In the Cards: If you answer, "Reservations," when someone asks you what you're making for dinner, you probably already know about two well-established dining programs, the Entertainment Book and Dining a la Card.
I've just become aware of a third: Preferred Restaurants of Scottsdale and Phoenix, which is starting its second year of operation.
Here's how it works. Once you enroll, you'll receive a membership card. Show it at one of the restaurants in the program, and you'll receive one entree free with the purchase of another of equal or greater value. During the course of the year, you can use the card twice at each of the program's 24 restaurants. (There were originally 25, but Gianni Ristorante has closed.) One nice touch: The card is transferable, so you can lend it to others.
Of course, any dining program is only as good as the restaurants taking part. Preferred Restaurants has zeroed in on some big names: Arizona Kitchen at the Wigwam Resort; Chaparral at the Camelback Inn; Golden Swan at the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale at Gainey Ranch; Maria's When in Naples; Michael's at the Citadel; Pinon Grill at the Inn at Regal McCormick Ranch; Rolands; Top of the Rock at the Buttes; Voltaire; and Windows on the Green at the Phoenician.
The card costs $50 a year. Since most of the entrees at member restaurants range from $15 up, you should recoup your fee after three or four meals.
For more information, call 481-3000.
House Calls: Along with restaurants, the Valley is exploding with fine food-and-wine retail shops. One of the newer ones is House Wines, Cheese & Chocolates, which opened last summer.
The place emphasizes what the proprietor calls "value-oriented wines." Most of the bottles here are less than 15 bucks, and there's a nice selection from Chile and Argentina.
The cheese section is quite strong. The shop carries several heavy hitters that you can't always find around town: tete de moine and raclette from Switzerland; fontina, Gorgonzola and taleggio (one of the world's great cheeses) from Italy; explorateur and morbier from France; and mahon, from Spain.
There's a variety of chocolates, too, prepared locally. Look for cashew clusters, truffles and almond bark, selling for $12.50 a pound.
House Wines, Cheese & Chocolates is at 7001 North Scottsdale Road in Scottsdale, at the northeast corner of Scottsdale Road and Indian Bend in the Seville shopping complex. Call 922-3470. And don't forget to peek in next door, at Garlic's, where Italian refugees from New Jersey bake some fabulous breads and make exceptional homemade pasta and sauces for takeout.
Doubling Up: Two popular restaurants looking to cash in on the restaurant boom are adding second locations. The Bamboo Club's new place is already up and running at 8624 East Shea in Scottsdale. And Marco Polo is expanding into the premises vacated by Raghetti's, the second-story spot at 2621 East Camelback, next to Hard Rock Cafe. Look for a springtime opening.
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