Downtown Phoenix has enjoyed a recent renaissance, but across the Valley of the Sun foodies, hispters and adventure lovers can find something to revel in
“I came to Casablanca for the waters,” Rick asserts in a classic movie scene. “The waters? But Casablanca is a desert!” his friend replies. “I was… misinformed,” Rick deadpans back.
Something similar could be said of Phoenix. It is in the middle of the Arizona desert, but the misinformation is that that is all there is. The sixth most populous city in America (and 12th largest metro area, including Mesa, Scottsdale and Tempe), this sprawling oasis makes up two-thirds of the entire population of the state. That’s enough to bring some heavy cultural weight. So if you think it’s all just cacti and sunsets, you’re woefully misinformed.
Especially in recent years, Downtown Phoenix has undergone a kind of urban renaissance, with new restaurants, bars, hotels and entertainment options proliferating. The Greater Phoenix-Mesa area occupies an unexpectedly rich valley that is both bustling and farm-friendly. This has fed a remarkably vibrant foodie/cocktail/hipster culture in addition to all the outdoor activities and relaxing destinations you’d anticipate. You can go to be active, to unwind or just to eat to your heart’s content. But why not try all three?
Zagat recently named Phoenix one of America’s next hot foodie cities, and that’s not just bluster. From its active farm-to-table programs and inventive chefs and mixologists, there’s a staggering amount of culinary experimentation to enjoy here.
It never occurred to me before my visit that there was rich farmland within the boundary of Maricopa County, nor that its selection would be so diverse. The Farm at South Mountain is a verdant enclave featuring 10 acres of pecan groves, rows of local vegetables and several on-site restaurants that make use of the produce both here and from neighboring farms. There’s a breakfast spot called Morning Glory (where you can enjoy a marvelous spin on huevos rancheros with chorizo and Arizona tepary beans), lunch at the Farm Kitchen or a Four Diamond dinner at the acclaimed Quiessence fine-dining restaurant.
Just east of neighboring Mesa is the Queen Creek Olive Mill, a working olive orchard that also serves light refreshments and sells all manner of olive-inspired products, from spicy oils for cooking to emolument-rich beauty care items. A few miles down the road lies Agritopia, a visionary development that incorporates farmland within a planned living community.
Chef-driven restaurants proliferate as well. It would be easy to be seduced by the panoramic vistas available from your seat at A Different Pointe of View, a hotel fine-dining restaurant that overlooks the valley. But the cocktails and food make it worth the trip on their own. Downtown’s Nook Kitchen serves popular dishes like poutine (get it with short ribs), gourmet sandwiches and hand-tossed pizzas with house-pulled mozzarella, cooked in an Italian-made wood-fired pizza oven. Local restaurateur Sam Fox has lent his touch to a number of popular local concepts, such as Blanco Tacos & Tequila.
Cutting-edge cocktail culture in Phoenix has benefitted immeasurably from the opening a few years ago of Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour. If you think you’ve experienced high-end mixology, you’ll still be amazed at this wonderland of craft beverages.
Each April, proprietor Ross Simon releases an annual Book o’ Cocktails — a cleverly-designed, 32-page brochure-cum-bar-menu that details for the coming year every available drink recipe (among them a twist on the Negroni, a chocolate Sazerac and an entire section called “Martini and His Bitches”) … all priced from just $9 to $16. The food selection from chef Bob Tam is equally inventive; you could spend your entire trip just coming back here and exploring the menus.
For less alcohol — but no less hipster cred — don’t miss the Phoenix Public Market Café, a casual hang in Downtown. Located in a converted auto garage, it serves gourmet coffee drinks, approachable, market-fresh breakfast, lunch and dinner items and delicious pastries, like the flavorful macarons, all with a relaxing, contemporary and youthful vibe. (Oh, and there is a wine bar, if you still want something adult to drink.)
Craft breweries are also making themselves known in the area. Mesa’s Beer Research Institute sounds like a scientific facility, but it’s just a casual biergarten and scratch kitchen serving a slate of mostly Belgian-style ales and lagers, along with sandwiches, fries and other pub grub.
B.R.I. isn’t Mesa’s only artisanal eatery. This sister town to Phoenix has a vibrant community of quirky, creative purveyors in a spectrum of disciplines, from the cupcakes at Sweet Cakes to the teas and tinctures from herbalist Kathleen Gould’s Southwest Herb, an funky apothecary and holistic treatment retailer in a spacious Victorian house. In Downtown Mesa, the still-new Worth Takeaway is wowing diners with its elevated versions of sandwiches, coffees and local Danzeisen Dairy chocolate milk. T.C Eggington’s Brunchery is a popular breakfast and lunch stop with quaint theming and a near endless array of egg dishes. Over at the Hilton Phoenix/Mesa hotel, executive chef Ryan Staroszik has brought an artistic approach to a businessman’s hotel.
