The Matchless Flame

Douglas TowneJanuary 12, 2024
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A swanky midcentury nightspot called The Flame set Downtown Phoenix ablaze with fine dining and dancing until it met a suspicious – and fiery, natch – demise.

“Going Downtown as a kid in the 1950s was always exciting, especially on my birthday,” says former Arizona Secretary of State Betsey Bayless, whose family lived just south of Thomas Road, then on the outskirts of Phoenix. “We’d celebrate at The Flame, a fancy, dimly lit, adult wonderland with a jungle bar filled with foliage and a waterfall. Our dinner was its signature dish: a chicken on a sword set ablaze at your table.”

The Flame was a hangout for the wealthy and a special-occasion spot for the less well-heeled. Some folks, though, could only enjoy its grandeur vicariously. “I remember reading about the famous Flame as a kid in Ash Fork in the early 1950s,” Arizona state historian Marshall Trimble says. “But even when I was old enough, I couldn’t afford to go there.” 

Postcard images of The Flame and its Rooster Bar, 1949; Photo Courtesy Douglas Towne
Postcard images of The Flame and its Rooster Bar, 1949; Photo Courtesy Douglas Towne

Tucked into the Balke Building at 34 W. Adams St., the posh restaurant was the fourth in a proud line of “it” spots at that location, each a magnet for nightlife-minded early Phoenicians. Unfortunately, The Flame’s status as a local “hot spot” became all too literal when its 57-year hospitality run ended after a suspiciously timed conflagration.

Prohibition had already been enacted in Arizona when Milton Stamatis opened the St. Francis Café at the Balke Building in 1916. Stamatis was one of several Greeks who ran some of Phoenix’s finest eateries during that era. After a fire damaged the restaurant in 1920, Stamatis launched The Grand Café at the same location, which featured a 250-seat dining room, dance floor and coffee shop.

Opening night was an extravagant affair, with pastries from local favorite Phoenix Bakery, free Rainier near-beer and couples cutting a rug into the wee hours courtesy of the Grand Café Orchestra. Expanded four years later, The Grand Café featured local Donofrio’s ice cream and invested in a true scientific breakthrough – an “electric dishwasher, which is probably the only one of its kind ever imported here,” according to The Arizona Republican in a 1924 article.

After renovations in 1941, Stamatis renamed his restaurant The Grand. Patrons danced the foxtrot to live bands and threw back martinis at the restaurant, which had a streamlined cocktail lounge that made the Republican reporter “… a little breathless from the indirect neon lighting to the full-length nude who holds constant pose in her own specially lighted panel.”

a cartograph on the back of The Flame’s menu, 1949; Photo Courtesy Douglas Towne
a cartograph on the back of The Flame’s menu, 1949; Photo Courtesy Douglas Towne

Stamatis sold The Grand in 1946, and it was eventually purchased in 1949 by brothers James and Lyle Oreck, who transformed it into a likeness of The Flame, a supper club they operated in Duluth, Minnesota. The Flame featured twin, carpeted dining rooms that could respectively seat 194 and 125 patrons. The curving two-level Rooster Bar had a sunken pit where mixologists stood at eye level with tipplers. The bar, allegedly the only one of its kind, was made locally by the Meyer and Ludwig Cabinet Company. Its backdrop was a rainforest with trickling water, tropical plants, exotic birds and a capuchin monkey named Yum Yum. Opening night showcased multi-instrumentalist Joe de Salvo and his orchestra.

its predecessor, The Grand Café, after opening in 1920; Photo Courtesy Douglas Towne
its predecessor, The Grand Café, after opening in 1920; Photo Courtesy Douglas Towne

“The Flame was elegant, dark and featured cloth napkins and uniformed male waitstaff,” recalls Bernard Dougherty, a retired Maricopa County Superior Court judge. “As high school freshmen in the early 1950s, [Valley ranching scion] William Linsenmeyer and I would save our quarters and occasionally splurge there for lunch. It was quite pricey, but a great experience.”

