Phoenix is growing up, and there are decent-to-excellent restaurants throughout the Valley. The big story in the restaurant scene here is the recent mini-explosion of mid-priced locally owned eateries: There are dozens popping up everywhere, sometimes with sister operations overseen by the same chef or local organization, or clustered in the same area.
On the upscale restaurant front, a major player these days is a company called Fox (which insists on calling its restaurants “concepts,” but don’t hold that against them). They’ve got a cottage industry of top-end eateries, each with its own approach and theme, but united in never-miss food, good value for the price, and a highly professional staff.
Some of the more conscientious restaurants devoted to healthy eating offer reasonably sized portions; but it’s not uncommon in the Valley to be served an entrée big enough for two or even three people. If you’re not interested in having a gigantic meal, ask your waiter about portion sizes; from many area restaurants, couples can emerge well fed splitting a single entree.
The Fox Connection
The local restaurant company Fox has developed winners all over the Valley. There’s Olive & Ivy at the Scottsdale Fashion Square mall, which offers hip fine dining; North (www.northitaliarestaurant.com; tel. 480/948-2055), a decent casual Italian restaurant at the Kierland Mall; Culinary Dropout (www.culinarydropout.com; tel. 602/680-4040), an upbeat, more raucous joint for classic American burgers and the like, ideal for groups looking for a good time; and several more. Bottom line is that these are all very safe bets if, say, you’re in a group with some folks who are hard to please. You can check them all out at www.foxrc.com.
We All Scream for Ice Cream
If you have kids, you have to make a stop at Scottsdale’s Sugar Bowl, 4005 N. Scottsdale Rd. (www.sugarbowlscottsdale.com; tel. 480/946-0051), in the heart of Old Town Scottsdale. You can’t miss it; the pink facade is visible from a block away, and you feel a bit like you’re walking into a cotton-candy machine. But this venerable Valley outfit, made famous in local Bil Keane’s “Family Circus” cartoons many decades ago, makes for a fun visit for ice cream lovers of all ages.
Another longtime Phoenix outfit is Mary Coyle, recently moved to 5823 N. Seventh St. (www.marycoyle.net; tel. 602/626-5996), which makes its own ice cream and has been in business for more than 50 years. The hip gelato hangout Gelato Spot, 3164 E. Camelback Rd. (www.gelatospot.com; tel. 602/957-8040) serves both Arcadia and the Biltmore.
The best ice cream in town, however, is at Sweet Republic: Its deep texture and clever flavors (from all the basics to flights of fancy like Peaberry Espresso and Honey Lavender) have gotten national attention. Each day’s flavors are kept up-to-date on the website. Sweet Republic (www.sweetrepublic.com) has two shops, in Scottsdale (9160 E. Shea Blvd.; tel. 480/248-6979) and Phoenix (6054 N. 16th St.; tel. 602/535-5990). Both places look pretty utilitarian; once you taste the ice cream, you won’t care.
Phoenix has become quite a decent pizza town. Some Chicago-style thick-crust interlopers have moved in—there’s a Lou Malnati’s at Central and Camelback in Uptown, and a Gino’s East and a Giordano’s or two as well. However, I recommend the homegrown, delectably chewy experiments some local chefs have produced in the realm of the thin crust.
The gold standard is, of course, Pizzeria Bianco, where Chef Chris Bianco has established a national reputation with his perfect crust and discriminating ingredients. There’s often a wait at the main branch, downtown at Heritage Square. There’s also a highly enjoyable, more upscale Bianco location in the courtyard of the Town and Country Mall, 4743 N 20th St. (tel. 602/368-3273), at the southeast corner of 20th Street and Camelback Road.
But there are more players these days. Kitty-corner from Town and Country, at 19th Street and Camelback, the upscale casual Parlor serves delectably sweet crusts in a converted midcentury modern building. On Central Avenue just 2 blocks north of Camelback Road, Federal Pizza, 5210 N. Central Ave. (tel. 602/795-2520) serves another thin variant with toppings that pop. (Try the Big Star, with local sausage and peppers, or the Brussel Sprout, with pancetta and lemon zest.)
Downtown, for atmosphere and quality, you can’t beat Cibo, 603 N. Fifth Ave. (tel. 602/441-2697), set in an old downtown bungalow. Full bar, too. This is a great place for a romantic dinner in the glittering garden. And over in Arcadia, La Grande Orange Pizzeria, the beating heart of Arcadia, produces an enjoyable thin crust—and in vegan and gluten-free forms as well.
Camelback & Central: Mid-Priced Menus Galore
In central Phoenix, at the uptown intersection of Camelback Road and Central Avenue, there’s a profusion of mid-range dining options that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. You can’t miss with Chef Aaron Chamberlin’s St. Francis, an upscale boite with terrific food. Chamberlin also started the Phoenix Public Market, probably your best eating bet around the ASU downtown campus, a few miles south, at Central and McKinley avenues. Also at Central and Camelback, in the Uptown Plaza strip mall, you’ll find Flower Child (tel. 480/212-0180), a vegetarian- and vegan-friendly upscale cafe; Lou Malnati’s (tel. 602/892-9998), deep-dish pizza imported from Chicago; a spacious breakfast joint called Elly’s (tel. 602/603-9600); and more.
Just a long block west from Camelback and Central, in an innovative complex called The Newton, you can find a cool new Cajun-y place called Southern Rail, next to the big independent bookstore Changing Hands; you can’t go wrong with the gumbo or jambalaya here.
