That was the lament of the teenage girl in the Dr. Who t-shirt in line ahead of us, as the doors to Monti’s La Casa Vieja popped open a few minutes after 11 a.m. last Sunday. I was pretty sure I knew what passageway she meant, and I was sad at the thought of my last walk through it, as well.
Her sister, who was also wearing a Dr. Who shirt, had an idea. “Let’s all order about 80 steak sandwiches to go.”
A long line was waiting to be admitted, but The Kid and I had gotten there a half-hour early, and we were near the head of it. Even so, as we shuffled in after the Dr. Who Girls and their family, we were told that our wait would be about 30 minutes. People just a few places back in the line from us were being warned of a two-hour wait.
Some of them weren’t happy about it. Since Monti’s announced a couple of weeks ago that it would be closing tomorrow, November 17, people have flocked to the venerable Tempe steakhouse for one last filet or burger or plate of spaghetti. As my friend Richard observed when we met there for lunch the previous Friday—while staff was setting up for a Notre Dame tailgate party in the parking lot—going out of business seems to be good for business. They’ve stopped taking reservations, and I heard one of the beleaguered hostesses tell a customer, disgruntled at the wait he was facing, “We’re just so understaffed. We never expected this.”
I think I could have expected it. Monti’s isn’t just any eatery. Housed in Charles Hayden’s 1871 hacienda, the place lays claim to being the oldest continuously occupied building in the Valley, and, since it was serving food by at least the 1890s, also the area’s oldest continuously-operating restaurant. It was taken over by Leonard “Lenny” Monti in 1956, and Lenny’s son Michael and Michael’s business partner Eddie Goitia took it over in the early ‘90s.
Once The Kid—at 12, a veteran of many dozens of lunches and dinners at Monti’s herself—and I were seated and ordered, I got up to take a last stroll around the place. I headed for what I presume the Dr. Who Girl referred to as “the creepy hallway”: the dim, winding area just east of the bar, leading past the restrooms and through the oldest part of the building.
The walls there are adorned with an assortment of western and Victorian pictures—the Dr. Who Girls and their family were sitting under a scene of bathing sylphs—as well as bric-a-brac ranging from rifles to framed photos, letters and newspaper stories, and weird fluorescent murals depicting pre-Columbian scenes. Then I wandered over to the building’s west side, with its corny cowboy posters—Double Deal at Diamond Mesa—and vintage ad art, or its tiny covered wagons adorned with the legend MONTI’S OR BUST.
But then it was time for lunch—spaghetti with a side of asparagus for The Kid, filet with fries and spaghetti for me, plus a cup of clam chowder to split. I was well into the meal before I realized that something was missing—no “Roman bread,” Monti’s signature rosemary-sprinkled complimentary appetizer!
I asked our excellent young waiter, who regretfully told me they weren’t serving it any more. But a few minutes later he returned to the table bearing a little basket holding a few precious pieces of it, warm, soft and delicious as ever.
“I found some,” he said. He got a very good tip.
Even so, he’s out of a job soon, and he told us that he hadn’t turned anything else up yet. Neither had the 21-year-old who waited on me and my friend Richard, a silent-film historian and cranky chain-restaurant-loathing Luddite with whom I’d had lunch at Monti’s the previous Friday. “Where else has red-vinyl seats?” asked Richard, gesturing sadly at the upholstery in our booth.
Richard has been coming to Monti’s since 1965, and I, a relative Johnny-Come-Lately, had my first meal there in 1992. This meant, we glumly realized, that we both had been Monti’s patrons since before our waiter was born.
I wondered out loud what would become of all the memorabilia on the walls. “It’ll end up on eBay, or in somebody’s garage, or in the dumpster,” muttered Richard.
Not so, Eddie Goitia told me. There will be an auction for sentimentalists, he says, on December 4 at 5 p.m. For that matter, some of the building will remain, he claims.