Southwest Survey: The new Zagat guide to Southwestern restaurants is out, covering Arizona and New Mexico. The Valley section is reasonably thorough, but not always on target.
Zagat doesn't employ its own critics. Instead, the guides rely on the recommendations of locals who eat out frequently, and an editor who sorts through the responses. Call it gastronomical democracy, or Nielsen restaurant ratings. (For their efforts, participants get a free copy of the guide.)
The highest-rated restaurant in town? It's Pizzeria Bianco, and it's not a choice I can quarrel with. The restaurant recently moved from Town & Country Shopping Center to new downtown digs at 623 East Adams. Now the setting is almost as wonderful as the food. Unfortunately, the place is almost always jam-packed. But once you're seated, you're not rushed.
Right below Pizzeria Bianco come more of the usual suspects: Citrus Cafe and Vincent Guerithault (tied for second); Christopher's and Christopher's Bistro, Los Dos Molinos, Marquesa, Mary Elaine's, Morton's and Ruth's Chris (all tied for third).
But some of the Valley's best kitchens are underrated. Arizona Kitchen (at the Wigwam resort), C-Fu Gourmet, RoxSand, Eddie's Grill, Rancho Pinot Grill, Havana Patio Cafe, Pinon Grill and Such Is Life all belong near the top of any local-restaurant list.
There are also some inexplicably high ratings for places that don't merit them. Does anyone truly believe that Le Rhone, a Sun City prix fixe establishment, is in the same class as Christopher's and Marquesa? (They got the same score.) Wright's (Arizona Biltmore) and the Golden Swan (Hyatt Regency Scottsdale at Gainey Ranch) don't belong among the Valley's elite. Neither do Christo's, P.F. Chang's or Le Sans Souci.
Sign of the Four: Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the Big 4 Restaurant group helped sustain whatever passed for culinary life in the Valley. Oscar Taylor and Lunt Avenue Marble Club were the jewels. Later on came the American Grill, Steamers and Aldo Baldo.
But the recent restaurant gold rush has mostly passed the company by. The Oyster Grill in Arizona Center has worked out nicely; Bssghetti, an East Valley pizza/pasta place, didn't. Oscar Taylor and Lunt Avenue Marble Club are gone, and Steamers and Aldo Baldo are getting some needed freshening.
But the restaurant group has some big plans. It hopes to open two new places in Scottsdale by next spring.
The first is called Scottsdale Diner. One company executive envisions it as a bustling, upscale spot serving classy American comfort food late into the night. (The kitchen, he said, will make its own ketchup.)
The other place--are you sitting down?--is Trader Vic's. Is the Valley ready for the return of this kitschy, dated "Polynesian" concept 30 years into its run? Bring on the mai tais, tiki-figure salt shakers, bongo bongo soup and coconut shrimp. I guess Big 4 believes Trader Vic's is sufficiently retro-themed to compete with trendy competitors like Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood and Rainforest Cafe. I can't wait.
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