Best Of :: Bars & Clubs
You wouldn't think an all-ages, alcohol-free music venue that doubles as an art gallery would need an aggressive bouncer, but Modified Arts' Ami Johnson has stories that suggest it does. Like the story about the time some guy pulled a knife on her for giving him a small bottle of water instead of a large. Or the story about the time two bums dented her car fighting outside, pummeling each other until she chased them off. Or the story about the time a guy stole the venue's hand stamp and tried to sell it back to her. Through it all, Johnson, who's also probably the smallest bouncer in town, maintains an admirably friendly but firm attitude that'd be a great lesson to other doormen in town, most of whom work in much nicer neighborhoods. In fact, we're pretty sure she ought to teach a certification course for local bouncers.
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.
This is not your cigar-smoker's martini. And don't put an olive near it. The Cashmere Martini — one of the signature cocktails at one of our favorite new CenPho eateries — is luxury in a glass: vanilla vodka, pineapple juice, and a splash of Chambord. The soft pink hue and exotic aroma move this cocktail to the top of our list of smooth, rich, and — okay, we'll say it — feminine elixirs. Move over last year's Cosmopolitan, there's a new "C" in the city.
For a long time, we were great admirers of the "super-size me" martini trend. So what if a Hendrick's martini at Durant's set us back $20? There were at least four shots of gin in that baby — and we had the buzz to match our bar bill. But this is 2009. We're broke, we're terrified of DUIs, and (frankly) there's a part of us that's just sick and tired of being sick and tired all the time. We were experiencing the good life, but today we're living through the hangover. Enter the "Essential Arctic Martini." At just $5, it's a bargain. And you can gripe about Hanny's tiny little "up" glasses, but this was what a martini looked like in 1950: a shot-and-a-half of gin, a dash of vermouth, and a lot of ice, shaken hard. If it was good enough for Hepburn and Tracy — and James Bond — who are we to complain?
A shakeup within Peter Kasperski's Old Town empire earlier this year ended with two unfortunate developments: the closing of his award-winning Sea Saw, and the downsizing of his new-yet-admired Digestif. Now, Digestif inhabits a much smaller space across the street (in fact, it's the same sleek room that used to house Sea Saw) and has a much trimmer menu. But what hasn't changed is the restaurant's commitment to interesting, complex libations. When we visited this summer, we were thrilled to see that the Pretti Ugly was still on the menu. A light fizz of chartreuse, Uglifruit liqueur, lemon and seltzer, it's a great hot weather treat. And then there's our new favorite, the Plum Dandy, which combines plum and agave nectars, tequila, and creme de mescal — yum! We're continuing to explore the rest of Digestif's cocktail list as summer becomes fall; we're pleased to report we have yet to be disappointed.
Ah, beer: the most humble and refreshing form of recuperation after the daily beatdown that is your job. Just gather your friends and head to a bar for a happy hour (or two). What? Your friends don't like beer? Teach them the error of their ways, starting with the Peach Ale at Four Peaks. Forget hoppy goodness and the power of top-fermenting (that's for real drinkers). Instead, surprise them with the light peach notes of this sumptuous brew. Who knows? Maybe next time they'll want to try an I.P.A. or stout.
We don't remember drinking the Inebriator. Then again, how could we remember drinking anything containing 9 percent alcohol by volume? What we heard from our friends after re-hydrating, cleaning ourselves up, and figuring out which surface was the floor (without hitting it with our heads this time) was that the Inebriator from Sonoran Brewing Company is dark and delicious, like a caramel-wrapped chocolate revolution for your taste buds.
We didn't know what the hell Delirium Tremens was. Framboise Lambic? Sorry, we don't speak French. Or German. Especially not at the same time. Luckily, we stumbled into the Lost Leaf, where we took to the finer points of beer education. The coursework? One bottled beer at a time from the hundreds available: Dead Guy Ale, Ska Brewing, Nimbus Ale . . . Lost Leaf has them all. Want to make your beer blitz a social occasion? Hang out with friends any day of the week or during First Friday, when things go nuts with local music and an intimate dance space.