Venue, restaurant offers a trip back in time


Video by Salvador Rodriguez

“It is a Tuesday night in downtown Phoenix and I don’t see a soul outside,” said Steve Rosenstein, co-owner of The Duce. “But there are 70 people swing dancing in here.”

This is a location that made me thankful that I grew out my winter coat. The mustache was very appropriately curled for the evening.

Yet, as I approached the door, the music was right but the scene was a little off. Speed bags, industrial tires, a boxing ring, French military boots? Let me give you the lay of the land: in front of me is the workout area, clothing store and soda fountain; in the adjacent room is the bar, kitchen and eating area.

Steve and his wife, Andi, definitely had unique in mind when they opened The Duce in fall 2010.

Meals are cooked and served out of a 1965 Streamline camping trailer. I ordered two sets of sliders at $8 each and was promptly asked for my “creative nickname” to place on the order. Falling back on my “Mad Men” addiction, I blurted “Donald Draper” before returning to my seat.

The meat slider samplers consisted of one of each: meatball, sausage and brisket. All of which were delicious. The brisket was tender and savory. The melted cheese sliders had spinach and tomato on an epi bun. Old family recipes from Andi’s side of the family make the food traditional and authentic. Produce, fresh bread daily and grass-fed meat, all local and organic, only sweeten the deal.

The surroundings merge themes of indoors and outdoors together. Community seating, greenery and the old camping trailer offer a picnic feeling but the brick walls of the historic building are very industrial.

Photos by Evie Carpenter

Despite the eclectic mix, the vibe at The Duce is fun, friendly and inviting. Walking past me was a couple dressed in ‘50s-style clothing and the family sitting across was celebrating a birthday.

“After a meal, they all know each other,” Steve said.

The focal point of the dining area is the bar. Straight from the Black Orchid Jazz Club in Chicago, this piece of history served drinks to members of The Rat Pack and Louis Armstrong fifty years ago.

“It’s almost like the building was speaking to us,” Steve said. “It is a tribute to the past.”

In 1928 the building began as an anchor manufacturing center. From the ‘20s to ‘40s it was a city bus yard and was a Budweiser warehouse in the ‘50s. Now The Duce has its own bus. A 1968 Crown vintage school bus is used to shuttle passengers to the building on First Fridays and for events.

After the meal, I browsed the vintage clothing store in the adjacent room. World War II era European military merchandise and classic American sporting goods brands are sold under Steve and Andi’s second clothing line – R&R Surplus. Dispersed among more conventional items such as classic university sweaters and military jackets were unexpected objects including roller skates, bicycles and an old-style cash register.

“When you come in here it’s like a time warp,” Steve said.

In 1988 the duo created their first clothing brand called Fitigues, one Steve described as gym-inspired knock-around wear. The line was sold in Nieman Marcus, Barneys and Bloomingdales until 2007, Steve said.

This former collegiate wrestler could not resist but fill a portion of the room with classic workout equipment.

“It almost made so little sense, it made a lot sense,” Steve said.

For just $10, The Duce offers group classes, personal training and boxing training. “Coach” Steve promises to be the “best gym teacher you ever had.”

Video by Jessica Goldberg

Perhaps to remind you what the gym is for, an antique soda fountain is placed just on the other end of the room. Dating back to 1915, the fountain offers sodas as well as ice cream and milkshakes from Mesa’s Superstition Farms.

The soda jerk – dressed in a white button down, thick black frames and a red bowtie – sung to himself as he made my milkshake. “Pop,” as he is known, seemed very much at home behind the old counter.

“The glasses are my real prescriptions,” Nathan Unterreiner said. “I slick my hair like this on my own.”

The 14,000 square-foot space is ideal for events. Bands, variety and burlesques have made their way to The Duce. Mayor Phil Gordon held his State of Downtown Mixer last month at the location, where supporters toasted to him from the boxing ring. The ring has also played host to charity events and a wedding.

Stepping into The Duce is a trip in Doc’s DeLorean time machine. Have a picnic with the Cleavers, grab a soda from “Pops” and master the twist on the dance floor. If you’re looking for a sandwich, a soda, a vintage cocktail served in a mason jar or a good sweat, one thing is certain — The Duce will take you there.

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Read more about the history of The Duce on the Downtown Devil’s PHX History blog here.