I don’t know much, but I do know Phoenix. I’m a native (like, a real one — I was actually born here) and while I escaped for a few years, I’ve been back for more than 20. This city is a tough nut to crack, particularly in the summer. (Don’t worry, the forecast for next weekend is down to a balmy 109 degrees.) But in the last few years the city’s grown up a lot, and there’s more to do here than you might think. Better restaurants, too. Here are a few of our favorites.
(Be sure to call ahead for summer hours; you won’t likely need a reservation this time of year, but hours do change and sometimes folks close up for the summer. Another caveat: pretty much nothing on this list — and, in fact, nothing in general — is close to the convention site. Phoenix is a car town.)
The one-two punch of Chef Charleen Badman and front-man Pavle Milic is irresistible. This is hands-down my favorite restaurant in town — high-end cuisine in a lovely, low key setting. Pavle will kill me for saying this, but I’ll warn you to steer clear of the Arizona wines unless it’s Todd Bostock’s sparkling rose in a can or Milic’s own line of wines. The menu is veg friendly (and kid friendly, too, though not for chicken nuggets-only types) but if there’s lamb that day, GET IT. And don’t skip the butterscotch pudding for dessert. Or the negroni. Side note: Charleen and my Sophie are BFFs — more than one science fair project has gone down in the FnB kitchen. (See photo above. from the time Sophie and Charleen made butter.)
(Other wonderful Scottsdale restaurants for dinner and cocktails include Posh, Citizen Public House, Virtu and AZ88, where Sophie’s favorite is the grilled cheese and my favorite is the espresso martini.)
Sophie also has a love affair going with Silvana Salcido Esparza, the chef at Barrio Cafe (she has a couple locations at the airport and recently opened Barrio Urbana as well). My husband and I remember going to the original Barrio for our first real meal after Sophie’s first heart surgery 12 years ago — the restaurant is in Phoenix’s barrio, a few blocks from Phoenix Children’s Hospital. We don’t see much of Sophie when we eat at one of Silvana’s restaurants; the kid disappears into the kitchen with the chef!
Other options for Mexican food in metro Phoenix: the Sonoran Hot Dog is a must-try “dish” and you’ve got to get it off a cart. If you want your food super-hot, go to Los Dos Molinos (my favorite location is on South Central Avenue, in an old adobe). Los Olivos in Scottsdale is basic Sonoran Mexican food, kitschy and kid friendly.
Okay, I get that sushi in the desert sounds kind of sketchy. But Lori Hashimoto does it right. She will also accommodate “someone” (not Sophie!) with a fish phobia. (Thanks, Lori.) Seriously, every fish lover I know raves about this place. So if you need a sushi fix while you’re here, this is the place. Lori’s another local chef on Sophie’s list of favorite people.
Welcome Chicken and Donuts
No, that is not a typo. I did not mean to write chicken and waffles. The folks behind the amazing Welcome Diner (come back during a cool-weather visit, the seating’s mainly outdoors) recently opened a place that pretty much only sells fried chicken and donuts in flavors like Key Lime Pie. And cold brew coffee, they serve that too. It’s pretty much perfect. And right near the airport. You’re welcome.
What Jeff Kraus does with a crepe should be a crime. This place is casual with counter-service and the line can be long but it’s worth it — and you’ll probably get a sample of the best granola you’ve ever tasted.
It’s probably the city’s most famous restaurant, and it’s worth going! But go to the Town and Country (20th Street and Camelback) location. It’s closer to the hotel, and I can almost guarantee there won’t be the infamous wait. Make sure you ask for the chef’s mom’s desserts.
Country and Sergio Velador are the Wonkas of Phoenix. You have to see it to believe it. Their little candy shop features only handmade items, from sweet and savory popcorns to brittles, hand-pulled taffy and gorgeous cakes. Sophie never makes it out of there without a small tub of chocolate chips.
This ice cream shop (with locations in Scottsdale, Phoenix and the airport — you can also find it at Whole Foods) is exactly what you’re going to need in Phoenix in June. Helen Yung is one of the most creative chefs I’ve encountered — she often mixes it with mash-ups with local restaurants and even a local beer, recently. And you should watch her order dim sum. Both my girls are in total awe of Helen.
Frances, MADE and Bunky Boutique, all in Central Phoenix, are amazing little indie shops. Our beloved bookstore, Changing Hands in Tempe, recently opened a second location in Phoenix — with a coffee/wine/beer bar. Sophie pretty much runs the joint (the book part, anyway) when we visit. She wishes there was a children’s drama section but otherwise it’s pretty much her favorite place in town.
Desert Ridge is the closest mall to the convention site — it’s okay but typical and big box-y and chain-y, and, be warned, outdoors. Even in the hottest months, they tend to keep large fires roaring outside; it’s a little disturbing. Kierland Commons is a better bet, though a little snooty and still outdoors. Scottsdale Fashion Square is giant and INDOORS. Score. (In Phoenix in the summer, one must learn to embrace the mall.)
Stuff to Do
There’s a children’s museum in downtown Phoenix, as well as the Arizona Science Center, Phoenix Art Museum (sorry, you just missed the Warhol show) and the Heard Museum (largest Native American art collection in the world). If I was going to choose one museum to go to, it would be the Musical Instrument Museum, which (bonus!) is actually close to the convention site. We took Sophie several year ago and she loved it.
You’ll have a giant pool at the Marriott, so I won’t give you specifics about other pools in the area — but there are several, including water parks like the old school Big Surf in Scottsdale.
If you’re into Paolo Soleri, go to the late architect’s bell factory, Cosanti, in Paradise Valley. And of course there’s Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter HQ. Or go hang out at the Arizona Biltmore hotel, built by Wright disciples. (And there’s a nice bar in the lobby!)
If you get desperate, you can always Google “ice skating” and “Phoenix.”
You also might want to get out of the heat entirely. The beach is six hours, so Flagstaff’s the best bet for that (two hours north on I-17) and when you’re there, be sure to go to Macy’s for coffee. Black Bart’s is super kitschy and silly, with waiters singing show tunes. Awesome. The Monte Vista is a cute, vintage hotel in the heart of downtown Flagstaff.
Hope that helps! Don’t forget sunscreen!