The House at Secret Garden: Happy Hour Report Card
mixed olives with feta
The Spot: The House at Secret Garden, 2501 E. Baseline Road, Phoenix, 602-243-8539, www.houseatsecretgarden.com.
The Hours: Happy Hour is offered 5 to 6:30 p.m, Tuesday through Friday.
The Interior: If you're looking for a setting that's gracious, quiet and big on old school charm, you can't do better than this Spanish Colonial, 20s-era home, surrounded by shade trees and lush lawn. Wood floors, cove ceilings and a lovely old fireplace in the main dining room lend a touch of history and romance -- two things in short supply in restaurant decor these days. Happy hour happens indoors, so if you want a crack at the cozy, flower-filled patio, one of the city's most charming, thanks to a border of orchid trees, a fish pond and a stone fireplace, you'll want to come for lunch or dinner.
The Food: Pat Christofolo (The Farm Kitchen at South Mountain and Santa Barbara Catering) co-owns the restaurant with her son Dustin, who graduated a prestigious culinary school in Parma and brings playful Italian touches to the modern American menu here.
Try the golden polenta fries -- crunchy outside, creamy within -- and you'll see what I mean. Crisscrossed like Lincoln Logs and served with spicy aioli (do I detect Old Bay?), they're a fluffy, habit-forming alternative to plain old potatoes ($3.50).
Clever sweet potato planks -- disks of thickly sliced sweet potato, smeared with creme fraiche, topped with sheared green onion and crisp pancetta wheels -- make perfect snack food: sweet, salty and creamy at once. You'll mow through the first round and consider another ($5).
Most of the time, sliders look and taste like what they are -- happy hour fodder -- but Secret Garden puts real effort into their heavenly smoked brisket version, three not-so-mini sandwiches served on Dijon-smeared buns with caramelized onion, cheddar, tomato and arugula ($9).
Although the bacon cheeseburger isn't quite as amazing as St. Francis' burger (which goes right to the top of my crave list), it's still damn good, tucked between toasted, shiny-topped buns and layered with white cheddar, tomato and Romaine ($10). Sided with curls of house-made, ultra-crispy sweet potato chips, it's memorable, no doubt.
Don't miss the elegant artisan and farmstead cheese board, often featuring both feta and goat cheese from Crow's Dairy along with grilled bread, roasted almonds, dried cherries, dried cranberries, sultanas, balsamic-drizzled figs ($9).
And if you don't mind getting messy, try the roasted bone marrow "Luge" (a variation on the drink-chugging game that's worth a shirt stain or two, $13). Imagine three Flintstone-size roasted veal bones, served with apricot-cherry mostarda and a tiny glass of Byass Solera Cream Sherry. After you scoop out every yummy, fatty morsel of the marrow, you hold the bone to your mouth at a tilt, and pour the sherry down the center of it, like a luge.
The Drink: You're not going to find screaming deals on happy hour beverages here (just a buck or two off for beer, wine and cocktails) but you won't lack for good things to drink: a short but thoughtful beer selection that includes Lindeman's Framboise, Nitro Milk Stout and Delirium Nocturnum; classic cocktails (some, like the mango-serrano mojito, given a twist), and a wine list jammed with respected wineries. Got a teetotaler in the group? Ask for a virgin cocktail, made with fresh lemonade, watermelon, basil and mint.
Conclusion: For my money, this is one of the best happy hours in town: a relaxed, intimate setting combined with creative food and high-end drink.