Monti’s: A tasty walk thru hallways of Tempe’s history
The name means “The Old House,” and not for nothing. Monti’s La Casa Vieja’s website lays claim to its renown as the Valley’s oldest continuously occupied building.
When you walk into the place, you’re quite literally walking into history.
That history begins in the early 1870s, when Charles Trumbull Hayden started work on a rambling, rough-hewn hacienda for himself and his family near the ferry he founded next to his flour mill at the edge of the Salt River.
The senior Hayden’s son, Carl, who would grow up to be one of Arizona’s most renown statesmen, was born in the house in 1877. The area thrived, and within a decade had joined with the neighboring village of San Pablo to become the city of Tempe.
La Casa Vieja was serving food by at least the 1890s, according to managing partner Eddie Goitia (photo at right), which also makes it the longest continuously operating restaurant in the area.
But it was in 1956 that it became Monti’s La Casa Vieja. It had been purchased two years earlier by Minnesota native Leonard Monti, an east-side restaurateur since the mid-‘40s. The place has been celebrating its 55th anniversary as part of the Monti’s steakhouse dynasty, partly by collecting stories.
“Some customers wrote in their stories,” says Goitia, “and quite honestly some of them could bring you to tears.”
Goitia says that the recent celebrations have landed among his favorite memories of his career at Monti’s.
“We brought all these people together, and they told their stories, about family get-togethers, falling in love, whatever. ‘I went to prom here, I got engaged here.’ After all these years, this place still meant something to them.”
Goitia himself enters
La Casa Vieja’s storied history in the 1990s,
when he and Leonard’s son Michael Monti bought out the business from the rest of the Monti family.
“People think that Michael was just handed the business, but we have a mortgage every month, just like anyone else. I’m an MBA and Michael has a law degree, but somehow we ended up in the restaurant business.”
It had been a while since I had gone to dinner at La Casa Vieja, so on a recent Saturday evening I took my family there to see how things were holding up. My wife enjoyed the filet, while my kid and I both partook of the succulent sirloin, supported by such sides as the tasty, steakhouse-style spaghetti, plank-like steak fries and generous baskets of the place’s signature “Roman bread”: soft, hot and sprinkled with rosemary.
The meal was great, but almost as memorable for me was the sense I get every time I go there of stepping back in time—not so much to the pre-statehood, 19th -Century Arizona, but simply to a nostalgic ambience of mid-century, Boomer-era dining out in America.
I’m not an Arizona native, and I had my first meal at Monti’s in—I think—1992, but I’d guess that the experience isn’t too different from what it was when Leonard Monti took the place over in the mid-‘50s, and it’s very much like what I remember of going out to eat with my family as a kid in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Once you’re led past the computer at the front desk into the agreeable dimness of the Casa’s labyrinth, you could forget you’re in the 21st Century. If you don’t look too closely at the TV over the bar or listen too closely to the slang of the young, generically black-clad waitstaff, you could almost convince yourself that Eisenhower or Kennedy was president, and that after dinner you could catch a Rock Hudson-Doris Day movie.
If this quality of linkage to the past feels almost uncanny at times, Eddie Goitia may have an explanation:
Noting that La Casa Vieja was a residence for a much of his history, he notes that “Nobody lives there now…except for a few ghosts, they say.”