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Popular eatery for political power brokers celebrates 80 years

Mike Ratner, owner of Tom’s Tavern, has accumulated a wall full of memorabilia that recalls some of the high-profile politicians and others who have dined there.  The popular downtown eatery is celebrating 80 years as a Phoenix fixture. (Photo by Salvador Rodriguez)

Mike Ratner, owner of Tom’s Tavern, has accumulated a wall full of memorabilia that recalls some of the high-profile politicians and others who have dined there. The popular downtown eatery is celebrating 80 years as a Phoenix fixture. (Photo by Salvador Rodriguez)

In 1993, a handful of notable politicians gathered in the backroom of a small diner in downtown Phoenix to hammer out a deal that would allow Native American tribes to operate casinos on their land in Arizona.

The politicians at the table included state Attorney General Grant Woods, Gov. Fife Symington and U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

The restaurant was Tom’s Tavern. Owner Mike Ratner remembers the conversation, and he knew full well that the politicians didn’t always agree on things.

“Although (Symington and Woods) were Republicans, the two did not get along at all,” Ratner said. “They were like oil and water.”

Ratner would know. He has catered to a lot of politicians since he bought the restaurant 17 years ago.

All of Arizona’s governors during the past two decades have eaten at Tom’s Tavern. So have most lawmakers and an untold number of lobbyists and agency directors. It’s a routine lunch stop for Arizona’s political elite.

Ratner recalled the deal that led to Arizona’s gaming compact, several meetings between Gov. Janet Napolitano and her closest advisers during her re-election campaign in 2006, and that President George W. Bush once ate there during a stop in Phoenix. Its list of regulars includes Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, Attorney General Terry Goddard and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne.

With all those politicians coming and going, there’s just no way to know how many deals have been struck over bacon and eggs or a medium- well hamburger.

“I have told many guests that I’d gladly pay for the meal if they gave me 10 percent of the deal,” he said. “They happen and I’m not aware of what the deal is, but I’ve had all the governors here. It’s always been a political place.”

Though the politicians come and go, Tom’s Tavern, which has had two locations and changed owners multiple times, has been a part of Arizona politics since 1929. This year, the restaurant is celebrating its 80th anniversary.

The Tavern is named after its original owner, Tom Higley, who opened the restaurant at 136 W. Adams Street. It moved to its location on the street level of the Renaissance building at Washington Street and First Avenue in 1988.

The new building is decorated on all walls by political memorabilia.

The wall of fame toward the back has photos of Arizona’s congressional delegation, commendations from the city of Phoenix and historic newspaper articles. It even has seating areas known as the governor’s corner and the mayor’s corner.

Ratner said his restaurant does take an interest in politics, although he and his restaurant try hard to remain nonpartisan. At times, the restaurant has hosted debates and forums for lawmakers to hash out major issues in front of the public.

“After the debates, we had well over 100, 150 people in here and we’d walk around and they could ask questions of the different parties,” he said. “We take an interest in politics, but I don’t have a position as a restaurant one way or the other. I would rather foster the dissemination of information.”

Jeanine L’Ecuyer, who served as Gov. Janet Napolitano’s deputy chief of staff for communications, said she and Napolitano visited Tom’s Tavern numerous times from 2003 to 2008, because it offered a bit of privacy that allowed them to work during a meal, as well as the opportunity to run into other powerbrokers.

“It is a place where if you want to see a lot of people that you know, you can certainly see them at Tom’s by going there when it’s busy. But they’re also terrific about taking care of you if you need to hold a meeting in a quiet area in the back,” she said. “And we did both at various times.”

L’Ecuyer said the restaurant’s backroom allows even the busiest and most important people to avoid interruption during a meal.

“As soon as (Napolitano) would set foot in the door, people would want to talk to her,” she said. “Mike has always done a good job of taking care of people when they got there and making sure that it was as public or as private as you needed it to be.”

Tom Horne, the state superintendent of public instruction, said he has been going to the restaurant since 1971. He said he always picks Tom’s Tavern when people ask where he wants to go to lunch.

“It’s just kind of fun that I’ve been going there for 38 years,” he said.

Horne’s favorite dish at Tom’s is a tuna fish sandwich with whole wheat and nothing on it. Yet, in its early days, the restaurant’s specialty was a hamburger with extra grease.

“The nickname for it was ‘soft the top’ cause they would ladle the grease from the frying pan onto the roll so it would get absorbed,” he said. “I never ate that, but it was their special.”

Even now, Tom’s Tavern sells more cheeseburgers than anything, Ratner said.

“My goal as an owner is that whatever I have on this menu that it’s made and prepared to a high standard, and that it’s good,” he said. “I mean, there isn’t anything on here that we don’t sell.”

Tom’s Tavern celebrated its 80th birthday between Dec. 7-11 with various promotions, 49-cent chili and a fundraiser for people serving in the military overseas. Ratner said the restaurant’s history is best summed up by its birthday slogan: “Survived the 1929 Depression – Outlasting the 2009 Extended Recession.”
“I think that this statement says a lot,” he said. “We’ve been around a long time.”

Ratner, who has owned restaurants in downtown Phoenix for 30 years, said even Tom’s Tavern has struggled during the ongoing recession and years of construction projects that make it difficult to drive or park nearby.

“I will tell you, this is one of the toughest times that I’ve seen for my restaurant and other restaurants downtown. This construction is great but it’s also been a tremendous interference,” he said, referring to two years of light-rail construction and a two-block construction project called CityScape that will expand downtown’s retail, residential, hotel and office space.

However, Ratner said he thinks the commercial construction projects will draw people, specifically students of Arizona State University’s Downtown Phoenix campus, to his restaurant. He said he hopes to open on weekends for the first time and to entertain more customers during the evening hours.

“I would say looking at that across the street, we have brighter days ahead of us,” he said. “We’re sitting in a pretty key spot. We’re looking forward to the future.”

Though the politicians at the Capitol change and downtown Phoenix continues growing and evolving, Ratner said he has no plans for change at Tom’s Tavern. He said the restaurant’s strength is its tradition and history.

“Who we are is who we are,” he said.

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