1980): trout dinner ($6.95), lobster ($12.95)
Why it closed: fire, May 1999
What's there now: a bank
When this building burned down in 1999, many an aging baby boomer let out a moan. Because, in spite of the fact that it was in the process of becoming "something else" when it went up in flames, The Solarium meant something to those of a certain age during a certain time in Tucson. Plenty of good times were had there; pretty good food, too.
Wood and glass were layered into three levels of unique (for its time) décor. Plants were hung everywhere. Handcrafted metal sculpture--the door was gorgeous--and stone floors gave the place an outdoorsy feel. Hence the name, I guess. It was all very open, very airy, very hip. The patio was sheltered and quiet in spite of the busy road out front. The third-level bar afforded great views of everything going on in the rest of the place. The view skyward from the first floor was pretty amazing, too.
Great seafood and steaks were the draw. Live music lured the young and hip crowd in. And yet, for all its "coolness," you could still bring your in-laws to the Solarium for a nice meal.
Damn shame it's gone. Damn good thing they got they guy who started the fire, too.
The Iron Mask2564 N. Grant Road
On the menu (circa 1986): duck l'orange ($6.50), chateaubriand for two ($18)
Why it closed: retirement of owners, 1993
What's there now: Kingfisher Restaurant
The Iron Mask already had a regular crowd when it opened in 1968. Owners Douglas and Rita Marvin had run two other very successful restaurants in town and took a loyal following with them. But The Iron Mask was also a place for special occasions, for many other Tucsonans.
You could always count on getting great food and great service. Beef was a specialty. Decorated like an English castle (sort of), The Iron Mask offered fare not often found at other nice restaurants in town: turtle soup, beef Oscar and peach melba, to mention a few. The waitresses were dressed like serving wenches and presented the menu on a chalkboard. Very impressive back then, especially if you were on a date.
There was a good-sized wine list for its time. Diners had their choice of white dinner wines, red dinner wine, pink dinner wines and sparkling wines and champagnes. All were labeled by region: California and New York being regions much like Burgundy or Moselle.
Look for the original bar stools at Kingfisher; IM is tooled on the back of them. The huge refrigerator behind the bar is another holdover from the original Iron Mask.
The Big A1818 E. Speedway Blvd.
On the menu (circa 1986): burgers ($2.25-$4.00)
Why it closed: "progress," 1987
What's there now: Speedway Boulevard
Probably the most popular burger joint of its time, The Big A offered broiled burgers with interesting toppings. I mean, who would've thought of using pineapple or Canadian bacon or a Caesar salad to top off a burger? The Big A even made the Weekly's Best of Tucson TM for several years.
The menu was hung on the wall behind the order counter (no waitresses here). Burgers came in two sizes. The tables were wooden and carved with initials of past visitors, and pennants from various universities hung on the walls. Rah! Rah! There was a designated Coaches' Corner, good music and affordable prices. Beer was served in mason jars, and desserts were meals unto themselves. The onion rings were always a hit. It was a college kid's heaven on Earth.
The city moved The Big A across the street in 1987, and while it retained much of the same atmosphere for a few years, eventually it closed completely.
Frampton-Stone Cafeteria536 N. Fourth Ave.
On the menu (circa 1982): chicken breast w/wing ($1.50), carved roast beef ($2.50)
Why it closed: owners retired and sold it in 1981; would close for good around 1983
What's there now: a nightclub
Frampton-Stone cafeteria attracted an interesting mix of people, but they were all there for the same reason: The sensible prices and homey food brought in seniors, college kids and the Fourth Avenue crowd. For more than 30 years, Frampton-Stone filled the bellies of Tucsonans with the type of food you--well, at least I--didn't make for yourself.
Carved roast beef, turkey, baked chicken, meatloaf, pork roast, ham, a fish dish, mashed potatoes, gravy, vegetables (not veggies), dumplings, homemade salads, great desserts ... the kind of food that stuck to your ribs and made you want to clean your plate. The only thing missing was Mom herself, but the servers were certainly a fine substitute. I don't remember everything being available on every visit, but that didn't matter. In fact, that was better, because quality was the focus, not quantity (like today's cafeteria/all-you-can-eat-for-$6 places). The same cook was there for almost the entire time Frampton-Stone was in operation, for goodness' sake.
It closed for a while and then reopened under new ownership. They tried to keep it pretty much the same, but time and tastes changed, and Frampton-Stone closed.
El Chaparral3568 N. Campbell Ave.
On the menu (circa 1980): chimichanga ($2.50)
Why it closed: "progress," 1983
What's there now: a gas station
The quintessential Mexican restaurant, El Chaparral--also known as Rosita's--served up delicious fare in a tiny, tiny adobe building. Eating there was as close as you could get to eating real, home-cooked Mexican food.
One tiny dining room with maybe 10 tables, a teeny kitchen in the back, DeGrazia murals on the walls--this was the artist's original Tucson home and studio--and permanent Christmas decorations made eating there an experience. Menus were printed on recycled greeting cards. Service could be slow--Rosita had only one stove in the back--but who cared; the food was superb! And the ambiance couldn't be matched.
They didn't have a liquor license, so you brought your own beer and kept it in the tiny refrigerator in the kitchen. You'd go get yourself another cold one as needed.
Rosita lost her lease in 1983, although the restaurant hung on for a bit longer. It was a sad, sad day when they tore down this gem.
Paring this list down was tough. There are plenty other of places that should be here, but had to be eliminated due to time and space. Other possibilities included: the Tack Room, Arizona's first five-star restaurant; Johnie's, the place where all the locals met; the Arroyo Café, with some of the best breakfasts you'd ever want to eat; the Old Adobe Patio, known for its magical al fresco dining; the Palomino, a bit of European elegance in the desert; the Mexico Inn, which today is a parking lot; and many, many more.