A quarter-mile north of Central and Camelback, there’s a cluster of four restaurants at Central and Colter avenues from a local company called Upward: JoyRide (yummy tacos and Mexican, tel. 602/274-8226); Federal Pizza (yummy pizza and accompanying pasta dishes); the Windsor (yummy American food, tel. 602/279-1111); and Postino (wine bar with food, tel. 602/274-5144). Park at the northeast corner of Central Avenue and Colter and take your pick—and then hit Churn (tel. 602/279-8024), next door to the Windsor, for some homemade ice cream.
I have some bad news to share with you: The fabled Phoenix cowboy steakhouse of yore is fading off into a desert sunset. The Reata Pass and Greasewood Flats, two sprawling cowboy eateries out near Pinnacle Peak, are gone. Bill Johnson’s Big Apple, along with its 70-foot neon sign on Van Buren, is gone as well. Rawhide, the Western town, is open now only for special events. But there are a couple of places left. The Stockyards, 5009 E. Washington St. (www.stockyardssteakhouse.com; tel. 602/273-7378), which dates back to the time when there were stockyards in central Phoenix, was restored in 2004 and continues to offer top-tier meats (entrees run $36–$70). For something a little more casual for the family, drive to the T-Bone Steakhouse, 10037 S. 19th Ave. (www.tbonesteakhouseaz.com; tel. 602/276-0945), which lives on, high up South Mountain at the southern foot of 19th Avenue, on the west side of town. The history of this place goes back to the 1920s, and it still offers reasonably priced cowboy fixin’s with sweeping views of the valley below.
In the last 10 years, the Valley has come of age coffee-wise. Premium roasters can be found everywhere. In central Phoenix, Lux Coffee (4400 N. Central Ave.; luxcoffee.com) is the place where, from 6am on, artists and businesspeople meet up, and earnest writers, designers, and other “creatives” sip coffee, eat breakfast, and sit for hours in a virtually unmarked building on Central Avenue south of Camelback Road. There’s sometimes a line, but you can generally find a place to sit. In the evening, there’s a decent dinner menu, and wine and drinks come to the fore, courtesy of some talented resident mixologists, until midnight daily and till 2am on weekends. Farther downtown, try Lola Coffee (1001 N. 3rd Ave.; lolacoffeebar.com), another favorite of activists, business folks, ASU profs, students, and the like. Press Coffee (1616 N. Central; presscoffee.com) does amazing things with coffee beans at a swanky new shop and cafe at Central and McDowell, right across the street from the Phoenix Art Museum. I find the prices a bit high for the Valley—$20-plus a pound? Yikes!—but boy it’s good. Cartel Coffee Lab (1 N. 1st St.; cartelcoffeelab.com) does careful slow drips and is the best place for great coffee in the heart of downtown.
In Scottsdale: Downtown has its own Cartel (7124 E. 5th Ave.; cartelcoffeelab.com) amid the 5th Avenue Shops. Up in north Scottsdale, visit the original Press in the tony Scottsdale Quarter shopping center (15147 N. Scottsdale Rd.; presscoaffee.com). In south Scottsdale, near the Phoenix city line, is Echo Coffee (2902 N. 68th St.; www.echocoffee.com), one of the best local micro-roasters and purveyor of some of the best slow drip in town, all in an airy environment highly conducive to creativity.
An Unexpected Ethnic Enclave
Everyone knows Mesa is lily white and mostly Mormon, right? So what explains the Mekong Grocery and its companion operation, the AZ International Marketplace? They are about a half-mile from each other on Dobson Road a few miles south of I-60. The Asian-themed Mekong Plaza (66 S. Dobson Rd., at W. Main; www.mekongplaza.com; tel. 602/833-0095) is a strip mall with an incongruous pagoda-like roof. A variety of Chinese and Vietnamese shops and eateries face the parking lot; behind them is a very large, crammed-to-the-rafters Asian market. Every manner of Asian food and packaged goods, only some with English translations, can be found here, along with a wall of live fish tanks. A bit south on the other side of the street is the AZ International Marketplace (1920 W. Broadway Rd., at S. Dobson; tel. 602/633-6296), a gigantic Walmart-sized operation with a similar phalanx of casual Asian food operations in front. Both are open daily from 9am to 9pm.
Breakfast & Brunch
For years, lovers of the eggs, omelets, scrambles, and griddlecakes at Matt’s Big Breakfast, 801 N. 1st St. (www.mattsbigbreakfast.com; tel. 602/254-1074), had to line up outside a tiny operation just off Roosevelt Row downtown. Now there’s a bigger operation where the Biltmore meets Arcadia, at 32nd Street and Camelback Road (3118 E. Camelback Rd.; tel. 602/840-3450), and another tucked away in a new cluster of office buildings on the south side of Tempe Town Lake (400 E. Rio Salado Pkwy.; tel. 480/967-5156). For casual outdoor breakfasting in a bucolic farm setting, there’s Morning Glory Café, 6106 S. 32nd St. (www.thefarmatsouthmountain.com; tel. 602/276-8804), part of the Farm complex, which also includes the celebrated Quiessence restaurant. (Note: It’s closed June through August.) In Arcadia, you can get great breakfasts and hearty coffee, among the locals who populate this place in droves, at hotspot La Grande Orange. For a high-end brunch, you can’t go wrong amid the desert mountain views at El Chorro Lodge, or Lon’s at the Hermosa. However, for a unique experience, make a brunch reservation at Geordie’s Restaurant at the Wrigley Mansion (Sundays only 10am–2pm; $64, $32 kids 5–12), served in the historic mansion that chewing gum built.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.