Best Of :: Bars & Clubs
"The Martini is to middle- and upper-class American society," says martini maven Barnaby Conrad III, "what peyote is to the Yaqui Indians: a sacred rite that affirms tribal identity, encourages fanciful thought and -- let's be honest here -- delivers a whoppingly nice high."
We'll drink to that.
And given our druthers, we'll be doing it in the understated elegance (Southwestern chandeliers, ornate wooden columns, a tuxedoed jazz pianist) of the cocktail lounge at Harris' Restaurant, where martini protocol amounts to religious ceremony -- right down to a signature crystal carafe nestled in an ice-filled mini-barrel. God forbid that one's last drop of martini be anything but properly chilled.
Readers' Choice: Martini Ranch
Any place with Guinness on tap is already worth its weight in gold, but this place has more than great beers to recommend it.
It has regulars, loud Irish ones, and more than enough traditional Irish and Scottish performers, including an occasional bagpipe player and a group of acoustic guitar wielders on Tuesdays called the Claire Voyants that plays mixed traditional Irish fare with Sarah McLachlan and Live covers. And make no mistake, people here are friendly indeed at the Dubliner.
All of this makes you feel like Tipperary ain't such a long, long way after all.
Located directly below the Golden West, one of Phoenix's last remaining downtown flophouses, Newman's Lounge could never be confused with Cheers or any other homey sitcom bar. Bleating cell phones, thumping karaoke machines and blaring techno music are conspicuously absent at this throwback to a bygone era -- when bars were designed for hard-core drinking and slurred story-swapping.
At Newman's, you're more likely to run into the Barfly types (you know, wizened regulars with wheezy coughs sporting barroom pallor and stringy hair perfumed with the fermented scent of booze and cigarette smoke). Ain't no Norms perched on barstools here -- and we seriously doubt anyone really wants to know your name, either. Maybe because of the divey, live-and-let-live ambiance, we recommend it as a viable atmosphere for uninterrupted confabulating, not to mention bullshitting and crying in your beer.
Readers' Choice for Best Bar for Conversation: Casey Moore's Oyster House
It's a good thing that libations master Serafino won't share his secret for making the perfect cosmopolitan. If he did, we'd soon be organizing happy hour for our fellow members at a 12-step program meeting.
This is the most exciting cocktail we've had the joy of sipping. And we do mean sip -- only someone with no appreciation for beauty would slam a drink like this. No, it's so much better to let the alcohol in slowly, to warm our tummies, our hearts and our heads.
Perhaps the secret's in the Grey Goose vodka. Could be the slender ice shards that slip from the sides of our martini-style glass, bringing pure, ice cold pleasure. Or maybe it's the way Serafino handles the silver shaker, deftly blending the cranberry juice for a liquid that's the palest pink of sunset.
The garnish of dried cranberries floating in the bottom of the glass adds to the experience. But the best part is at the end, when Serafino pours "just a little more" from the shaker, giving us a bonus like the leftovers from a fresh-blended milk shake.
Seems like some bars clang a bell, give it another shake and before you can say "Doc Otis Hard Lemonade," your happy hour is terminated. But at Faye's Green Room, happy hour lasts longer than most part-time employment.
This establishment has a happy weekday-afternoon-early-evening sorta deal. Mondays through Fridays, from 1 to 7 p.m., there is a "two-dollar-you-call-it" special on imported beers, as well as "dollar jumbo domestic" specials. Even this generous beer bonanza is exceeded by Friday's perks, such as an invitation to dine on two-fisted portions of a three-foot sandwich from Hogi Yogi on University Drive and enjoy the acoustic musings of Dead Hot Workshop's Brent Babb from 5 to 8 p.m.
With bonuses like these, it's not hard to imagine people having their mail forwarded to a barstool. Or make that two barstools.
Readers' Choice: Applebee's
Chef Michael DeMaria has raised the bar on bar food. His sophisticated upstairs bar tops off this high-class restaurant.
We're talking cushy sofas, overstuffed armchairs, a discreet but well-stocked bar and inspiring views of Scottsdale's spectacular sunsets. These are way-above-average bar bites, exquisite eats like potato-and-prosciutto-wrapped scallops with roasted pears and balsamic shallots; and crab-stuffed cannelloni on asparagus with horseradish tomato jam.
Tossed back with some Krug Grande Cuvee Brut champagne, it's the most elegant experience we can imagine, bar none.
For a beer joint chiefly associated with its day drinkers, live rock and chicken wings, Long Wong's on Mill offers a surprisingly extensive menu of bar fare. For vegetarian hell-raisers, there's a heady carte du jour of veggie clubs, subs, pitas and Garden Burgers that ring in at fewer than six bucks a pop and come with a heap of fries or onion rings. Carnivores, meanwhile, can opt for fetchingly titled burgers like the Chi Chi (jalapeos and Cheddar) and the San Fran (on sourdough with Velveeta and red onions); hot dogs; and sandwiches, like the Shroom and Swiss, a chicken concoction.
