A man shouted a greeting to John Dixon from the back of Restaurant Mexico. “I think that’s the owner,” Dixon said to a friend who was joining him for lunch. He called back a greeting as he slid onto the faux leather seat of a booth. “It’s been like 40 years for him. He might be the cook, or the son of the owner. I’ve been coming here for years, but I don’t know how everyone is related.”
Dixon was sad because Restaurant Mexico, long a Mill Avenue mainstay, is closing next month. “Everyone is sad about it,” a waitress named Lydia agreed when she came with a plastic basket of chips. “Our last day is August 15. It’s very sad. We’ve been around for 42 years. Twelve years at this location.”
She placed the chips and a small bowl of salsa on the table. “What can I bring you to eat today?”
Dixon ordered the Clare Burro, and Lydia chuckled. “Your usual,” she said.
“I know you’ve got avocados here,” Dixon said, “and you won’t chintz on them like other places do.”
The Clare burro is named after a waiter who worked at Restaurant Mexico forever, Dixon explained after Lydia went away. “It’s pinto beans and avocados. It’s killer. Well, you’ll see it, man. It’s huge. Their machaca is great. It used to be a weekly special, but now it’s on the menu every day.”
Dixon had been a regular at each of Restaurant Mexico’s locations. It’s been so long, he can’t recall where the first one was located. The second was also on Mill Avenue, east of University Drive. He grew up in Tempe, he said, over on Sixth Street where the pyramid-shaped building is.
“They tore our house down to build that piece of shit building,” he explained. “I went to the Congregational church, which is still there. I grew up on Mill Avenue, on Tempe Beach, at the Valley Art. I’ve always been in the hood. My mom taught in the Roosevelt district. She was the first white teacher to teach there in 1956, when the schools first integrated.”
Most people who lived in the Valley knew Dixon as “the music guy.” He laughed if people called him “famous” and when they called him “Johnny D.,” the name he used spinning records as cofounder of K15, Phoenix’s first new wave radio station.
He said he started out DJing music during high school lunch hours, and wound up working for Capitol Records and other labels as a promotions man. Today, he archives and reissues music by local artists like Floyd Ramsey and Dyke and the Blazers. He is 73 now, and whenever one of the old places closed up, it was a reminder that everything ends. “Just because you enjoy and remember it doesn’t mean it’ll stick around. It’s like having one less friend on my Christmas card list.”
When he posted a note on Facebook about Restaurant Mexico closing, Dixon said, he was surprised by the response. “People were like, ‘Oh, how can they close?’ and ‘Oh, let’s go!’”
Lydia stopped by the table with another iced tea for Dixon. “I’ve worked here for 31 years,” she reminded him.
“A long time. We haven’t had a lot of turnover here, and I think that’s one of the things people like about us. You come in here and we recognize you, and you know us.”
“Familiar faces are important,” Dixon agreed.
“Carolina will be here on the last day,” Lydia told him, referring to the restaurant’s beloved owner. “She’s coming in to say goodbye to everyone. You should stop by.”
“Oh, hey,” Dixon replied as she walked away. “I’ll be here.”
“That’s the part you miss,” Dixon said, “when a place like this closes. The ‘Hey, how are you, how’s your mom?’ kind of thing. That’s not going to happen. It’s not like I’m going out and looking for a new restaurant. I won’t. I’m a creature of habit. You go out and find your favorite places, and you’re comfortable there.”
People were saying Restaurant Mexico was closing because no one in Clare’s family wanted to take over. She was old and wanted to retire. Dixon said he didn’t know, and that it didn’t matter. It was sad to see old places shut down, he agreed, but it was also just part of being alive. The thing to be sad about, he thought, was that young people were spending less time connecting in the real world, in places where everyone had met up for years.
“Now, so much of life is taking place on a tablet or something,” he said, “instead of going to Tempe Beach to swim and check out the other hot rodders, or meet up with kids from other schools you didn’t know. In a way, it’s good to just let the past go, because no one cares about your memories except you. And that’s all you end up with, anyway, is memories of places, stores, and restaurants.”
Most of them are gone, Dixon said. Bill Johnson’s Big Apple was only a memory, although he had one of the steakhouse’s dining tables in his garage. Monti’s La Casa Vieja had been gone forever, but the building was still standing. Gordon Biersch, the brewpub, had closed. It was, he remembered, in the old Laird and Dine drug store. “They had air conditioning, and for five cents you got root beer in a frosted mug. It was a great after-church hang.”
Lydia returned with plates of food. “The famous Clare Burro,” she said, placing a hot dish in front of Dixon. The burro was as big as his head. “I’ll go get you some more tea.”
Dixon lives in Scottsdale now, and comes to Tempe every few weeks to get his mail from the post office across the street. “I’ll come to Restaurant Mexico for as long as it’s here,” he said between bites of burro. “I must get as much Clare as I can.”
In the meantime, he said, he’d try to remember not to take things for granted. “When a restaurant you’ve eaten at most of your life is closing, it’s a reminder that your life is going by,” he believed. “You remember the people, the stores, the music, and then in a minute, they’re gone.”
Correction: This article initially misidentified the namesake of the Clare burro.