PRESCOTT - Entertainer Patti Bell and retired golf pro Tim Gray are set to prove the adage, "The more things change, the more they stay the same." The couple bought the historic Pine Cone Inn in Prescott and they are determined to return it to its former glory.
"This was the place to go in Prescott," Bell said of the restaurant, located at 1245 White Spar Road. "A lot of people in town remember how it used to be, and they are dying for it to come back the way it was."
The Pine Cone Inn opened in 1931 as The White Mink. In 1938, Bob Dunbar bought the restaurant and renamed it The Pine Cone Inn. During its heyday, it was the place to see and be seen.
"For the last 80 years, this was where people gathered to eat, dance and socialize," Gray said. "We want to revitalize it as one of Prescott's premier dining establishments. We want to make it the hometown restaurant it used to be."
Historically, the inn's owners catered to middle-aged and older adults. Patrons ate while performers sang accompanied by a piano and sometimes a trumpet and saxophone.
Bell is a well-known and popular performer in Prescott, and she is bringing in many of her friends for professional entertainment. Bell herself performs frequently.
Tony and Liisa Ebarb bought the restaurant in 2003 from the Jack Branch family, who bought the restaurant in 1947. In 2008, the Branches closed the inn and put it up for sale.
"When Tim first brought the idea to me about buying it, I wasn't really that interested," Bell said. "I had eaten there and I didn't care for the food and I always thought of it as an old people's place."
But after touring the restaurant and its grounds, and seeing the improvements that the Ebarbs had made, she decided maybe Gray didn't have such a bad idea after all.
"It's always been a place for the older crowd with the music and romantic atmosphere," Gray said.
He should know. As a young teenager he worked as a dishwasher and parking valet at the inn in the 1960s.
"Back then, the tablecloths were white, and now they're black," Gray said.
Different-colored tablecloths are not the only difference former patrons may notice. The couple enlarged the stage, expanded the dance floor, lightened the interior with a brighter paint color, opened the creek side patio as a waiting or lounging room, and cleared the grounds for creek-side weddings and special events.
In years past, people flocked to the inn for more than intimacy and soft music - they liked the food and the prices.
"We modernized some of the menu, and we got the original recipes for some of Branches' more popular meals (such as liver and gizzards and the Friday Night fish fry)," Gray said. "And we tried to get most of the menu prices back to 1995 prices."
The inn is divided in two separate dining rooms: the romantically lit Music Room where the piano player plays and diners dance; and the brighter Gold Room, dominated by an enormous stone wall that contains a silhouette of a movie starlet.
In the 1960s, Jack Branch hired a contractor to build the stonewall, and when the contractor handed Branch the bill, legend has Branch exclaiming, "What did you build it out of - gold?" Hence the room's name - the Gold Room.
Although Bell and Gray want to recapture the inn's historic place in Prescott society, two words used most frequently to describe their ideas are "energy" and "romance."
"We want to bring back the energy of the people and the musicians," Bell said. "This is not Whiskey Row. We want a romantic atmosphere."
"Where else in town can people over 50 go to dance and eat at good prices?" Gray said.
The Pine Cone Inn opens to the public at 4 p.m. this Wednesday. For business hours and entertainment lineup, call 445-2970.