Bring Back Mary Elaine's! And Get Me a Purse Stool!

Categories: Buchanan

maryElaines.jpg
Courtesy of Spa Index
Mary Elaine's back in the day

See also: Kevin Binkley Stiffed at James Beard Awards
See also: J&G Steakhouse to Replace Mary Elaine's

Maybe this whole belt-tightening thing is getting to me. I suppose some pop psychologist would say I have Frugality Fatigue. Whatever the reason, it's occurred to me in recent months that I sorely miss Mary Elaine's. In fact, I want it reinstalled and I'd like to pretend the whole miserable economic downturn thing never happened.

Why does it have to be the end of an era? Don't we ever want to live large and eat ridiculously expensive food again?

I suppose this kind of daydreaming makes me a snob, an elitist, and a foodie (the horror!) -- at least according to the fast food-eating, corporate restaurant-loving cretins who posted an appalling number of nasty online comments about the restaurant's demise when the story of its closing was first reported in January 2008.

Hey, I'd rather be a snob than a hillbilly. At least I'd never say, "We had to go eat fast food after our anniversary dinner at Mary Elaine's because the portions were so small." Really? Had to?

Truth is, I'm pretty sure I'm not the only allegedly pretentious person who was heartbroken over the news. This opulent fine-dining restaurant was situated in The Phoenician, the super-luxe hotel built by Charles Keating, principal architect of the nation's savings and loan debacle. The restaurant, in fact, was named after Keating's wife. And despite its rocky start (Keating went to jail and the Resolution Trust Corporation took over The Phoenician for a while), Mary Elaine's set the bar for everything related to fine dining -- food sourcing, exquisite presentations, deliciously inspired interpretations of classic dishes, arcane ingredients, impossibly clever desserts, beautiful and obscure cheeses, impeccable service, and an outstanding wine program -- and continued to, for many years after Keating's comeuppance.

For roughly 20 years, Mary Elaine's was the bomb -- our local pride, our personal joy, our super-pricy, special occasion go-to when the budget allowed. Eating there was never just a meal but rather a mind-boggling, pull-out-all-the-stops experience. It was also indisputable proof that Phoenix wasn't a cow town.

Who else had a team of five sommeliers, presided over by a master sommelier? Or a $3 million, 40,000-bottle wine inventory with 2,000 to 2,400 labels? Um, exactly no one.

And how about the French-inspired menu, which, on any given night, offered up a $500 sample of Iranian Golden Osetra caviar, house-smoked salmon with sevruga ($125) hard-to-find American paddlefish, Santa Barbara spot prawns, Wild Burgundy snails casserole, orange-glazed sweetbreads and sauteed foie gras in brioche crust -- as well as entrees that climbed to $60?

According to the morons on the Internet, Mary Elaine's was never worth the price. Yeah, right. That's why three of its most important chefs -- Alex Stratta, James Boyce, and Bradford Thompson -- were recognized by the James Beard Foundation during their tenure there. Stratta won Best Chef Southwest in 1998, Boyce was nominated for it in 2002 and Thompson won it in 2006.

Listen, I really like J&G (the Jean-Georges Vongerichten steakhouse that replaced Mary Elaine's), and I'll be the first to say we have a respectable number of terrific high-end restaurants in Phoenix.

I love Binkley's, and I'm excited every single time I go there. Kevin Binkley should've won his own Beard Award ages ago.

I'm also happy and proud we have a celebrated restaurant like Kai, which so adeptly blends French technique and grand service with our local Native American cultures.

Nobuo, Shinbay and Quiessence: each is brilliant in its own way.

But because most of them are independents with limited budgets, none of these stellar places captures the splendor that was Mary Elaine's.

And that sense of wonder, that thrilling, palm-rubbing "Oh boy!!" started from the instant you stepped off the elevator. Indeed, the elevator was part of the mystique: You punched the Mary Elaine's button, rode up in that mirrored carriage to the fifth floor, and when the doors opened -- ta-da! -- you had arrived.

Location Info

Binkley's Restaurant

6920 E. Cave Creek Road, Cave Creek, AZ

Category: Restaurant

Kai

5594 W. Wild Horse Pass Blvd., Chandler, AZ

Category: Restaurant

J&G Steakhouse

6000 E. Camelback Road, Scottsdale, AZ

Category: Restaurant

Nobuo at Teeter House

622 E. Adams St., Phoenix, AZ

Category: Restaurant

ShinBay

7001 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, AZ

Category: Restaurant

Quiessence Restaurant & Wine Bar

6106 S. 32nd St., Phoenix, AZ

Category: Restaurant


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15 comments
Sally Cooper
Sally Cooper

Wish I had stolen one of those foot stools before the switch!

