4 October, 2022, 16:41

Frank’s: The friendly neighborhood joint turns 40 years old. Or is it 50?

Please Frank’s, don’t ever change.

“I’ve been coming to Frank’s for, what is it…about 32 years now! It is my absolute favorite place. Everyone is always so nice and I just love the food.”

A stout man sitting next to the window by the front door smiled wide when I asked him if he was a regular here at Frank’s. That was his answer. His plate was nearly completed, his coffee recently refilled, which would explain the near Zen bliss look he exuded.

Frank's Restaurant

(Photo by Mark Whittaker)

In fact, most people have that same look. The appearance of being so comfortable at an eatery that the only thing missing is lounging in your undergarments. It was no different than the days I have visited many times before.

Although, this day was different. I was stopping by to hang out with Frank’s owner, Mark Smith, to discuss the staying power of the corner diner at Pima and Alvernon. In late August 2022, Frank’s will turn 40 years old. I say “late” only because Smith himself is bleary on the exact day it opened.

“Maybe the 22nd,” he shrugged. “The 24th? It’s been such a long and wonderful trip that I tend to forget the exact day. The 15th?”

Frank's Restaurant

Owner, Mark Smith, chatting with customers (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Smith and I sit among a throng of the regulars casually drinking coffee and swooning over cleared plates in a lazy post-monsoon afternoon.

A family sitting behind us mentions it’s their first time coming in. Smith turns around and welcomes them after servers Cynthia and Pam had already done so.

Toast slides out of a machine, likely fabricated in the ’70s and specifically created for places such as Frank’s. In fact, most operational service station appliances here have that appeal to them, which makes it all the more appealing.

Frank's Restaurant

(Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Two men walk in and say hello to the staff who do the same back. Pam doesn’t even ask; she just plops two mugs in front of them and pours coffee almost to the rim. The men immediately tip in some cream and sugar.

When I got the note that Frank’s was turning 40 years old this month, my first thought was “Wow, that is so cool.” But after Smith told me it was in fact turning 50, my next thought was “Wow, that’s even cooler.” Smith, with the help of his business partner Deb Richards and her husband John, bought the restaurant back in 1982.

“I bought Frank’s through a lawyer friend who had a client that had it and hated it,” said Smith, chuckling. “He just called me up and we bought it. Frank’s opened in 1972 by a couple, Frank and Elizabeth. Before that, it was a Tastee Freez.”

Frank's Restaurant

Burger and fries at Frank’s (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

We are celebrating a Tucson dining staple that has been in business for 50 years, but under the current ownership for 40. Either way, that is something to stand up and applaud for. But finish eating that chorizo scramble first. You don’t want to look like a weirdo or anything.

“I just love it here. I come almost every day and I don’t even live in this neighborhood!”

This man was sitting at a corner table, reading an old sci-fi novel, eyes not leaving the pages as he cut into his stack of waffles and ate. He ate like a champ. This man is a champion. Taking a longer look at him, I somehow saw my future. My future is indeed a bright one.

Smith is a Tucson native and attended the University of Arizona while working in restaurants as a busser and server. It’s easy to say that the restaurant life chose him. It wasn’t long after acquiring Frank’s that some of his servers came aboard and are still with him today.

“Pam and Candice have been here for 38 years,” said Smith, beaming. “Hector, my kitchen manager, has been here over twenty years. We have children of staff that now work at Frank’s. It’s just a family here. Everyone that either works here or visits are family.”

Frank's Restaurant

(Photo by Mark Whittaker)

When I moved to Tucson in 2006, one of the first places people told me to eat at was Frank’s. The chow was solid, a timeless eat-scape of countertop steak and egg joints sometimes once nestled in a department store or pharmacy.

Each time I returned to Frank’s, the food was cooked perfectly and extremely quickly — even if every table was filled and more are waiting outside to grab a seat. The omelets, the pancakes, the French toast at breakfast — fantastic. Burgers, meatloaf, the ubiquitous Club Sandwich for lunch — incredible.

Frank's Restaurant

(Photo by Mark Whittaker)

A strange obsession of mine is a diner with an open kitchen. Frank’s has that and the show is always spectacular.

On the day I was visiting, grill master Diego was juggling a hot line with both ease and laser-focused intensity. Sunny-side eggs bubbling in one corner, potatoes getting turned and plated in another, bacon sizzling toward the back, and meat patties going down front and center.

It was a dance; a conductor gesticulating wildly in front of his orchestra. Hector moved in to join Diego as a six-top just sat down along with to-go orders coming in. Even with the busy activity swirling about, all was beautifully calm among the chaos.

Frank's Restaurant

(Photo by Mark Whittaker)

“Nothing much has changed here,” said Smith. “We added a patio a while ago, fixed some stuff in the kitchen, but that’s about it.”

Please Frank’s, don’t ever change.

One thing that has notably changed was their dinner service. If you recall, Frank’s, for almost 20 years, was called Frank’s/Francisco’s. After breakfast and lunch wrapped up, the quaint spot with the world-famous “Elegant Dining Elsewhere” marquee outside became a Mexican restaurant serving up delicious southwest fare.

Frank's Restaurant

Iconic sign out in front of Frank’s (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Like most, if not all, restaurants that made it out of the pandemic period of 2020, changes had to be made.

With the escalating costs of food and supplies, along with having to keep staff happy and paid, Francisco’s had to shut down for good. It’s not that Smith and his team didn’t try. In fact, Francisco’s opened and closed three times before the final decision was laid on the table and agreed upon.

“This was our first time here but we are definitely coming back. It’s nice that they are turning 40 because it’s the kind of place that feels like it’s been here forever.”

The table with the first-time family got up, pleasantly full and chatting with the servers as if they had just made new friends. Young server, Liam, with the long curly hair, darts behind the counter to clear plates before manning the register and thanking everyone for coming in.

Frank's Restaurant

Breakfast at Frank’s (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Even in the afternoon humidity and heat, some people opt to sit on the patio.

The man with the sci-fi book is gone — teleported possibly — as a couple sat in his stead, chatting about what they should order. Smith is at the counter talking to a group of regulars. Candice is filling the coffee machines with water and making for what could be the 67th pot, and it’s barely noon. Pam greets a woman picking up her, yes, Club Sandwich to-go before running food to a three-top. Diego takes a well-earned slug of water and then continues his beautiful plancha hustle. Hector has a box of bread that he lays out by that decades-old toaster. He pops some in and it skips out perfectly tan.

Frank's Restaurant

Specials Menu at Frank’s (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

This is Frank’s. Our Frank’s. Your Frank’s.

It’s been Smith’s Frank’s for 40 years now but it’s been Tucson’s for 50. So, raise that cup of coffee with two sugars and cream and say cheers!

“What is the secret to our longevity,” asked Smith. He laughs. “I really don’t know. We just show up, open the doors, and hope for the best.”

Frank’s Restaurant is located at 3843 E. Pima St. For more information, visit franksrestaurant.com.

It was a Sonoran hot dog that made Mark switch from music journalism to food writing when he moved to Tucson from San Francisco in 2006. He hasn’t been the same since.

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