Phoenix’s Riverboat Restaurant: Copper Belle
By John Bueker
“The only riverboat on the corner of 16th Avenue and Camelback.”
Such was the whimsical advertising slogan that introduced Phoenix to Copper Belle, an extraordinary mid-century Valley dining establishment that was indeed the only object remotely resembling a riverboat on this or any other corner in town.
Copper Belle belonged to an era of Phoenix restaurant history that was characterized by fanciful thematic conceptualizations , with Green Gables, Neptune’s Table, Alpine Village, and The Islands being other prominent examples of the day. These eateries strove to deliver a carefully crafted historical flavor to complement their fine food and drink. And their attention to detail was exquisite.
Built by Homes & Son Construction Co. and opened in the spring of 1961, Copper Belle drew inspiration from the stern-paddle steamboats that originated from Yuma and navigated the Colorado River from the early 1850s until the coming of the dams, supporting military outposts and facilitating commerce throughout the area. The restaurant was housed in a building that was carefully designed and decorated to resemble one of these historic river-going vessels.
Much thought went into the construction of this eating place. The distinctive layer cake structure of the steamboat design was crowned by a captain’s bridge at the top of the building and complemented with a large, red paddle wheel at the “stern,” which turned through a small pool of water. The walkway surrounding the front of the structure was contrived to resemble a docking pier, complete with gangplank and scattered wooden piling pier posts to add authenticity to the nautical tableau.
The attention paid to steamboat realism was so meticulous that the Phoenix Fire Department was summoned one evening by reports of flames spouting from the top of the restaurant in June 1961, shortly after its grand opening. Rushing to Copper Belle with sirens screaming and lights flashing, the firemen quickly determined that the fiery smoke was emanating from the pair of simulated riverboat smokestacks adorning the building, which were fed by natural gas to create the effect.
Completing the steamboat motif was the fascinating interior of the restaurant, replete with 19th century décor, portholes, river scenes, and stuffed fish incorporated into the walls of the windowless structure, creating a uniquely intimate atmosphere. Small marbleized tables were lit by flickering antique-style lanterns and spaced in close proximity to each other, generating a cozy and friendly ambiance. In the early years, entertainment at the Belle was provided by continuously-running movies from the silent era, which served to enhance the turn-of-the-century ambience.
The food at Copper Belle was uniformly excellent and reflected a decidedly southern sensibility. Popular among the entrees were the chicken and dumplings, jambalaya, Louisiana prawns, Southern Chicken Skillet, and “Scarlett O’Hara’s Charcoal Broiled Rib-eye Steak.” The sides were referred to as “dory dishes” and included hush puppies, coleslaw and kidney bean salad. Hot apple pie with cheese and brandy sauce was the preferred dessert treat, and a variety of libations were available at the River Boat Bar, located prominently in the center of the restaurant and framed by a wall smothered with mugs and steins.
The unique atmosphere and fine food made Copper Belle a trendy Phoenix dining destination throughout the 1960s. Local television personalities, sports stars, businessmen, couples, and families all comprised the faithful clientele. Many current Phoenix residents continue to enjoy very fond memories of this singular riverboat restaurant, although the history of Copper Belle does record a few unfortunate incidents.
The Belle made local headlines throughout the summer and fall of 1963 after a botched burglary resulted in the arrest of two local ex-convicts. The pair was apprehended soon after prying open the front door of the restaurant with a screwdriver and claw hammer and removing a safe that contained about $2000 in cash and checks. The suspects compounded their troubles by offering the arresting officers $1000 of the loot to “just forget the whole thing.” The lawmen declined the offer and the two hapless outlaws went to trial in October, were found guilty of burglary and bribery, and each sentenced to 4 years in prison.
When Arizona adopted daylight savings time in 1967 along with the rest of the country, local restaurant owners were up in arms, claiming losses of up to 20 percent of their expected revenue during the summer season. Among the most vocal critics of the move were Mr. and Mrs. Earl Treulich, who operated Copper Belle during this period. “We’re a family restaurant,” complained Mrs. Treulich, “and all during the summer, it stayed light for so long that it was too late to take the children out by the time the parents were ready for dinner!” The following year, the state legislature moved to exempt Arizona from daylight savings time, a law that remains in place to the present day.
By the 1970s, under owner Dick Heath, the restaurant’s slogan had become “Eat ‘n Tell,” emphasizing Copper Belle’s distinctive virtues as an “experience” as much as a place to grab a bite. But as the Phoenix metropolitan area began to see massive growth during that decade, dining preferences inevitably evolved. Newer eateries and restaurant chains emerged and gained increasing market share, and the charming thematic restaurants began to disappear. Copper Belle tried to adapt by adding Chinese cuisine to its menu and live music to its entertainment line-up in the mid-‘70s, but the old girl finally closed her doors in 1978, ending an endearingly winsome era in Phoenix restaurant history.
Phoenix restaurateur Tomaso Maggiore acquired Copper Belle and reopened the business as Maggiore’s in 1979, the first of five restaurants he would operate on Camelback Road. Maggiore’s offered “fine continental cuisine” of the Italian variety, and billed itself as “Phoenix’s newest gourmet restaurant.” This eatery did not last, but Maggiore has been quite successful elsewhere, including an ongoing 37-year run at Tomaso’s in East Phoenix.
The Copper Belle building still stands at 1534 W. Camelback Road, and the original outlines and support beams of the old riverboat architecture remain discernable. In recent years, the building has housed a series of Chinese food establishments, the latest being Peter Wong Chinese Cuisine and Fresh Seafood, which opened for business in 2005. As of this writing, Peter Wong is closed for remodeling but scheduled to reopen in mid-April 2014, precisely 53 years after the elegant Copper Belle made her first graceful docking at that corner of 16th Avenue and Camelback.
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