The other night an Arizona Republic reporter tweeted desperately for a 24-hour coffee shop in downtown Phoenix. He was out of luck (somebody suggested a donut shop around 24th Street and Thomas, a common lack of understanding about where downtown Phoenix is located). This was not always the case. One (left) was located at Central and Van Buren, near the Trailways and Greyhound bus depots, with a lighted billboard on the roof. It survived until around 1970, when it was torn down for Valley Center, now the Chase Tower. Another, open at least into the wee hours and serving cocktails, too, was across the street on the northeast corner (Chambola's?) — after it was torn down in the '70s, the lot was vacant for decades. Yet another favorite was the Busy Bee on Washington Street, one of the many Greek-owned establishments, which (I believe) lasted until being bulldozed for Patriot's Square. These were not hipster hangouts with free wifi, but the old-fashioned coffee-shops-as-restaurants.
Beyond downtown, a number of late-night and 24-hour establishments were hopping well into the late 1970s. These included two Helsing's on Central, Shaefer's on McDowell at either Third or Seventh Streets and Denny's at Van Buren and Seventh Avenue. They were life-savers when I worked on the ambulance and we might not get dinner until three a.m. Bob's Big Boy anchored the corner of Central and Thomas and was the magnet for participants of weekend cruising on Central. Other popular chains were Hobo Joe's (with the hoho statue out front), Googies and Sambo's (a Sambo's building on McDowell across from the Phoenix Art Museum still stands, most recently a Thai restaurant). Helsing's and some of the others were works of art, but none still stand, unlike a few of their preserved sisters in Los Angeles.
Old Phoenix was not an all-night town. Which is not to say it wasn't a late-night town.
The Republic, in its old building on Van Buren (across Second Street from the new one) was also busy: Not just journalists but printers and pressmen putting out the morning edition, and truck drivers waiting to get their allotment of newspapers. The bars of the Deuce were open late. In the first half of the twentieth century, so were the gambling dens and prostitution operations, including on notorious Paris Alley. After midnight, the paddy wagons were picking up tenants for the drunk tank in the old city jail, located in the 1929 county courthouse-city hall building. Such were the wee hours in old downtown.
Before freeways, travelers and truckers were passing through Phoenix at all hours, along the neon corridors of Van Buren, Grand Avenue and Buckeye Road. A number of diners and coffee shops catered to these night owls.
Phoenix had great bars. Little holes in the wall, such as the Anchor and Kren's. Rough joints like the Mecca. Watering holes along Central where businessmen rubbed elbows with wise guys. The Band Box and Clown's Den, among many others in east Phoenix. The Pueblo on Scottsdale Road. Commenters can add their faves from different eras. Up into the 1960s, the Riverside Ballroom on south Central was one of the most beloved local institutions, covering big band, country and Latin music and dancing. Another was the Calderon Ballroom on 16th Street and Henshaw.
This city that came of age with the automobile was also a great place for drive-ins, both movie theaters and hamburger places. Among the first of the former was the Phoenix Drive In on Van Buren and 36th Street, with an impressive "frame" and marquee facing the street that held the screen on the other side, aimed toward the parking lot. With dry, pleasant nights for most of the year before the heat island took hold, these one-screen outdoor theaters proliferated, usually accompanied with large neon signs. Among them: The Rodeo on Buckeye, the Silver Dollar in South Phoenix, the Round Up in Scottsdale, Big Sky in Maryvale, etc. Before Jack in the Box and McDonalds took over, Phoenix also had a golden age of drive-in burger places, many locally owned, a great place to hit after the downtown movie theaters let out and before the parents expected teens home.
It sounds terribly dull compared with today's Phoenix. Back in the 1970s, one of my colleagues on the ambulance had a bumper sticker on her van that said, "Phoenix is boring." And it was, in its sweet, small-town way.
Today, Phoenix is still not an all-night city, but it offers infinitely more options for late-night entertainment, especially in Scottsdale. Great restaurants and truck food have made it close to a foodie paradise. Downtown has rebounded from near death, but Union Station is closed, the Deuce is gone and the newspaper is printed at remote sites. Even the bus depot has been relocated. And you can't find a 24-hour coffee shop in the downtown of the nation's sixth-largest city. Seattle still has at least three downtown, but they are a dying breed. When the Hurricane, 13 Coins and 5 Point — as well as Beth's out on Aurora — are taken down for skyscrapers or their owners die off, I'm not sure they will be replaced. The people with means don't want to run a greasy spoon. And in Phoenix, restaurants set "price points" to keep out undesirables. So my reporter friend will continue to be out of luck.
Read about more of old Phoenix and its history in the Phoenix 101 archive.