JUST THE TICKET
Downtown is packed with tiny, sometimes dicey venues for new and offbeat theater, hosting shows that'll amaze, amuse, confuse, and transform you. From eye-popping spectacle to refreshingly offensive filth to philosophical posturing to a touring kitty-cat circus, they've got your ticket. (Or, frequently, they've not got your ticket — paper costs money, after all.)
On the family-friendly side, Great Arizona Puppet Theater and the Herberger Lunch Time Theater series present light, short, but still innovative works, often by Arizona authors. Also on the Herberger's black-box Kax Stage, iTheatre Collaborative executes mad-fresh scripts. In the Viad Building, Phoenix Theatre operates the cozy Playhouse on the Park, where itinerant local standbys such as Arizona Jewish Theatre Company, Teatro Bravo!, and Black Theatre Troupe hit the boards as regular visitors. Phoenix Theatre's main campus includes the Little Theatre, home of Nearly Naked Theatre, which plays even more adult and alternative. (As does Great Arizona Puppet Theater every month or so, at Adult Puppet Slams.)
Small spaces hopscotch with galleries down to Roosevelt Row and along Grand Avenue, where Bragg's Pie Factory headquarters experimental troupes Theater in My Basement and Orange Theatre Group. Late-night improv, sketch comedy, variety, and performances of a vaudevillian/neo-burlesque nature alternate with "legitimate theater" and workshops at spots like Soul Invictus, Trunk Space, Space 55, and Torch Theatre (a bit farther north on Central).
And during each spring's PHX:fringe festival, traffic intensifies, more venues are pressed into service, small companies visit from out of town, and shows run back-to-back-to-back. — Julie Peterson
Great Arizona Puppet Theater: 302 W. Latham St., 602-262-2050, azpuppets.org
Phoenix Theatre, 100 E. McDowell Rd.; Playhouse on the Park, 1850 N. Central Ave: 602-254-2151, phoenixtheatre.com, azjewishtheatre.org, teatrobravo.org, blacktheatretroupe.org, nearlynakedtheatre.org
Bragg's: 1301 Grand Ave., orangetheatre.org, facebook.com/pages/Theater-in-My-Basement/155071177428
Soul Invictus: 1022 Grand Ave.
Trunk Space: 1506 Grand Ave., 602-256-6006, thetrunkspace.com
Space 55: 636 E. Pierce St., space55.org
Torch Theatre: 4721 N. Central Ave., 602-456-2876, thetorchtheatre.com
PHX:fringe: 602-476-1066, phxfringe.org
THE LONG POUR
In the never-ending battle to become the undisputed king of the cocktail craze, each establishment has its own strategy of how to trump the competition and woo discriminating drinkers. At Hanny's, the barkeeps say their bit of boozy brinkmanship is to utilize fresh-cut ingredients in handcrafted cocktails — like the lime wedges and muddled cucumber in the Moscow Mule. Over at Amsterdam, however, they're all about quantity and creativity. The boyish bartenders working the ritzy gay lounge proudly state they easily can whip up any of the 300-plus specialty martinis on the drink menu ("More than any other bar in the country!") on a moment's notice, whether it's the dessert-like crème brûlée or mint chocolate chip or fruitier varieties such as the vanilla black cherry. Portland's drink-slingers treat each of their drinks "like works of art," especially such signatures as the Pear Cosmopolitan (a combo of cranberry and lime juice, Grey Goose Vodka la Poire, and Cointreau).
