For 80 years or so, members of the Jacob family have been filling the tummies of Tucsonans.

In the beginning came a market, where customers were waited on for each and every purchase.

Later came the restaurants, including one that has anchored the corner of North Oracle Road and West Miracle Mile for more than a half-century.

Then and now, Tucsonans knew it as Club 21, now at 2920 N. Oracle Road.

While several competing stories exist about how the restaurant got its name, the one current owner, Taft L. Jacob, likes to tell is that his dad, George Jacob, and uncles salvaged parts of old signs — one reading "Club," and the other "21" — to come up with a name for their fledgling cafe.

Jacob's namesake and grandfather, Taft Jacob, first rolled into town more than eight decades ago.

Originally from Lebanon, the young man, his father, two brothers and a sister all wound up in El Paso around 1914 with a brand new last name.

"It used to be Mabarak. But they came through Venezuela, and they could not translate it, so they just used my grandfather's middle name," says John Jacob, 84, Taft's second-oldest son.

A few years later, the family arrived in Tucson, where it promptly opened up a little fruit stand on Congress Street.

Taft and his bride, Mary, would raise a family that would number six sons — Abe, John, George, Mike, Jim and Richard — and one daughter, Rose Marie.

"Our mother was 16 when she married," says John, whose father — and mother — spoke Arabic.

"And she could cuss you out in Arabic, Spanish and English all in one sentence," says son Mike Jacob, 77.

By 1925, family fortunes would swell enough to open the Tucson Public Market, at Broadway and Sixth Avenue.

"When we got our produce from Phoenix, we'd stay overnight at the Adams Hotel so we could shop first thing in the morning," says John. "There was no refrigeration. We stayed on the second floor with windows that would open up to the roof. We used to throw our mattresses on the roof and sleep there."

Mike, who like his older brothers worked at the market, remembers selling produce not by the pound but by the dozen.

And there was no such thing as pushing a cart around.

"You would wait on the customers, get the fruit, weigh it, take the cash to the cash register, get the change, take it back to the customer and carry the bags out to the parking lot," says John.

The Great Depression did not hurt the business, says Mike, adding that in 1932, their father moved the family from its barrio home to a new two-story house that still stands in the Sam Hughes Neighborhood.

But World War II brought a double whammy. Brothers Abe, John and George all enlisted, plus rationing affected the market's customers.

By war's end, the market had been sold. Taft Jacob, its proprietor, died in 1946.

"I wanted to get with George and Abe and get back in the produce business, but our dad's brother, Joe, said Safeway was getting bigger and suggested we get into the bar business," says John.

Instead, the brothers borrowed some money from their mother and rented a tourist cabin what was then north of town. The cabin had been turned into a hamburger stand. "It had about six or seven stools and three booths," says John.

George, who had been a cook in the Navy, assumed kitchen duties.

"He was too young to serve beer and wine," says John.

At first, Mexican food was not on the menu, says John. "I think my mother suggested it," he says. Then they took on a cook their Uncle Joe recommended who could cook Mexican food, John adds.

Over time, the brothers bought the property and the restaurant expanded, especially after a full liquor license was granted.

"We kept the original building and built all around it," says John, adding that in the beginning, "we were only taking $25 a week apiece for ourselves."

Abe left the business in the mid-1950s for a job in California, says John. Meanwhile, Mike worked there from 1952 to 1957, when he left to start what would be a chain of four Tucson liquor stores.

Younger brothers Jim and Richard also helped out at Club 21 for a time before entering the grocery store business, adds John.

In 1975, John sold out to George, with the idea of retiring. Instead, he wound up starting El Parador restaurant, on East Broadway. In 1987, he retired for good, leaving ownership and operation of El Parador to sons Donald and Daniel Jacob and daughter Loretta Carlson.

On the last day of 2005, George Jacob died. "He worked until the last week of his life," says Taft, 61, who has worked at Club 21 since he was 8. Now his own son, Taft Jacob Jr., helps out part time, he adds.

As for the most popular meal on the menu, it's been the same one for decades, says the proprietor: the No. 4, featuring a taco, a tamale, an enchilada and beans.

DID YOU KNOW

Club 21's original address was on Miracle Mile until that portion of the road was changed in 1987 to North Oracle Road.

● Bonnie Henry's column appears Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays. Reach her at 434-4074 or at bhenry@azstarnet.com, or write to 3295 W. Ina Road, Suite 125, Tucson AZ 85741.