The Flame’s menu included “Fish Flown in from Lake Superior,” served on a plank, and a stampede of entrées now long out of fashion: frog legs on toast, canapé of caviar, canapé fillet of anchovies, chopped chicken liver, calf liver steak, veal sweetbreads, cube steak, club steak, steamed Finnan haddie and herring in sour cream.

The Orecks shuttled employees and orchestras between Duluth and Phoenix with the seasons. “I celebrated my eighth birthday at The Flame in Duluth,” says retired Town of Pima councilperson Deborah Barr. “We later moved to Phoenix, and I ate at The Flame in Phoenix in my teens once. Both restaurants were quite nice.”

The Flame had a reputation as a hangout for attorneys, who were awaiting jury verdicts in the nearby courthouse, and employees of Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph Co. “If anyone started to work at long distance or information in the 1950s, on the first day, you would tour all the departments, then be taken to lunch at The Flame,” says Carol Penberthy. “I recall the monkey in there.”

The Flame was sold in 1954 and several more times in subsequent years. However, it continued reaping distinctive dining awards from Holiday Magazine until a suspicious late-night fire extinguished its culinary reign in 1963. Earlier on the day of the fire, Internal Revenue Service agents had seized its liquor and cash registers for nonpayment of $20,000 in taxes, according to a Republic article. The Flame’s owner declared bankruptcy, and it never reopened.

Despite the 60-year interval, The Flame continues to cast fond, flickering memories for fans of a certain age. And a bittersweet regret for Bayless. “My birthday dinners there as a kid were always early in the evening before the orchestra started,” she says. “I would have loved to watch people dancing in that dark, sophisticated place.”

Final Bites

These long-gone Phoenix restaurants offered unforgettable dining experiences.

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Copper Belle 

Our landlocked city’s only stern-paddle steamboat was permanently docked at 1534 W. Camelback Rd. in 1961. Fittingly, the Copper Belle offered Southern-inspired cuisine, including “Rhett Butler’s New York Steak” and “Scarlett O’Hara’s Rib-Eye Steak,” but its most effective advertisement was the mimetic riverboat architecture with a pilot’s bridge overlooking a red paddle wheel at the stern, which churned through a pool of water. The thematic design proved too realistic, however, when the Phoenix Fire Department responded to an emergency call at the Copper Belle shortly after it opened. Firefighters discovered that the “fiery smoke” emanating from its twin smokestacks was merely for ambiance. The Copper Belle closed in 1978, but the building, stripped of its riverboat accoutrements, continues as the Flaming Pig restaurant.

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The Islands 

Trade winds began blowing through Phoenix in 1958, bringing customers to this South Pacific outpost at 4839 N. Seventh Street. The over-the-top Polynesian palace boasted giant tikis positioned around a thatch-roofed complex of two perpendicular A-frames set among cone-shaped huts. Inside were alluring spaces, including the Tapa Bar (which featured a black-light painting of Diamond Head), the Tiki Room, the Cannibal Room and the Waterfall Room. Couples often shared cocktails served with two straws in oversize scorpion bowls topped with floating gardenias, and for sustenance, ordered Drums of Heaven, an appetizer of fried frog legs. Almost inevitably, blissful revelers left clutching tiki souvenirs. The restaurant closed in the late 1970s, and the building was later demolished.

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Twin Barrel Station 

Triple XXX Root Beer, dubbed the city’s “Largest, Coldest and Creamiest,” was featured at this drive-in stand that included two oversize barrels as part of its architecture. The soft drink’s eye-catching XXX brand name signified a rating system that indicated excellence, not explicit content. When the drive-in opened in 1929 at 1838 W. Madison Street, customers could order 10-cent hamburgers and 5-cent mugs of root beer from the open counter or toot their car horns for service from female carhops. The stand’s sudsy ambiance was accentuated by the Triple XXX Punchers, a five-piece country western band featuring William “Banjo Billy” Baker, who performed from a stage atop the drive-in. It closed around 1952, and the building was razed.