Durant's, the elder statesman in this war, relies on the aura of old-school cool and vintage Phoenix charm that hangs in the air. Its retro cocktail lounge is the stuff of local legend, as are its vodka martinis (best ordered five-to-one). Other classics are done up with style and feature a strong pour, including the Bloody Mary sporting a huge jumbo shrimp sticking out of the tumbler. Tom's Tavern, on the other hand, chooses to give old standards a remix. For instance, its Italian Margarita (dubbed "The Ratnerita") blends Milagro tequila, lemon and Disaronno Amaretto. So who's the winner? Why, you, of course. — Benjamin Leatherman
Hanny's: 40 N. 1st St., 602-252-2285
Amsterdam: 718 N. Central Ave., 602-258-6122, amsterdambar.com
Portland's: 105 W. Portland St., 602-795-7480, portlandsphoenix.com
Durant's: 2611 N. Central Ave., 602-264-5967, durantsaz.com
Tom's Tavern & 1929 Grill: 2 N. Central Ave., 602-257-1688, tomstavernphoenix.com
After darkness falls over downtown on any given weekend, relentless rhythms and wild warblings tend to fill the air as neon-lit nightclubs and discotheques entice with promises of decadence. One of the more intriguing spots is two-story Latin emporium Sky Lounge, where pretty girls in clingy mini-dresses are the norm and sizzling bachata tracks from Don Omar and chart-topping hits by Prince Royce are cranked up to 11. The loudness occasionally bleeds into neighboring Bar Smith, although the throng of cool kids partying underneath the stars on the hipster haven's packed rooftop are too busy pumping their fists to pulse-pounding remixes of electro, moombahton, and indie hits to care. Tastemaker turntablists and an arty atmosphere prevail at the establishment via epic graf-art murals on the walls and popular nights like Sticky Fingers on Fridays. It's often a standing-room-only situation, which causes some clubbers to head up Central and haunt the Ghost Lounge inside the historic Hotel San Carlos. The lighting is dim and the chatter is loud inside the throwback joint adorned with antique fixtures and furnishings. While nary a titular specter flits about the place, you can partake in a close encounter of the intoxicating kind with the wealth of spirits available at the vintage oak bar. Ghouls of a different sort, however, are frequently seen at Sanctum, albeit in the form of pasty-faced gothic types. The Cathedral-like dance lair is home to the rivethead and fetish crowd on both Friday and Saturday nights as DJs spin industrial, darkwave, and EBM tracks until well after the witching hour. — Benjamin Leatherman
Sky Lounge: 132 E. Washington St., 602-229-1110, skyloungephoenix.com
Bar Smith: 130 E. Washington St., 602-229-1265, barsmithphoenix.com
Ghost Lounge: 202 N. Central Ave., 602-396-7422, www.ghost-lounge.com
Sanctum: 4343 N. 7th Ave., 602-264-1700
Downtowners are pretty darn fickle when it comes to their music tastes, especially those ever-picky hipster kids. Fortunately, there's a diverse array of venues around downtown, each offering its own music mix. Topping the list is Crescent Ballroom, which has earned a rarEfied aura after only six months in operation. Its concert hall (boasting stadium seating and a killer sound system) is a swank place to watch epic rock and indie bands, and its lounge is an even swankier spot where folks can quaff and converse while partaking in free performances by DJs and musicians nightly. Gratis gigs by local artists aren't the exclusive domain of the Crescent, however, as The Lost Leaf has booked unique local acts (ranging from improv jazzbos to crate-digging selectors) seven nights a week over the past four years. The drinkery's eclectic lineup doesn't hold a candle to the curious collection of eccentric folksters or weirdo rockers featured at Trunk Space, many of whom are music newbies playing their first-ever shows. But if saltier dogs and craftier veterans are more your bag, hit up the Rhythm Room where blues, roots-rock, and Americana acts are king. — Benjamin Leatherman
Crescent Ballroom: 308 N. 2nd Ave., 602-716-2222, crescentphx.com
The Lost Leaf: 914 N. 5th St., 602-258-0014, thelostleaf.org
Trunk Space: 1506 Grand Ave., 602-256-6006, thetrunkspace.com
Rhythm Room: 1019 E. Indian School Rd., 602-265-4842, rhythmroom.com
Dancing and drinking aren't the only diversions to be had after dark in downtown, as other amusements and attractions are easy to enjoy. If it's a First Friday, artists naturally will be out in abundance, mixing with freaks, geeks, performers, and the general public during the monthly art walk along Grand Avenue and Roosevelt Row. If you'd dig a dose of high culture during any other night of the month, however, the cineastes at Film Bar serve up art-house flicks and brain-bending documentaries nightly, pairing them with artisanal beers and vino. Plus, its funky lounge hosts world music and international beats on weekends. Those wanting a lighter form of entertainment can pay a visit to Stand-Up Live comedy club at CityScape. Since opening last year, it's given other Valley the joke joints a run for their funny money by hosting such big-name comics as Norm McDonald, Dave Attell, and Jay Mohr in a posh atmosphere. And while cut-ups are tossing out zingers, the young and sexy crowd are throwing spares and 7-10 splits a few doors down at the combination upscale bowling alley/nightclub Lucky Strike Lanes. Not ready to call it a night just yet? Check the Twitter or Facebook of artist and infamous party monster Quincy Ross, who might just be throwing one of his legendary after-hours soirees at a local gallery or hotel. — Benjamin Leatherman
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Film Bar: 815 N. 2nd St., 602-595-9187, thefilmbarphx.com
Lucky Strike: 50 W. Jefferson St., 602-732-5490, bowlluckystrike.com
Stand Up Live: 50 W. Jefferson St., 480-719-6100, standuplive.com
Quincy Ross: twitter.com/the_quincy