Outdoor and artsy activities
Because of its year-round warm weather and relatively few rainy days, Phoenix is a popular destination for outdoor activities (in the summer the heat can reach 100, though as they say, “it’s a dry heat”). If you opt for a balloon ride, though, you can beat the heat easily and also enjoy a rare and gorgeous experience. Hot Air Expeditions offers trips from your hotel (expect to be ready before sunrise) to a remote departure site, where you will float 6,000 above the Sonoran Desert, taking in the breathtaking mountain terrain and getting, quite literally, a bird’s-eye view of the valley in a wicker basket (it’s reinforced with steel, but still a heart-pounding few moments aloft). After about an hour, you land, and chase teams meet you and quickly set up a catered champagne breakfast before taking you back to your hotel … all before 10 a.m. It’s a dream for shutterbugs and adventure junkies.
Closer to the ground is a visit to the Desert Botanical Garden, a sprawling arboretum of indigenous flora that you can stroll through day or evening. (A recent light installation by British artist Bruce Munro even offered fanciful after-dark tours of the park.) Of course, you can also just wander around and soak in the prodigious majesty of the saguaro cacti (protected by law, so don’t touch ’em!) and colorful rocks and wildlife.
We tend to think of New Mexico, especially Santa Fe, as a haven for craftsmen and artists, but public art has been enthusiastically embraced by Phoenicians. Roosevelt Row reflects part of the Downtown renaissance of Phoenix proper, with repurposed galleries, shops and studios. Over in Mesa, its intimate downtown area is filled with restoration efforts. Recently, local artists were tasked with painting a variety of colorful murals, some even recreating long-gone neon signage that helped define the desert landscape in the 1940s and ‘50s.
The city center also benefits from the Mesa Arts Center, a gorgeous, modern and welcoming facility that combines four performing arts theaters with an art gallery as well as classrooms where you can learn crafts such as glass-blowing.
Relax and refresh
Choosing your accommodations can really affect the experience you hope to have. To be in the heart of activities, Downtown Phoenix’s recently-opened Hilton Garden Inn has renovated an historic 1931 bank building into a charming 12-story Art Deco hotel. It offers comfortable and well-priced rooms, and is in walking distance or a short Uber ride of Bitter & Twisted, the Phoenix Public Market Café, the artsy Roosevelt Row gallery district and even the Phoenix LGBT Pride Center. (Nook is located in the ground floor of the Garden Inn.) The Hilton over in Mesa provides a central base for that side of the city.
If you wanna go old-school the Arizona Biltmore is a storied hotel that’s so rich in history you can practically feel the ghosts of folks like Clark Gable stalking the hallways. Built in 1929, it was designed by a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright (Wright himself consulted on the construction, and also built Taliesin West, his home and school, in Scottsdale). A $30 million renovation was completed at the end of 2015, so modern updates accentuate its preserved glamour. (Imagine: Its famed Aztec Room boasts tons of ornamental copper and thousands of square feet of gold leaf.) It’s two swimming pools provide ample opportunity for get-away-from-it-all sunbathing and cooling, and you can even book a treatment at the Spa Biltmore: Luxuriating in a hot-stone massage, facial, aromatherapy session, facial or even couples treatment.
For an entirely different experience — one that brings you totally into the environment of Phoenix’s rich landscape — the Pointe Hilton Tapatio Cliffs Resort is an adventure in itself. Virtually carved in a mountainside, it’s conjures life as a Pueblo Indian with the addition of modern amenities. The views offer unparalleled vistas of the Valley of the Sun from the all-suite facility. You feel entirely removed from the world, ensconced in warm, authentic décor. It’s yet another way you can tailor a trip to Arizona to serve whatever adventure you wish to enjoy.
LITTLE BLACK BOOK
Food and Drink
Beer Research Institute, 1461 S. Staple Drive, Mesa. TheBeerResearchInstitute.com. Bitter & Twisted, 1 W. Jefferson St., Phoenix. BitterAndTwistedAZ.com. A Different Pointe of View at Tapatio Cliffs, 1111 E. 7th St., Phoenix. The Farm at South Mountain, 6106 32nd St., Phoenix. TheFarmAtSouthMountain.com. Nook Kitchen, 15 E. Monroe St. NookKitchen.com. Phoenix Public Market Cafe, 14 E. Pierce St., Phoenix. PHXPublicMarket.com. Queen Creek Olive Mill, 25062 S. Meridian Road, Queen Creek. Southwest Herb, 148 N. Center St., Mesa. SWHerb.com. Sweet Cakes, 21 W. Main St., Mesa. SweetCakesCafe.com. T.C. Eggington’s Brunchery, 1660 S. Alma School Road, Mesa. TCEgg.com. Worth Takeaway, 218 W. Main St., Mesa. WorthTakeaway.com.
Desert Botanical Garden, 1201 N. Galvin Parkway, Phoenix. DBQ.org. Hot Air Expeditions, HotAirExpeditions.com. Mesa Arts Center, 1 E. Main St., Mesa. MesaArtsCenter.com. Phoenix Pride LGBT Center, 801 N. 2nd St., Phoenix. PhoenixPrideLGBTCenter.org. Roosevelt Row Arts District, RooseveltRow.org.
Arizona Biltmore, 2400 E. Missouri, Phoenix. ArizonaBiltmore.com. Hilton Garden Inn, 1 E. Monroe St. Hilton Phoenix/Mesa, 1011 W. Holmes Ave., Mesa. Pointe Hilton Tapatio Cliffs Resort, 1111 N. 7th St., Phoenix. TapatioCliffHilton.com.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 17, 2016.