Can the Wrigley Bring Fine Dining Back to Phoenix?

Categories: Schaefer

maryelaine.jpg
Leah Fasten
The late, great Mary Elaine's.
Welcome to "Schaefer," in which Eric Schaefer -- a local guy with a big (but discerning) appetite and a sense of humor to match -- takes on the Phoenix food scene.

Whatever happened to fine dining? Sure, you can have a James Beard-worthy meal at a number of Valley restaurants, but establishments where you can truly dine have become elusive, at best.

For me, dining constitutes more than eating. It implies a certain glory; a formality, dogmatic tradition of pomp and circumstance. Dining encompasses more than our caloric and nutritional need for sustenance and celebrates food, people and tradition. Fine dining has very much become a lost art.

The defunct Mary Elaine's at The Phoenician is as close to we came at fine dining in recent history, and they did it well. The food was precise, rooted in French gastronomic tradition and punishing to your credit card. Women's purses were placed on tiny pedestals, the wine list was encyclopedic and the employee-to-guest ratio was astonishing. Mary Elaine's was a cocoon of luxury and privilege. There was also L'Orangerie, at the Arizona Biltmore, where many of our city's best chefs learned their chops.

Today, Vincent on Camelback comes to mind when I think of "fine dining" in Phoenix but even Chef Guerithault has had to appeal to modern sensibilities by going more casual with Bleu, a less formal lounge at a lower price point. It feels sad to me, like a Ferrari stuck in traffic.

See also: Eric Schaefer's Got a Tip for You

It's no wonder that fine dining, or "continental cuisine" as it was once named, is largely monopolized by the French. They practically invented the idea that eating should be celebrated. Even today, centuries after Auguste Escoffier classified the mother sauces and gave meaning to haute cuisine, most respected culinary education programs are still rooted in French tradition. "La bonne cuisine est la base du véritable bonheur."

Good food is the foundation of genuine happiness, said Escoffier. But I feel that the great French chefs who invented much of the material that goes into those culinary programs would groan at what restaurants have become. I'm surprised that Escoffier hasn't rolled his way out of his grave by now and come back to kick some restaurateur's ass.

Clearly the trend toward informality isn't exclusive to the culinary world. The bespoke suits in my closet sit under a layer of dust but my fip-flops are well-worn. Air travel, once considered an occasion, feels more like a cattle call. People pile into the elevator before the people within have exited. The examples are endless.

And though I write this article from my office, slouched in my chair, in a wrinkled t-shirt with my shoes off and my face scruffy, I can't help but confess my secret longing for a return to formality. Is it more comfortable? No. But formality can also instill a sense of purpose and dignity. That is to say, there was no talk of twerking at Mary Elaine's.

Fine dining certainly implies snobbery. I'm okay with that, too. While there are myriad hole-in-the-wall joints -- frequently "ethnic" -- that feature incredible food made with pride and passion, they often don't make me want to linger. For me, the experience is crucial to...the experience.

A highly regarded local chef recently said to me, "There are a lot of upper middle class white people who think they deserve a medal for going to eat in ethnic restaurants in bad neighborhood." And maybe that's just it. Perhaps it isn't "just about the food" but really about so much more; manners, conversation, dignity, grace and respect for the past.

Lest you assert that fine dining is exclusive to the wealthy, I offer you this. Christo's Ristorante, located on 7th Street, has been in business for over 27 years. It doesn't get any love from the "food nerds" because it isn't cool and the food, mostly Italian continental classics, might have been innovative when they opened but hasn't changed much since then. Yet, it has stood the test of time and still attracts a loyal, albeit non-vocal, following of regulars. And what's interesting about Christo's is that everyone there seems to be dining, not eating. The servers are career servers who care about their craft and your happiness. And though not inexpensive, Christo's is approachable to people of many economic brackets. Christo's might be Italian, not French, but I'm quite sure that Escoffier would smile.

But, more than anywhere else, I'm hopeful that the Wrigley Mansion can lead our Valley dining scene back towards the elegance of fine dining. The setting is spectacular; I could only dream of awaking each morning to such a view. The building itself is well preserved, and exudes old Arizona charm and style. And it never ceases to amaze me that the Wrigley Mansion was a surprise gift from Mr. Wrigley to his wife. (Damn you, Wrigley, I was going to buy my wife a Vitamix for our anniversary. Jerk.)

The Wrigley Mansion has had its ups and downs over the years, but it has been steadily gaining momentum under Paola Embry's leadership. There is a new chef at the helm, Robert Nixon. The initial buzz is that the food is better than ever. And there is nothing cooler - or more civilized - than having your dinner at the Wrigley in one of the many available private dining rooms, and then retiring to the library for an after dinner drink or a cigar on the patio. Finally, the food may match the elegance of the mansion itself.

Take a shower, put on some shoes and talk to your mom about manners. Our parents' generation may not have had smart phones or twitter, but neither did they have societal plagues like the Kardsashians or TheDirty.com. Our cultural evolution might be going in reverse but only you have the power to change that. And restoring the lost art of fine dining isn't a bad first step toward bringing some civility into our lives.

