Best Of :: Bars & Clubs
Before there was a First Friday or a Roosevelt Row, the best — and for a while, the only — place to find alternative contemporary art was Alwun House. Folks looking for a funky, big-city art scene had only Alwun, downtown's first gallery, to rely on for "something different," art-wise. The first independent non-profit art space, Alwun set the current trend of galleries' advocating for artists with its Alwun House Foundation, the first local arts organization to address the significance of historical buildings.
The name is phonetic for "all one," as in "we're all in this together," a principle that Alwun House founders Kim Moody and Dana Johnson have clung to since purchasing the old, dilapidated property and commencing their rehabilitation on the house and property in 1971. Built in 1912 by shop owner John Sedler, Alwun originally rested on five acres on the northeast corner of 12th Street and Roosevelt, overlooking alfalfa fields south of Roosevelt, before there were even sidewalks out that way. Following its funky restoration, Alwun House quickly became the first gallery in downtown Phoenix, and has stayed on as a maverick torchbearer for the downtown arts community. Its central floor houses an art gallery; its basement is home to a multi-media theater, and its rambling backyard gardens and patio are the settings for poetry slams, music concerts, and exhibits by local visual and performance artists. Alwun's annual Exotic Art Show showcases uncensored and frankly naughty works, and its bar and cafe make this a jumping joint for any kind of off-hours party. Alwun's a three-decades-old mainstay among those of us who need an alternative art fix.
How is it that we've scraped this town, year after year, searching for drinking digs without ever coming across this little gem? The Ice House Tavern is really kind of a messed-up idea — but in a creepy, fantastic way. Anyone who grew up in Phoenix probably skated at Arcadia Ice Arena at least once in his or her life. Little did we know as fumbling, tumbling idiots on the rink that drunks were watching us the entire time. Yep, there's a bar connected to the rink where boozers can slurp their cocktails and peer through windows to the rink while wobbly skaters slide around on the ice. In 2009, local hipsters latched onto this hole in the wall and celebrated its slightly seedy — definitely cuckoo — novelty.
It's a bit of a haul for most Phoenicians — just over the Pinal County line south of Queen Creek — but a trip to San Tan Flat on a Saturday night is a real treat. Live music from a rollicking country band, a nice wide dance floor, and great food give this place an overall excellent atmosphere, but it's the wood-burning fire pits that really set the stage for a special night. Grab some wood off the pile and toss it on the coals, then buy some marshmallows from behind the bar. Before you know it, you'll be living the saloon's slogan: "All the fun of camping out, without having to sleep on the ground."
We love the Autostrada panini. And we love the smoked salmon bruschetta. And Postino Central's wine list is not only imaginative but always features several of our favorite libations. But what we really love most about this new-ish cafe (located in the old Katz's Deli building on North Central) is that seating on the patio lets us watch three entirely different slices of life, all at once. We can ogle the bar crowd that's hanging out just beyond the patio (where it's pretty easy to strike up a conversation with like-minded wine lovers at the next table), so our desire to watch drunk people hooking up is sated. Beyond that, the dining room is always filled with people having klatch-y catch-up meetings and clandestine conferences (last time we were there, we witnessed a mother-daughter donnybrook having to do with short skirts and withheld tuitions — scandalous!). And Postino's wide, single-pane picture window offers views of the street beyond the dining room. We can even see, from way back on the patio, the comings and goings at the Circle K across the street — which is a lot more interesting than you'd imagine. We're lurkers at heart, and we see a lot more than crusty bread and wine bottles when we hang at Postino Central.
We've always wondered: Where do bars and clubs go when they die (i.e., close)? Whisked away to the nightspot great beyond after falling to a wrecking ball, perhaps, never to return (like Tempe's Long Wong's)? Or maybe reincarnation into a completely new identity is in order, like when the old Mason Jar became gay dive Velocity 2303. In the case of The Sail Inn in Tempe, the legendary hippie hangout was revived, Lazarus-style, in its original location by owner Gina Lombardi. The original version of the Sail closed after it was bought out by real estate developers in late 2005, ultimately becoming the ill-conceived danceteria Trax, which fizzled out after 18 months. Fortunately, Lombardi swept in and resurrected her old stomping grounds earlier this year, upgrading the décor in the process. And though its look may have changed, Lombardi's continuing the old habit of booking a wide variety of musicians — ranging from the jam-rockers of Xtra Ticket and The Noodles to burgeoning indie acts like Black Carl — nearly every night since re-opening. It couldn't have happened at a better time, too, as The Sail Inn is just about the only dedicated music venue in downtown Tempe, an area once renowned for its live bands. Thanks, Gina.
Since debuting in January, Cream Stereo Lounge has endured a significant amount of both love and hate, much like any new nightspot. Its supporters easily gush about its mix of European and Las Vegas-style touches, including swimsuit-clad models engaging in burlesque-like bathtub shows. The haters, on the other side of the coin, have groused about alleged rude service, the club's minuscule size, and overpriced covers. But over the past few months, the grumblings have quieted down and the place is more popular than ever. One factor in its success has been the selection of superstar DJs that have been booked to spin here. The list is quite impressive, including Lee Burridge, Paul Oakenfold, George Acosta, and Paul van Dyk, just to name a few. Like the saying goes, the Cream rises to the top.