LibbideauBoresMe
LibbideauBoresMe

Hoo boy. Brave of you, Nikki, to throw it out there among the Ambers, hipsters, and Billybobs of the Valley and suggest wearing a jacket and dressing for dinner is nice to do sometimes.

LibbiDeau
LibbiDeau

Hmm...Sounds like you are lamenting an earlier era whereby you as a food journalist were relevant. You're probably certifiably insane now as I have enjoyed reading your work for years and this single post is simply sick and stupid and empty. I would've preferred an honest essay about how things have changed around town from you, not this job-justifying bourgeoisie revival effort projected onto a deservedly archaic marque. The view of ME's was over a phallic fountain that sometimes wasn't on yet that was a predominant view from ME's regardless, not a sumptuous cityscape from every seat. The menus were distributed by gender  - Men had prices listed on theirs, but women or not-worthy men did not receive the "power menu". As were purse stools - really? You charge me that much for average food so that someone can meticulously care for my baggage? Are you a fine cuisine critique or a  needy wannabe in the high-turnover media blitz we now live in? Sorry Nikki, but you are not the satirist that you think you are, as I'm trying to be optimistic about your intent with this essay. The cuisine was not inventive or even exceptionally competent. VERY FEW Arizonans could afford to eat there for special events, and even our native Arizona 1%-ers did not frequently dine there. It was dependent upon outside money for survival and ALL of them balked at a tawdry concept - it was an operating loss for years until strong management stepped and saw it's irrelevancy and operating losses. An exploratory piece on that topic is more your merit rather than this POS pandering. Wow. Too bad. Why would you pen this? Sorry and baffled.

Jennifer Salazar
Jennifer Salazar

Nay! There is a reason why it hasn't survived. Meanwhile, we have BETTER establishments to visit that aren't so pretentious. Next!!

sweetchefmommy
sweetchefmommy

I so agree, As a baby chef fresh out of culinary school. Mary Elaine's was the absolute pinnacle of acheivement. The Phoenician, The Biltmore and the Ritz Carlton were the places you wanted to work. I miss the fine dining experience. Kai is wonderful, but it will not replace Mary Elaine's

MikkelW
MikkelW

Amen, sister.  And lest we forget the unrestrained epicurean bounty of the brunch, well I miss that almost as much as the purse stool.  I for one will welcome the opportunity to practice that unique brand of conspicuous consumerism once again, bitter, have-not bunny-huggers be damned.

exit2lef
exit2lef

I miss Mary Elaine's.  It was a distinguished, upscale dining room with great food. Sadly, celebrity chef steakhouses have become the norm at some of our finest resorts, but I'll always have good memories of occasional indulgences at Mary Elaine's and the Chaparral at the nearby Camelback Inn.

Stereolab
Stereolab

I went to Mary Elaine's in 1995 to celebrate my dad's retirement.  The portions were miniscule and barely had tatste.  The service was overbearing.  The pricetag, for what you got, was laughable.  No thanks.  Let's keep it buried where it deserves to be.

Randy L. Walters
Randy L. Walters

come by P-Willy's again and I'll charge you $40.00 for a hot dog! :) And yes, Mary Elaine's was special!

smalls
smalls

Really well-written, Nikki.  I was fortunate enough to dine there once--as a rather precocious child, I told my parents that all I wanted for my 10th birthday was to go to Mary Elaine's for dinner.  I'm so glad I chose that over some Nintendo game or a trip to Limited Too.

pauly80
pauly80

You have know idea what you ate, or what you paid for because you dine at the Olive Garden and Red Lobster when you feel like splerging! You probably think that Santa Margarita is the best white wine you have ever had and you don't know any better.  So sad, but here's an idea, before you start blogging on something you don't know about, put your wife's panties in your mouth and figure that's the best your ever gonna taste:)

Guest
Guest

 @Stereolab

 No worries. In-n-out is close by and perfect for your esteemed palate and appetite.

 

Stereolab
Stereolab

 @Guest  @Stereolab

 You seem to mistake critique for bad taste.  I'm a vegetarian by the way.  But if paying top dollar for mediocrity is your thing, have at it.

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