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Location Info

Vincent on Camelback

3930 E. Camelback Road, Phoenix, AZ

Category: Restaurant

Geordie's at Wrigley Mansion

2501 E. Telawa Trail, Phoenix, AZ

Category: Restaurant

Christo's Ristorante

6327 N. 7th St., Phoenix, AZ

Category: Restaurant

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16 comments
Eric Schaefer
Eric Schaefer

that's a valid criticism; my own tastes definitely lean towards European tradition. For others, it's Asian, or Native American or.... For what it's worth...I wasn't wowed by the food either. I've only been once (and it wasn't with the new chef) so maybe it was an off-night.

Bruce Griffin III
Bruce Griffin III

Charmless? I guess that make sense when looking at it through a eurocentric lens.

lnaalba1
lnaalba1

I hope the Wrigley has improved it's nice to know they have a new chef. 

SkilletDoux
SkilletDoux

Point of clarification: I completely agree with everything else you wrote and thank you for writing it. It's the shot at those who, just like you, are trying to bring attention to underappreiated places that I don't understand.

Eric Schaefer
Eric Schaefer

Actually, I've been to Kai. I was underwhelmed. And, to me, the setting is charmless and clinical. To each their own, but thank you for reading and weighing-in.

SkilletDoux
SkilletDoux

"I offer you this. Christo's Ristorante, located on 7th Street, has been in business for over 27 years. It doesn't get any love from the "food nerds" because it isn't cool and the food, mostly Italian continental classics, might have been innovative when they opened but hasn't changed much since then."

You've posted on the board 88 times.  The only reason I haven't heard about Christo's before today is because you never bothered to post about it.  And if you didn't because you think we don't love old school done well, you assume too much.

I do really resent this implication that this is some either/or scenario, old vs. new, upscale vs. casual, classy vs. hole-in-the-wall, etc., and that people who like digging through neighborhoods for undiscovered gems do so simply because it's "cool" and don't also have a deep appreciation for classic dining done well. Good food is good food, and this really feels like a straw man argument to me.

Bruce Griffin III
Bruce Griffin III

I'm guessing that you have never been to Kai. They don't have Mobile and AAA five diamonds for nothing. .....just sayin

chrislee
chrislee

Great article. While I am a card carrying flip flop supporter, I remember some of the great old places fondly & I'd be happy to dress up now & then. I'd include my pop's old restaurant (The Glass Door) in that. Will have to put Wrigley on the list!

EricEatsOut
EricEatsOut

@SkilletDoux I think that you have assumed, falsely, that my reference to "food nerds" was a reference to your food board.  It wasn't.  I used the term in the same way I would use "foodie" or "food enthusiast" or "foodnik."  So, congrats, you've coined a term that has made its way into the popular lexicon!

As for the "because it's cool" remark....the quote I published were words, copied verbatim, that came from a popular local chef, and one whose restaurant you frequent!

Bottom line:  good food IS good food but the definition is subjective.  My point was that I also miss some of the formality and tradition that makes dining out such a unique pleasure.

EricEatsOut
EricEatsOut

@chrislee I don't know how I ever missed The Glass Door!  Can't believe I never went there.  From what I know of it, it was totally my kind of food and vibe!


SkilletDoux
SkilletDoux

@Eric598 I know who the quote's from  :-)

I apologize for misreading and being overly defensive.  

To explain, the "cool" bit above wasn't presented as a quote, so I thought it was an intentional suggestion that folks who are into digging out hole-in-the-wall joints A) aren't interested in places like Christo's, and B) the reason for that is that they're not cool, which in my experience isn't true of anybody who's really into food -- just those for whom food is the trendy way to express self-identity.  Branding, so to speak.  If you have love in your heart for great restaurants, you aren't going to eschew a place that makes a killer veal parmigiana served up by a guy who's been doing it for 20 years just because a modern Sardinian restaurant opened across the street.  When the food's good, they're both beautiful in their own way.  

As for refined, classic, and fine dining, like I say, I couldn't agree more.  Provided the food is great, I think all of these restaurants have a place, and while one's tastes may tend more towards one particular genre, to deny great food of any stripe because of trappings is elitism, no matter what those trappings may be -- goes both ways.  But I agree, I wish the fine dining scene here were more vibrant.  It really does seem like it's on life support, and whether a blip or a trend, it's a terrible shame, and I wish I fully understood why.  

I guess my ancillary point is that there's no need to choose sides, here.  Refined dining and hole-in-the-wall chowing aren't mutually exclusive. It's not only possible but most constructive to boost one without taking shots at the other.  Not only can we love and support both, but we should, because they feed off each other and push each other to be better.  More refined restaurants serve as great examples to mom and pop joints run by families that can cook great food, but might not know the finer points of service.  And I can't tell you how many fine dining chefs I've met who draw some of their greatest inspiration from their favorite little noodle shop, that amazing dive they hit that one time, or the elote cart on the corner.  It's an ecosystem, and while we may disagree on the merits of certain members thereof -- for example, ones that may or may not rhyme with Wolive Darden -- places that make great food while valuing of all of the elements that go into truly *dining*, as you put it, are not among them.

chrislee
chrislee

@Eric598 It closed about 1992 so maybe that was before your time?

SkilletDoux
SkilletDoux

"B) the reason for that is that they're not cool..."

Er... they're = it's, meaning because Christo's isn't cool.  

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