Ernie's
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!

Amsterdam
Once one of Phoenix's better kept secrets (there's still no exterior signage), Amsterdam is not only the city's swankiest gay boîte, but one of its most elegant, to boot.

Filled with marble, gilt statuary and a massive carved wooden bar over which pass some truly serious martinis, its charms now play host to such an ever-widening spectrum of scenesters that on some nights, the uninitiated may well wonder who's gay and who's not. Which, as it turns out, just adds to the fun.

If your clubwear passes inspection, you will feel positively famous walking into Scottsdale's premier nightspot.

Here, where the women look like reporters from Entertainment Tonight and the men look like they're drinking creatine cocktails, you will find 14,000 square feet of self-conscious decadence -- and, if you're lucky, an occasional bona fide celebrity.

Excuse us -- we're sorry, do we know you?

Readers' Choice: Axis/Radius

Pool tables, beer bottles and mullets.

Individually, not much. But toss them together in a storefront cocktail lounge and you've got sapphic synergy that just won't quit.

Taking its name from a Billie Holiday lyric, Ain't Nobody's Bizness has been the Valley's premier women's bar since long before anyone heard of lesbian-come-lately Anne Heche. And if history is any indication, Biz will be popular long after that dizzy fence-straddler has publicly exploited yet another alternative lifestyle.

Readers' Choice: Ain't Nobody's Bizness

Say, isn't that Enrique Iglesias? No, but if you manage to squeeze through the crowded, man-packed dance floor for a closer look, he'll probably be flattered to know that you thought so. Looking for the gay Mexican cowboy of your dreams? No? Well, Paco Paco dance club is probably the best place to start looking, anyway.

The cramped, strobe-lighted dance floor is always well-stocked with buff, sweaty bodies pulsating to Latin techno music. A full-length mirror runs the length of one wall for those narcissistic dancers who like to watch. It's a cozy, dark venue, mostly Latino, with a smattering of white boys for you closet Anglo lovers.

The music is popular dance remix, plenty of Jennifer Lopez and Ricky Martin, with some salsa and merengue thrown in for tradition. Paco Paco is the best the Valley has to offer in gay Latino culture, and also a great place for women who like to dance and be left alone.

What makes a superlative bartender? Good conversation? Nah, anything that delays putting a drink in your gullet is about as welcome as a speed bump. But in dealing with teeming masses of demanding patrons and egotistical musicians, it does help to have a seasoned grasp of the English language and a penchant for caustic rejoinders. One person blessed with both is Nita's Hideaway barman Ridgely Fitzsimmons, or Ridgely, as he's known to all who love and fear his acerbic tongue.

Ridgely's garnered something close to legend status among East Valley barflies for serving searing barbs in equal proportion to booze. One infamous tale even has him shooting down the free-drink requests of a couple local "rock star" girlfriends with the admonition that performing oral favors on the talent didn't entitle them to complimentary libations.

Ah, yes, Oscar Wilde couldn't have said it any better himself!

As someone (and no, it wasn't President Clinton) once remarked, "A woman is just a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke."

What he meant is anyone's guess, but it's a cinch that had he lived in Phoenix, he'd have been a regular at the Ritz-Carlton's cigar lounge. Appropriately called The Club, the darkly masculine room is, well, clubby -- with oak-paneled walls, hunting prints and a selection of high-end smokes that might tempt the surgeon general to light up.

If you're really serious about your tobacco, inquire about the club's private humidors -- climate-controlled stashes that rent for $1,000 a year. So much for the proverbial "good five-cent cigar."

Readers' Choice: The Famous Door

Roscoes On 7th
If you like sports, but are turned off by macho beer guzzlers talking about chicks, Roscoes dishes up a welcome curve ball. Billed as an "alternative lifestyle sports bar," Roscoes is that perfect postmodern cultural hybrid: a sports bar where macho beer guzzlers talk about guys.

Roscoes has the usual sports-bar amenities: big-screen TVs tuned to various games, pool tables, and a diverse beverage list. But, more important, it's also the only local sports bar where an end-around isn't necessarily a football play, and hitting the rim isn't limited to basketball. And rest assured, at Roscoes, no one will penalize you if your backfield's in motion.

Score!

Readers' Choice for Best Bar to Watch the Game: McDuffy's

Call us purists, but a CD jukebox is about as sterile as the jewel case the CDs come in. Who wants the same sound you can get in your car stereo or home entertainment center when you're in a bar? No, you want a layer of grime and filth on your music to go with the beer and cigarette surroundings.

And that's just what the Emerald Lounge's old war-horse provides: old, battered 45s teeming with distortion and surface noise. Even rappers factor in vinyl pops and clicks -- crackles spell comfort. While a 45 jukebox has fewer selections than a CD, you still can't beat a machine that has Aretha, George Jones and Tommy James and the Shondells all jamming its gears.

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