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The Flame: The Restaurant That Set a Monkey Loose in Downtown Phoenix

by Douglas C. Towne
Food, Restaurants & Dining History Douglas C. Towne September 6, 2022

For more than four decades, one of the city’s most popular dining locations was on Adams Street near Central Avenue in Downtown Phoenix. Four restaurants occupied the Balke Building, but the final eatery called The Flame caused the most excitement.

Its signature dish was a flaming chicken brought to your table on a sword and set ablaze. “The meal cost $2.50, but keep in mind minimum wage back then was about 50 cents an hour, so it was the equivalent of more than $50 today,” says Phoenix native William Linsenmeyer.

The accompanying Jungle Bar was a lush tropical paradise complete with an unofficial host: Yum Yum III, a Capuchin monkey. The animal was the talk of Downtown Phoenix even before his memorable escape in 1957.

The Flame postcard, 1950. Credit: Douglas Townes

The story of fine dining at the address dates to 1916, when Milton Stamatis arrived from Stockton, California, and opened the St. Francis Café. The restaurant operated for four years until a fire caused its closure. Later in 1920, Stamatis launched The Grand Café at the same location, which featured a dining room, dance floor, and coffee shop. He enlarged the business in 1924.

In 1941, Stamatis rebranded the restaurant as The Grand. He still featured dancing to orchestras along with a “streamlined” cocktail lounge that was “…a little breathless from the indirect neon lighting to the full-length nude who holds constant pose in her own specially-lighted panel,” according to a 1941 article in The Arizona Republic.

The Grand, 1941. Credit: McCulloch Brothers Inc.

Stamatis eventually sold the Grand to James Oreck, a Duluth, Minnesota restauranteur, in 1949. Oreck remodeled it in the mold of a supper club he had operated under the same name near Duluth Harbor since 1930.

The grand reopening featured dancing nightly to Joe de Salvo and his orchestra brought in from the Duluth operation that closed during the winter. The Flame featured twin dining rooms that could seat 194 and 125 people and a curving two-level bar with a sunken pit, where bartenders stood at eye level with the seated customers. Behind the bar was a waterfall with rocks, ferns, moss, tropical birds, and the monkey, Yum Yum III.

Yum Yum, the monkey, at the Jungle Bar postcard, 1950. Credit: Douglas Towne.

In 1957, a fire on the block damaged several businesses, including The Flame. Yum Yum III escaped during the fire-fighting and fled to the building’s rafters. For several days, rescuers unsuccessfully tried to coax him down through a hole in the ceiling. Finally, one rescuer tossed the monkey some fruit, which “He caught like a ballplayer.”

The Flame reopened but was sold several times over the next few years. In 1963, a suspicious late-night fire closed the restaurant again. Earlier that day, Internal Revenue agents had seized its liquor and cash registers for nonpayment of $20,000 in taxes, according to a Republic article. The owner of The Flame soon declared bankruptcy, and the restaurant never reopened.

Almost 60 years later, the memory of the restaurant is still vivid to persons of a certain age. “It was an elegant, dimly lighted, comfortable lunch spot that featured cloth napkins and uniformed male wait staff,” recalls Bernard Dougherty, a retired Maricopa Superior Court Judge. “As high school freshmen, William Linsenmeyer and I would save our quarters and occasionally splurge there. It was quite pricey for us but a great experience.”

Jo Jo, a pet monkey, used to lure Yum Yum after he escaped from a fire, 1957. Credit: The Arizona Republic.