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Arts & Entertainment

A last cup of kindness: Farewell to Bentley's and the days of auld lang syne

Back in the days before smartphones and social media, any self-respecting urban youth needed a good, reliable hangout spot. That place where everybody knew not only your name, but your favorite color, preferred music genres, celebrity crushes, and, most importantly, your regular food and beverage order. Back in the late '80s and early '90s in Tucson, our spot was Bentley's, then located next to the former Geronimo Hotel just down the street from the University of Arizona.

My underage friends and I lingered on the patio nursing hot tea or espresso or Italian cream sodas, all of us carefully costumed in our goth or postpunk or aspiring philosophy professor finery. Some of us wore literal berets (not me) or Lennon-esque wire rimmed sunglasses (possibly me) and those who smoked smoked only clove cigarettes as we plotted excursions to the Fine Line or the Downtown Performance Center or discussing the latest episode of Twin Peaks, or making sure somebody noticed the William S. Burroughs or James Joyce or Dylan Thomas (definitely me) paperback we'd "nonchalantly" tossed onto the table. 

Later, the short lived Congress Street location of Bentley's served as a quiet, tucked-away study spot we could sneak into between classes at Pima College. It had a small selection of books for sale and you could get a cup of hot tea and a bagel with butter for cheap while catching up on homework or waiting for the next downtown bus.

Later still, Bentley's moved to their current Speedway location, a natural gathering place for meetings or catching up with friends or brunching on a damn fine egg sandwich while reminiscing about my pretentious young adulthood. When my college freshman daughter moved to an apartment near campus, I was jealous because she was in easy walking distance of Speedway Bentley's (though, to be fair, this was during COVID lockdown, so she couldn't actually eat there yet.) 

That's just my own Bentley's story. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of them in this town. 

The business was founded in 1984 by Willow Bentley and Jo Schneider and held court at Geronimo Square, behind the central fountain on that plaza for many years before eventually migrating to the Nob Hill shopping center at Speedway and Campbell.

Schneider, who went on to launch La Cocina and Old Town Artisans, handed the reins over to son Eli in 2013. Soon after, son Ben joined the tiny family "dynasty" with sister restaurant Tall Boys, and, briefly, sandwich and performance spot Cans Deli on Fourth Avenue. For a while, the Schneider family business was kind of far-reaching for Tucson and each restaurant seemed an extension of the original Bentley's spirit. Warm, accepting joyous, anchoring, and inevitably delicious. Like stopping in at a favorite aunt's or cousin's house for coffee and catching up. 

When COVID-19 hit Tucson, the family businesses closed shop for over a year, though the Schneiders and their staff kept serving Tucson the whole time, offering free meals to out-of-work restaurant and service industry workers at La Cocina several days a week. La Cocina has been open again for a few months now, with outdoor dining, live music and brunch offerings via a scaled down version of Tall Boys.

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Bentley's was much later to the game in reopening and offered limited hours, but at least it was back in the game. For a little while, that is. But, as a former Beatle once reminded us, all things must pass.

On Wednesday, via Facebook, Jo Schneider announced that Bentley's will be closing for good. And while the Schneider family will no doubt feed and host the Tucson community for years to come, the news is bittersweet for those of us that knew and loved an unpretentious little coffee house with a sometimes pretentious, often lovable, always inclusive customer base, an eclectic menu and a staff to match, a safe, sane, creative, welcoming atmosphere and, above all a huge, huge heart.

R.I.P. Bentley's House of Coffee and Tea. I was the raspberry Italian soda with extra whipped cream and ice and if you found an abandoned copy of "Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man," it was probably mine. 

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Bentley's House of Coffee and Tea via Facebook

Jo Schneider with sons Eli and Ben at Bentley's House of Coffee and Tea

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