And for those who like to temper their libations with hangover deterrents? Basketfuls of seasoned curly fries and fried zucchini go down quite nicely, as do, of course, Long Wong's culinary signature, hellaciously hot chicken wings.
Readers' Choice: Four Peaks Brewing Company
While it seems that Muzak has gone the way of the dodo with the advent of custom-tailored satellite radio, most eateries trying to provide a soundtrack to your visit are still guilty of offering up warmed-over MOR leftovers. In a land normally populated by Dan Fogelbergs, Anne Murrays and Billy Joels, we've found an oasis in the form of BD's Mongolian BBQ. While the do-it-yourself Asian eatery has already earned a culinary cachet, it's the house music that we've most come to enjoy.
One recent visit included eclectic mealtime platters from David Bowie ("Panic in Detroit"), the Count Five ("Psychotic Reaction") and Bob Dylan ("Stuck in Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again"). Granted, the sonic bill of fare isn't always flawless, as we were also forced to endure a predictably tepid Eagles track ("One of These Nights"). At least that blue-eyed soul stab is better than having to suffer through "Witchy Woman" or the flamenco-ized version of "Hotel California," songs that are sure to disrupt anyone's digestion. Yet despite the occasional bad bite, the bulk of the musical meals here are first rate.
Tequila's not just for killing brain cells and sorrows anymore -- premium tequilas today are good enough for respectable sipping and have many of the nuances and personalities of fine wine. There are three grades -- fresh-from-the-still blanco, reposado aged in oak two months to a year, and aejo aged more than a year -- and Via DeLosantos offers them all. It has almost 200 labels, including several rated best by Bon Appétit. A sign attached to the massive tequila bottle display -- housed behind chicken-wire fencing, presumably for the sipper's safety -- boasts that the restaurant has 193 types, including Baja rose strawberry, tarantula citrus and twisted Sheila. Tequila shots are served in clever, fluted glasses that make slamming seem almost sophisticated. At $3 to $25 a shot, getting buzzed can be a bargain, or a bust.
There are other restaurants in town with longer wine lists. But they don't have what makes Cowboy Ciao so special to us -- wine flights.
What a wonderful concept -- giving us three different wines, at three-ounce pours each, for one fixed price. It allows us to sample and savor fine new wines we might never have tried otherwise.
The presentation is clever -- a heavy wooden board carved with three nooks for the wineglasses, and three nooks for the mini carafes. A long strip of paper attached to the board with a clip identifies our drinks, describing what we're drinking.
Six choices on white wine trios are offered, and seven choices on red trios. These aren't your everyday wines, either, but cutting-edge tempters like a '98 Ken Wright Chardonnay Dijon 76 clone from Oregon and a '98 Penfolds shiraz/cabernet blend from Koonunga Vineyard in Australia.
We love to lift a glass -- or three -- at Cowboy Ciao.
When Ernie's Inn opened three decades ago, the place was a darkly lighted, smoky rumpus room for serious drinkers looking to tie one on. A lot has changed since then. Today, Ernie's is a darkly lighted, smoky rumpus room for serious drinkers looking to tie one on and belt out a karaoke tune.
It's pure fun. The stage opens every night at 8:30, playing to senior citizens weekdays, then giving way to yuppies on the weekends. Anything goes here, except pretension. Look too serious, and you're likely to be volunteered as the opening act by one of the matronly waitresses who've called Ernie's home for longer than they'll admit.
Go ahead. Choose your poison, step up to the stage and wail with the rest of us. You're among friends -- or at least you are until you segue into "Feelings."
What's that, you say -- aren't all open mikes equally hellish? Sure, buddy, and all aspirin are alike. The difference is that this one knows it's from hell and has two hosts, Matt Strangewayes (formerly of Windigo) and Page the Village Idiot, on hand to gladly fan the flames.
With his bizarre stage introductions, Strangewayes will try to convince you the young hopeful onstage has some fleeting connection with Starcastle and Foghat. In truth, most of the musicians who perform free of charge are members of heavy bands going light for a few songs, musicians passing through town or rock-rap hybrids of the slim or shady variety.
Sure, there's an occasional "earnest" folkie who makes it through the blockade, but to counteract them there's Page the Village Idiot with his self-penned paeans about Joe Arpaio, crystal meth freaks and people with bad hygiene.
One Tuesday night when things were winding down, we caught members of Big Blue Couch backing up a guy named Russel Walton on a free-form William Shatner tone poem called "Fire the Lasers." Beam us down, Scotty -- way, way down!