Bar, nightclub, restaurant, or mixed establishment: What is the historical definition of the word “buffet” in Arizona?
These days, many people associate the word with the diet-destroying smorgasbords made famous in Las Vegas. These buffets were the loss leaders offered by casinos to entice customers to gamble before or after their pigs. The concept was kind of like a cafeteria on steroids, where you serve yourself as much food as you want. Customers loved tasting a variety of foods for one low price; It was fun Vegas.
In Phoenix, there was the Washington Cooper State Buffet on 20th Street, which operated from the 1940s until at least 2006. The painted outdoor sign described “cocktails,” “dancing,” “live music,” and “package liquors,” along with a mural of a dancing couple dressed in 1970s attire. If the buffet served food, it was an afterthought.
So, was the word “buffet” historically used in Arizona as another term for a bar or nightclub? Check out the old Copper State buffet listed in Yellow Pages below the cocktail lounges. But the same reference under “Buffets”, noted, “Check restaurants; also cocktail lounges.”
Saratoga Café & Buffet, located on Central Avenue and Washington Street in Phoenix in the 1940s, was in the yellow pages under the heading “Restaurants.” Ephemera from the company, which promoted itself with the slogan “Good Food is Good Health,” seems to support the idea that this place was meal-oriented. But on its old postcard, the buffet has a separate entrance from the café, and the business is officially called “The Saratoga Café and Cocktail Lounge.” Perhaps, the buffet was the cocktail lounge?
Two famous Grand Canyon State historians weigh in on the buffet-derived rabbit hole.
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“I think it’s a reference to the buffet wagons on American trains that used to serve drinks and snacks,” says Demion Klinko, executive director of the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation. “The Buffet Bar in Tucson refers to the connection in the marker graphic, a yellow streamlined train on the outer edge.”
Marshall Trimble, an Arizona state historian, recalled a company owned by Frank and Nora Gumm in his hometown of Ash Fork. In the 1950s it was Gummies Buffet, but by the 1970s it was called Gummies Bar by the 1970s. “It was the place where you could find the town doctor if he wasn’t in his office,” Trimble says. “I don’t remember them serving any food except maybe boiled eggs from the jar.”
Trimble added that there are several definitions of buffet. “The first is a piece of furniture. It also means to strike frequently. I think it’s most often used to describe serving yourself.”
But the Ash Fork buffet was definitely a salon. “Frank and Nora probably liked the sound of a French word because it put their establishment on a higher level than other bars in town,” Trimble explains.
Douglas C-Town is editor of Arizona Contractor & Community magazine, arizcc.com.