The Legend And Lore Of Jack Durant
Durant’s is the bright pink, old-school steakhouse in midtown Phoenix that has a reputation for good food, old-fashioned service and for being a place connected with the mysterious and the mafia underworld. A new locally made film called Durant’s Never Closes opens Thursday. So just what makes the restaurant, and its famed owner, so singular?
Your experience of Durant’s starts when you find the entrance. If you walk in off the street, everyone knows you’re an outsider. If you know what you’re doing, you walk in the back door. You pass first through the kitchen and then into the dining room. Immediately it’s as though you’ve stepped into another time. You'll see textured red walls and high-backed, half-circle leather booths. Crudite is served before your meal, and the room is draped in red.
"The lighting is poor. The tables are crowded. It’s noisy. The sleek waiters running around," said David Foster. He’s the author of the book Glimpses of Phoenix and taught a class at Arizona State University called “Phoenix and Cultural Production.” He’s also been a patron of Durant’s for about five decades.
"You have interesting people over there. You wonder who those people might be, what sort of conversations they’re having," he said. "The decor of Durant's has been consistently, for the 50 years of its existence, kind of like a seedy Atlantic City brothel. And that is part of its seductive charm."
The other part of its seductive charm is the legend of the restaurant's namesake: Jack Durant.
"Jack Durant died in 1987, right. We’re still talking about him. There’s a reason behind that. He was larger than life," said Travis Mills.
Mills is the director of the new movie Durant’s Never Closes, starring Tom Sizemore as Jack Durant. In a tale full of muddled facts and half-century-old rumors, one thing is certain: The more you ask about Durant, the more confusing the story becomes.
"During his lifetime, no one really knew where he was from," Mills said. "Some people would say Florida, Kentucky, Chicago. No one knew."
The most pervasive rumor about Durant is his connection to the mob.
"One of the abiding myths is that Durant came down here to found the restaurant as a front for the mob operations in Phoenix represented by Bugsy Siegel," Foster said. Foster is also quick to say that, to the best of his knowledge, no one has been able to verify this. In a lot of ways though, it’s just as important that many people still wonder about it.
"This whole phenomenon of Jack Durant is the urban myth that gives the restaurant its whole reason for being," Foster said.
Even if he wasn’t in the mob himself, stories swirl that Durant associated with mobsters, or that the mob using Durant’s as a meeting place. Mills said that he’s heard lots of different stories about Durant – some that make him sound like a great guy, and some that make him sound like a terrible person.
He recounted his personal favorite.
"Durant was so angry at a customer one time that he ran into the back and grabbed a meat cleaver, and it took the entire staff to stop him from going out onto the floor and using it on the customer."
The simple idea that Jack Durant owned the restaurant isn’t even confirmed. Some say he ran the restaurant but didn’t own it, or that he was just a part owner.
"It’s a place full of so much history," Mills said. "A lot happened. Politicians ate there, celebrities, a lot of important things, good and bad I think happened in those walls. For a storyteller, it’s the perfect location."
The stories will keep being told because, as Foster said, "A major urban area needs a certain amount of dirty history to sustain itself. Things can’t always be the Chamber of Commerce."
Foster said people want to believe in the hope and pride of their city, but he said "At the same time they’re interested in having a connection with a place that has some juicy bits of nasty history."
For us, that nasty history comes with a juicy steak.
Durant’s Never Closes premieres Thursday, Jan. 21 at the Renaissance Phoenix Downtown Hotel and starts a week-long run at Harkins Shea 14 on Friday, Jan. 22.