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Buffet Bar Turns 90

Quintessential UA dive bar retains spirit of its past
Buffet+patrons+line+the+bar+on+a+recent+weekday+afternoon.+The+bar+is+celebrating+its+90th+anniversary+this+year.
Frances LaBianca, Arizona Sonoran News
Buffet patrons line the bar on a recent weekday afternoon. The bar is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year.

Not much has changed at the Buffet Bar since Monica Embach first stepped foot inside in January 2000.

She had a strawberry White Russian served by Miss Peggy, who would eventually train her when Embach started working there as a bartender nine years later. Embach notes that the price for that drink also hasn’t changed much.

“Still cheap drinks with a heavy pour,” said Embach, now in her 15th year of bartending.

Frances LaBianca
Bartender Monica Embach pours pints of Coors for Buffet regulars on a recent Monday afternoon. She’s worked at the bar for 15 years.

The Buffet, also known as the Buff, turns 90 this year and Embach says its longevity is partly due to its place in the community.

“It’s a nice little neighborhood hole-in-the wall. Pretty much all walks of life are welcome here,” she said.

Ted Bair, who passed away in 2016, bought the Buffet in 1982. His children – Rex Bair and Robin Dutt, the bar’s first female bartender, and Rex’s daughter Crystal – now run it.

Rex Bair remembers visiting his dad at the bar for a Coors and a jumbo hot dog. Crystal recalls having a Shirley Temple or Roy Rogers with her grandfather.

“The bar meant the world to Ted. He loved being there. He enjoyed getting to know the patrons and even grew fond of many. He always helped any of them out if he could,” Crystal Bair said.

Not much has changed at the Buffet in the 40-plus years since Ted Bair bought it. Graffiti still covers its dark walls, which are dotted with trinkets, a hot pink boa, Buffet merchandise and a hodgepodge of novelty license plates. Drink coasters have been cut into snowflakes that are hung behind the bar, along with framed paintings of the Buffet over the years. There’s also a menu of the day’s $2 Jello shot flavors, a throwback to the 1990s and early 2000s that still resonates with today’s student crowd.

Frances LaBianca
Buffet memorabilia and patron gifts cover the bar’s dark walls.

Patrons can choose songs from the jukebox, with artists ranging from Johnny Cash to Katy Perry, and play a round of pool or shuffleboard. On one wall a large buffalo head stares down, a gift from a patron and Ted’s good luck charm.

The walls were recently repainted but Embach said it wasn’t long before patrons had added their own graffiti, from names scrawled in ink to song lyrics. Some people added personal messages while others just contributed gibberish.

“I remember my dad painting the entire place multiple times over the years but the graffiti kept coming and now it is a part of its history and charm,”Rex Bair said.

Staff and regulars describe the bar’s clientele as an eclectic mix of people, a melting pot of society. On a recent Monday afternoon, when most people are still working in their offices downtown, three men were sipping pitchers of Coors.

One of them, Bobby Nunez, recalled sitting at a corner table in 1983 and deciding that he wanted to major in music. Nunez, who is now a music teacher, said the biggest thing he learned from the Buffet is never to judge a book by its cover.

“This bar is almost as old as me,” joked his buddy Gordon Phegley. Phegley fondly remembered one of the best nights of his life when a college-aged patron asked to swap her little hot pink tank top for his John Deere tee since she was a fan. Phegley then bought a Buffet shirt to cover up since men are not allowed to wear tank tops in the establishment.

“The Buffet crowd includes college students, lawyers, industry workers, third-shifters, locals, historians, business professionals, musicians and champion pool players,” Crystal said. “Everyone is your friend. Everyone knows your name even if they forget it tomorrow.”

What makes the Buffet unique from other bars in Tucson?

“For one, being the oldest bar in Tucson is always fun to brag about. And 90 years of being a beloved neighborhood bar is something no other bar can say,” said Brad Skattum, who used to tend bar at the Buffet and is now a regular.

There also are the quirky traditions that you won’t find at other bars, including the Buffet’s happy minute, something Ted Bair initiated. At 6 p.m. drinks are two for one until 6:01 p.m. and at 11 p.m. it’s buy one get one for a dollar until 11:01 p.m. On your birthday you get a shot and jumbo Coors for 25 cents.

The Buffet is “a rite of passage for the students,” Embach said, ticking off graduation, homecoming and family weekend as just a few occasions that students celebrate by “opening the Buff,” arriving at the bar when it opens at 6 a.m.

These things may seem minute, but they emphasize tradition in an already historical bar.

The 90-year anniversary will not bring with it any changes to the bar in keeping with Ted’s philosophy: “Ted would say ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’,” his granddaughter said. “The Buffet has been going strong for 90 years. We love the vibe the bar has.”

“I really don’t see the bar changing much,” said Skattum. “The bar is bigger than all of us and it will just keep going as it is. All who love this bar, which is practically everyone, don’t want it to ever change.”


Arizona Sonoran News is a news service of the University of Arizona School of Journalism.


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