By Nora Burba Trulsson | Photograph by Paul Markow
If you roll into Big Earl’s Greasy Eats, Cave Creek’s vintage-style diner, you might be filling up with a mushroom-Swiss burger, some sweet-potato fries and a pesto Caesar salad, or perhaps indulging in a milkshake. Had you pulled into the building a generation or two ago, you would have filled up with high-octane gasoline and indulged in a front-end alignment. For decades, the red and white building was a Cave Creek service station.
The prefab metal structure, based on industrial designer Ralph N. Aldrich’s patented prototype for Standard Oil of California, was erected in 1936 on 19th Avenue in the Sunnyslope neighborhood of Phoenix. In 1952, the gas station’s owner thought enough of the building’s Streamline Moderne design and its attached canopy to move it — lock, stock and oil barrel — to Cave Creek not long after that town got electricity, telephones and its first paved road. The building remained a service station well into the 1980s, then served as a storage spot for the town. Its eye-catching retro design remained intact, landing it on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000 as the only remaining Phoenix-area example of the classic Standard Oil station design.
Kim Brennan also liked the gas station’s looks. In 2002, not long after moving to town, she turned it into Big Earl’s Greasy Eats, where two gas pumps on the patio remind visitors of its previous incarnation, as do still-working garage-bay doors, vintage license plates and advertising memorabilia.
Despite the supposed cooking propensity of the restaurant’s fictional namesake, the menu ingredients are thoughtful, says Brooke Butler, the longtime manager who bought the business from Brennan in late 2016. “Our burgers are made with Harris Ranch or Kobe beef,” she says, “and we also serve veggie burgers and salads. Our buns are baked daily.”
Big Earl’s has become a hangout, with locals stopping by for espresso drinks and healthy scrambles in the morning, perching on bar stools and dinette-style chairs inside or lounging on the patio. They linger over burgers, or maybe a Buffalo blue cheese chicken sandwich, for lunch, then come back in the evening, lured by the lighted sand volleyball court in back and perhaps an adult beverage at the full bar.
“This is just a fun place,” Butler says of Big Earl’s, which has served as a backdrop for photo shoots, commercials and even an indie movie. “Families come here after their kids’ sports practices. We get a lot of first dates, ’50s-themed birthday parties and even rehearsal dinners. I like that we’re still part of Cave Creek’s history.”
Big Earl’s Greasy Eats is located at 6135 E. Cave Creek Road in Cave Creek. For more information, call 480-575-7889 or visit www.bigearlsgreasyeats.com.