Writer Amanda Christmann
Photography by Bryan Black
As a steady stream of people comes through the rustic wooden door at Tonto Bar & Grill, John Malcolm weaves his way through the bar. He stops at several tables, greeting regulars and out-of-town visitors—some with handshakes and hugs—and asks with genuine interest how their drinks, food and family are.
Quick with a warm smile, Malcolm rarely comes to a full stop, appearing where he is needed and disappearing just as quickly so that guests never sense disruption to their relaxing dining experience.
It’s a skill Malcolm has honed in a lifetime of restaurant work, and one that, after a quarter of a century in Cave Creek, most business owners would be happy to retire.
For Malcolm, coming to work each day is about gratitude—a gift from a community that has more than welcomed him and his dream.
“We’re starting our 25th year,” said Malcolm. “To me, it’s just about thanking the community for their loyalty. They’re the ones who have curated the longevity we’ve had.”
In an era in which restaurants come and go faster than the flash of an Arizona monsoon, Tonto Bar & Grill has earned its status as a mainstay in the North Valley. With its fantastic food, beautiful views of Rancho Mañana and the rugged mountains beyond, and nod to Arizona’s Native American origins, it’s a destination.
None of it is by accident—except for maybe the very beginning.
About 35 years ago, Malcolm and Eric Flatt were working together at Pebble Beach Monterey, Flatt as a sous chef and Malcolm as a food and beverage manager. The two became best friends and, before wives and children came into the picture, roommates.
The two came to Cave Creek for a golf outing at Rancho Mañana with Flatt’s dad, Dave, and his friend, Ron Allred, who had just purchased the resort. During the game, Ron looked at Eric and said, “You know, we’re looking for a guy to take over the restaurant.”
Flatt and Malcolm, who had worked at restaurants on some of California’s most exclusive real estate, must have looked at the restaurant and shaken their heads. It was rough. The kitchen was tiny and the rest of the building was little more than a snack shack for golfers.
There are moments in each of our lives that define the rest of what will come next. Had the two returned to California and left the desert behind, things may very well have been different, not only for them, but for hundreds of people.
As it happened, though, the two returned a week later and decided to dive in, hoping that the community would receive them and their modern twist to ranch house cuisine—and they did.
In many ways, Tonto Bar & Grill has become just as much part of the community as the community has become part of it.
Staff members, many of whom have been at Tonto since the early years, would certainly have led different lives. Through the years, too, countless proposals, weddings, holidays and other special occasions have been celebrated in the dining rooms and on the beautiful patios.
A Unique History
More than a little part of Tonto Bar & Grill’s appeal is that its history began long before there was a restaurant, and long before the beautifully manicured golf course at Rancho Mañana existed.
The ground that Tonto Bar & Grill sits on was once home to Native Americans, who hunted and gathered near a natural spring that flowed on the property.
As ranchers and miners began to arrive in the area, skirmishes with Tonto Apaches in the area became more common. The U.S. Cavalry saw the need to increase their presence in central Arizona, and they soon made the natural spring, which would become Howard Ranch, a regular stop as they traveled en route from Camp McDowell in Phoenix to Fort Whipple in Prescott.
After a series of bloody clashes between Apaches and the Cavalry, led by General George Crook, the Cavalry declared victory, paving the way for growth in Cave Creek and many other Arizona outposts.
Forward to the 1940s. After World War II, Americans developed a taste for the romanticized notion of “cowboys and Indians.” Dude ranches sprang up throughout the West, and as quickly as roadways could be paved, tourists flooded to the desert for a “real” cowboy experience.
Chicagoans China and Ted Loring and their partner Romaine “Romy” Lowdermilk, who was a cowboy musician and author, took over Howard Ranch in the mid-1940s. They renamed it the Rancho Mañana Dude Ranch, and soon it became the largest and most notable dude ranch in the state.
The Lorings lived and worked at the ranch, raising their children while hosting stars and other who’s who of the area. Though kitchens and dining spaces have been added on, what was once their home is now the foundation for Tonto Bar & Grill.
The charm of the Lorings’ era remains, kept alive in part through photographs in the Grill Room, which was the original lounge area. Loring family members are captured in black and white riding horseback near what is now The Boulders Resort, as well as men in cowboy hats enjoying a campfire. The swimming pool that was built around the historic natural spring is also memorialized in a frame.
Malcolm and Flatt seamlessly recreated the rough-hewn wooden ceiling beams and saltillo tiles of the original restaurant. It’s easy to imagine ranch guests clustered around the fireplace as they listened to Lowdermilk strum his guitar and sing stories of lore.
The ranch changed hands a few times before becoming a golf resort. Allred, who has also invested in the historic Hermosa Inn and Tubac Golf Resort, purchased it in 1994, not long before proposing the idea of expanding the restaurant to Flatt and Malcolm.
When Malcolm and Flatt set out to create a restaurant in Cave Creek, they wanted to do things a little differently. Flatt, who is a big fan of history, wanted to honor indigenous traditions by incorporating Native American methods of harvesting the bounty of the desert into its food.
Several times a year, date palms, prickly pear, jojoba seeds, local pinion nuts, mesquite beans and creosote are harvested from the desert and used in many of the delicious, seasonal menu items. The chefs butcher their own high-quality meats, and every sauce, dessert and side dish is made from scratch with delicious layers of flavors that can’t be found elsewhere. Everything possible comes from local farmers, who also benefit from the restaurant’s success.
“We found that, with mindfulness and care for the fragile ecology, the desert has a tremendous amount to give,” said Malcolm. “Like the Native Americans who occupied these lands long before we were here, preserving the land and the history here became central to our purpose.”
Cocktails at Tonto are unique as well. The Tontorita is the bar’s best seller, so much so that Tonto Bar & Grill has become the biggest buyer of Sauza Hornitos in Arizona.
Tonto doesn’t always stick to the expected in a Southwest-inspired menu. Chef Kurtis Purdy puts a delicious twist on regional favorites like sand dabs, onion-crusted walleye, barbecue salmon, and German pork schnitzel—some of the restaurant’s most in-demand options.
“We constantly listen to our guests,” said Malcolm. “I think that, where other restaurants fail is that they go in with concepts or ideas that don’t necessarily keep the guest’s preferences in mind.
“We’ve tried to evolve into what the community is asking for. To me, that four- to five-month spring peak period is great, but it’s the other eight months of the year of taking care of the local community that makes our business whole.”
A Lasting Legacy
On any given day, hundreds of customers, many of whom have come to Tonto Bar & Grill regularly for decades, sit down in a dining room that feels much like it would have a century ago and order a meal that they know will be outstanding.
Now on their twenty-fifth year, things have only gotten better for Malcolm and Flatt. Flatt now lives with his wife and son in Bend, Oregon. To this day, he and his best friend Malcolm have yet to have an argument—an accomplishment that makes both men proud.
The concept, quality and community remain.
Tonto continues to contribute to the community, as it always has, through local charities and events, but it’s what the community contributes to the restaurant that means the most to Malcolm.
For him, it’s what makes every day worthwhile.
“When Eric and I brought our families to the tiny town of Cave Creek in 1994,” he said, “we couldn’t have known how much a part of the community we would become—and we didn’t know how much the community would become a part of us.”