Sunday, November 23, 2014

Steak Out.

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Five years after folding, Jay Newton’s Beef Eaters lives on in the memories of Phoenicians. But how long will the barren building survive?


The Beef Eaters restaurant sits frozen in time along the information superhighway. Closed for years, the CenPho eatery’s old listing at azeats.com remains active, complete with a virtual tour where visitors see the semblance of a British dining hall: sprawling banquet rooms filled with high-backed leather chairs and booths, mahogany oak-paneled walls adorned with paintings from England in gilded gold frames, and a “King’s Den” with shiny crystal chandeliers and stately white upholstered walls offset by burgundy floral carpet. Pitched wood beam ceilings lend an airy feel to the rooms.


During its heyday, Beef Eaters hosted a slew of notable locals, including former ASU football coach Frank Kush, Arizona governors Rose Mofford and Raul Castro, state senator John McCain, sports executive Jerry Colangelo, and Phoenix mayor Milton Graham. Longtime owner Jay Newton was known for his philanthropy and his extreme dedication to Beef Eaters; ultimately, he also became known for his quixotic search to find someone to take the restaurant off his hands.

Beef Eaters’ nearly 18,000 square foot building at Third Avenue and Camelback Road has been for sale and unoccupied for the past five years. The tables are caked with dust. The restaurant’s wooden marquee greets passersby with a gap-planked smile. Weeds thrive around the property, and illegible graffiti mars the outside walls. A large window facing the courtyard has been shattered and boarded up, leaving glass shards scattered across the distressed, hunter-green carpet. “You know, when they closed the Beef Eaters, it was a great loss,” Rose Mofford says. “People still stop me to this day and say, ‘Isn’t it too bad it’s not in operation?’”

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A former Utah sheep rancher, Jay Newton built and opened Beef Eaters in 1961, naming his eatery after the popular nickname for Yeoman guards at the Tower of London. “When he originally opened, it was just really elegant. The silverware was all sterling silver,” says Mike Newton, one of Jay Newton’s three sons. “I remember when I was working there as a busboy in ’61, and I’ll always remember this lady in a booth. After she was done eating, she started looking around and stuffing the silverware in her purse. So pretty soon, he couldn’t afford to keep the sterling silver because of theft, but it was gorgeous.”

The place had a reputation for serving delicious, hearty food for a flat price (typically anywhere from $13.95 to $27.95 for a full meal). Patrons would gather around one of the four fireplaces and watch as staff cooked desserts at the tables, including cherries jubilee and banana flambe.

“Very seldom did we have a slow day,” says longtime Beef Eaters staffer Elaine Blomeyer. Holiday parties were often packed to capacity (550 people between four rooms). “We were into the hundreds of people,” Blomeyer says. “We were busy from the time we opened almost till the time we closed.”

Rose Mofford was a friend of Jay Newton’s from the 1940s until his death in 2006. “I used to come from the capitol and go down to Beef Eaters, and everybody would meet there,” Mofford says. “The bar had a fireplace, and the dining room had a fireplace, and it was like home. People would get there and relive the old days, talk sports. Everybody liked to go there because of the prime rib, and the excellent service of the help. And it was a cozy place.”




Jay Newton practically lived at Beef Eaters, often sleeping in a room connected to the restaurant called “the casita.” Mike Newton remembers his father working long days. “I missed [my father]. That was a sacrifice the family had to take,” Mike says. “He really worked hard…but that’s just the way it was.”

Those who knew Jay Newton speak of more than his acuity as a restaurateur. “He helped a lot of boys and women go to college, and he gave them jobs,” Mofford says, adding that Newton was always happy to help with charity drives. “I know sometimes I’d go there early in the morning for a cup of coffee, and he’s already made breakfast for a homeless person and took it out to them... He’d see them, and he knew they were hungry, so he’d go out and feed them.”

When Jay Newton retired in 2001, he held an essay contest to essentially give his restaurant away for free. People would submit an essay explaining why they should be the new owner of Beef Eaters, along with a $100 application fee. At the time, Beef Eaters was valued at $2.5 million, so Newton hoped for at least 25,000 entries. He could call off the contest and refund application fees if there weren’t enough submissions – and unfortunately, there weren’t. But Newton’s plan garnered plenty of press. In a story that appeared in the New York Times on May 9, 2001, Newton said, “I worked my whole life for this. This is a way of leaving without going anywhere. I’ll be haunting the new owner for a long time.”

The plan didn’t work, partly because there weren’t enough entries, but also because of Newton’s financial troubles and disagreements with the property owner. Construction of the Metro Light Rail hurt business, as it blocked access to the restaurant’s parking lot. The drop in tourism following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 also curbed profits. When Jay Newton borrowed money from Beef Eaters to repair the Sands Hotel in Phoenix (which he also owned), it was more than his pocketbook could take. “The landlord foreclosed on my dad and took the building back, took everything back,” Mike Newton says. “My father couldn’t get financing, and he ended up kicking my dad out and took it over.”

Beef Eaters closed in 2006, and Newton died not long after, at age 88. Landlord Tes Welborn, who owns the apartments behind Beef Eaters and was a frequent diner there, bought the property that year, hoping to redevelop it. In the fall of 2010, Coup des Tartes owner Ron Pacioni expressed interest in opening an events center in the building, but was stymied by the price tag (currently $1.05 million).

For Pacioni, the appeal of Beef Eaters was not the lodge-like architecture (though the maze of banquet rooms and the gigantic kitchen would be perfect for weddings), but the history of the place. Pacioni’s grandfather proposed to his wife there. It’s that kind of nostalgia that beckons many would-be buyers; unfortunately, it hasn’t resulted in any takers.

Welborn says ideally, she’d sell the property to someone who would use the iconic building instead of razing it, but after meeting with more than “300 movers and shakers” in Phoenix over the past five years with no results, she now says she’s “flexible.”

Jared Lively of real estate company Rein & Grossoehme, which has the exclusive listing on the property, says he’s had “six to seven hot leads,” but nothing concrete. “The most activity I’ve had is from people who want to tear the building down and build a convenience store, or a bank, fast food,” Lively says. “The majority of interest is in the land, and razing the building. They just want a piece of property on Camelback.”

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RESTAURANT REDUX

While Beef Eaters is the largest of Phoenix’s classic steakhouses to fold, it certainly isn’t alone. These extinct eateries are also worth remembering.

• The flagship restaurant of local chain Goog’s opened on 18th Street and Camelback Road in 1962. Goog’s and its sister chain, Guggy’s, were renowned for their Pink Champagne Cake (which lives on at Victorian Cake Company), but the restaurant on Camelback closed in 1990; it’s now an Arriba Mexican Grill.

• Lunt Avenue Marble Club was an Arizona chain incorporated in 1975, and was featured in Downbeat magazine as one of Phoenix’s swinging jazz clubs. Praised for their breaded zucchini and mushrooms, the chain went bust by 1990, and the most prominent location – at Central and Camelback – is now an Applebee’s.

• In the 1980s, the best place for fancy foodies to get their serviettes on was Oscar Taylor at Biltmore Fashion Park. The menu, which included a signature “garbage salad,” didn’t spur epicurean euphoria, but was resplendent enough for the Reagan era. The original location closed in the early ’90s and was replaced with a Paradise Bakery & Cafe.

 

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