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The hodgepodge of retro garden seating in front of MacAlpine’s Soda Fountain near downtown Phoenix is the first sign you’re not in usual—or modern—territory. Once inside, it’s confirmed you’ve stepped back in time, circa 1929 to be exact. That’s when Birch’s 7th Street Pharmacy opened in this building, along a then-dusty city road where locals could grab a refreshing drink and a quick bite at the soda-fountain counter while waiting for their prescriptions to be filled.
By the early ’30s, Morris Zimmerman bought Birch’s and renamed it the Morris Zimmerman Pharmacy. In 1938, Fred MacAlpine became the owner, changed its name and ran the pharmacy and soda fountain business for a decade.
Ownership of MacAlpine’s has changed hands frequently over the years, and at various stages the building has housed a grocery store, dress shop and restaurant supply business, according to current owner Monica Heizenrader. At one point, pharmacist Don Briscoe and his wife Virginia, former employees, owned MacAlpine’s before renting the space on New Year’s Eve 1991 to an antiques dealer.
By 2001, Heizenrader owned the building and bought the struggling fountain business, mostly because she wanted to protect MacAlpine’s legacy.
Long after the pharmacy closed, a parade of characters—among them Senator Barry Goldwater and architect Frank Lloyd Wright—stopped by for a cool beverage at this neighborly hangout that borders the historical Coronado District. And those characters keep coming.
On this day, a guy who looks likes Santa Claus’ doppelganger is perched at the Formica-covered counter, dressed in jeans, a big Western belt buckle and a plaid shirt. It doesn’t take long to learn his name is Chris Cringle, a Santa-for-hire who also runs a delivery service in the holiday offseason. The soda-fountain regular lives around the corner and is waiting to talk to Heizenrader about the photo shoot for MacAlpine’s annual calendar, which stars employees and patrons.
Cringle jokingly tells me he’s the calendar’s “Mr. December” and says he’s watching his waistline, but recommends I try the James Dean, a cream soda made with wild cherry phosphate and vanilla ice cream. I go with his gut and order one. As we chat on the chrome fountain stools, he’s getting a few curious stares, particularly from a little boy who says to his parents loudly, “I’ve never been in a place like this before.”
MacAlpine’s is one of the last remaining soda fountains in the country that still serves up a heavy dose of quirky nostalgia. Equal parts ice cream shop, restaurant and secondhand store, the interior is an inviting cross between your grandmother’s cozy sitting parlor and her treasure-filled attic. In the entrance foyer, customers can browse and purchase antiques. Retro jewelry, clothing and furniture are for sale in a back room.
MacAlpine’s decoro is a tribute to the past. The walls are adorned with memorabilia from its heyday as a Rexall pharmacy and soda fountain, including historical photos, Coke signs and pharmaceutical instruments.
The soda fountain and the shelves that line the wall are from the original pharmacy. Other furnishings have been added, like the wooden restaurant seating, juke box, and 1920s-inspired Jadeite green flooring. The pharmacy dispensing space is now the kitchen. And nestled alongside the industrial ice cream blenders behind the counter is a not-so vintage espresso machine.
“I want to offer modern choices but also provide options and an experience that is inspired by the many decades MacAlpine’s has been opened,” Heizenrader says.
MacAlpine’s offers a long list of soda-fountain classics like malts, shakes, sundaes, cream sodas, phosphates and egg cream. All ice-cream concoctions are made with Thrifty ice cream, and customers can customize their selections with 99 syrup flavors. Cherry Coke is a mainstay, but bubble gum, wedding cake and dill pickle are favorites. The menu is filled with throwback comfort foods such as meatloaf, sloppy joe’s and egg salad, as well as an array of sandwiches, salads and a vegetarian black-bean burger.
Heizenrader encourages her cheerful, all-female waitress staff to dress the part of frozen-in-time diner. They sport pink bowling shirts, poodle skirts and elaborate hairstyles reminiscent of the ’40s and ’50s. When Heizenrader’s daughter waitressed at MacAlpine’s, she wore World War II victory rolls to get in costume. “One mandatory request I have is that they all wear bright red lipstick,” says Heizenrader.
Scott Cooley, an environmental lawyer, has lunched at MacAlpine’s “religiously” every Friday for the past 10 years. He grew up in Phoenix but wasn’t aware of the place until he drove by one day and noticed the big orange sign in front. “MacApline’s reminds me of those places you see in pictures from the ’50s,” he says.
A fan of historical properties, Cooley is sold on the soda fountain’s intriguing past, which includes some ghost stories. “I still haven’t looked at everything on the walls and shelves,” he says.
He also can’t pass up the friendly, uplifting vibe, which to him is no novelty act.
“At MacAlpine’s you can get a real milkshake and strike up a genuine conversation with a stranger,” he says. “It’s a step back in time, when people were happier. It’s like ‘Cheers,’ but without the beer.”
About the author: Sally J. Clasen
Sally J. Clasen is a Phoenix-based writer and committed sunset chaser. Her articles about travel, lifestyle and wellness have appeared in such publications and websites as Phoenix Home & Garden, Modern Luxury Scottsdale, The Arizona Republic, Arizona Spa Girls, AAA Highroads, AAA Home & Away, Bite magazine and Prime Living magazine.