House of Tricks
Timur Guseynov
Newcomers may find it hard to believe, but there once was a time when the Valley offered more than stucco-wrapped pink houses with red-tile roofs. It's true. Once upon a time, we had a lovely landscape of eclectic, Victorian-inspired homes.

You can still see one of those relics, a charming, 1920s cottage that now houses some of the Valley's most satisfying contemporary American food.

The visual tour starts in a relaxed, trellised garden leading to the bungalow with wrap-around veranda. Inside is a virtual Victorian revival of lace curtains and antiques. The floor plan hasn't been disturbed; a dozen or so tables nest in hallways and two small rooms.

It's not exactly grandma's cooking -- unless she was a whiz with grilled shrimp with Thai pesto and curried pecans, roast duck breast and pears in port, or stuffed eggplant lasagna with goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes.

House of Tricks is a perfect mix: a cuisine that speaks of Phoenix's modern pleasures, in a setting that lovingly embraces its past.

T. Cook's
Royal Palms Resort and Spa
Just walking through the Royal Palms makes us swoon. Built around a 1929 Mediterranean-style mansion, this grand property flourishes with exotic palms, lush shrubs, specimen trees, cactuses and masses of flowers.

T. Cook's is set to the back of an intimate, fountain-strewn courtyard, and decorated with breathtaking antiques. But what grabs our attention, even more so than the spectacular view of Camelback Mountain, is the restaurant's showcase fireplace. It spans a back wall, and roasts to perfection meats, poultry, vegetables and seafood in seasonal dishes from Barcelona, Spain, and the Tuscan region of Italy.

This fireplace brings forth the ultimate romantic meal: a dinner served for two, meaning cozy communing with our partner. Aptly called the "fireplace platter to share," our favorite entree comes brimming with spit-roasted chicken, rosemary tied pork loin and Mediterranean paella.

This only after feasting on a "Mediterranean antipasto platter to share," though, and before curling up with a cheese course finale, featuring Exploratore, Italian Fontina, Spanish Goat and Roquefort cheeses with sliced pear and fruit sauces -- ample enough for us both.

Love is not only blind, it tastes great.

The Melting Pot
We, of course, are so universally adored that no one would ever consider dumping us. But should someone ever do us wrong, prompting us to end a relationship in a dramatic fashion, we'll be doing it at the Melting Pot.

The setting is discreet -- there's even a private dining table closed off with velvet curtains -- and the fondue menu gives us all the right tools for revenge. First, the table is equipped with a built-in, sizzling hot burner top (no back talk, please!). We can order the traditional fondue setup, with a caldron of nuclear hot boiling oil.

And there's an extra bonus for us: The food is delicious. Bubbling cheeses come with fresh breads, vegetables and fruit. Court-bouillon, oil or coq au vin fondues heat up meats, poultry, seafood and even pot stickers. And chocolate fondue makes parting such sweet sorrow, dunked with cakes, fruits and brownies.

To our ex, we simply say, "Eat your heart out, baby." (And count yourself lucky you didn't wind up with a lapful of molten fromage.)

Crazy Ed's Satisfied Frog
First-time visitors to Arizona give us a chance to go to some of those slightly cheesy places we secretly love but never get to on our own.

The Satisfied Frog is one of those; it's an outright hoot, and it gives our guests that warm, Western welcome they're expecting. It's comfy, casual -- the kind of place where you could feed the dog under the table, if health codes allowed Fido through the front door.

Tablecloths are checkered. There's sawdust on the floor. Corny sayings are plastered all over the restaurant. The building's set back in what looks like a frontier town right off of a movie set (howling coyote souvenirs all around). Tourists love the Goat Sucker Saloon and the beer garden, featuring the honky tonk piano.

And the cowboy grub here is down-home delicious. Steaks, fish, shrimp, chicken, hamburgers, Mexican dishes and mesquite-smoked barbecue come in such enormous portions, we stagger when we leave. We initiate our guests with the signature deep-fried chiles, and a spicy cream of chile soup.

If that doesn't get us stumbling, the Frog's micro-brewed beer sure will. We've guzzled more than our share of Original Cave Creek Chili Beer, a golden, skunk-and-pepper-flavored ale with a whole chile pepper lurking at the bottom.

Satisfied? You betcha.

Best Place to Have Your Portrait Painted While Eating Dinner

Beeloe's Cafe & Underground Bar

Forget those goofy Polaroid photos many tourist restaurants try to push on you. For a true memoir of a fun evening out, nothing beats the original portraits created by Beeloe's "resident" artists.

In this funky restaurant/art gallery, local artists and craftspeople create their unique pieces amid the din of raucous diners and live jazz, seven nights a week. Their works are displayed around the restaurant in the form of paintings, drawings, photographs, wood carvings, metal sculptures and jewelry. Prices for displayed artwork range from $50 to $2,000.

Diners are encouraged to interact with the artists, and we have, batting our eyelashes to request our own personal portrait. Ponying up a lot of green is also required. Each artist can charge whatever the traffic will bear; a friend of ours had hers done for $50.

Meanwhile, Beeloe's art-inspired dishes are a culinary experience, too -- Matisse's Soup of Yesterday, Whistler's Green Chile Queso Dip, Postmodern Pepperoni Pizza, Dada Caesar and The Muse Pork Loin VSOP.

Just remember, please -- great art takes time, and Beeloe's independent artists aren't obligated to capture your mug in paint. But, if you're ready to flash the cash and wait a little, there's a good chance you'll go home immortalized, and fit to be framed.

Anthony Angelini operates his cafe under the quaint premise that all of us are potential hunks, if we will just buckle down. Well, a guy can dream.

Still, with his impressive pecs and other musculature, Anthony himself looks like he's been eating right and lifting major weights for years.

We'll stick with the eats part, and as for exercise, we'll limit ours to jogging to his Scottsdale Road buff-et.

Anthony is generous with his portions, fair with his prices, and takes his restaurant's fitness theme seriously. We especially love his breakfast wrap, chock-full of veggies, cheese and eggs and dubbed the "Arnold," after you-know-who. Other selections include the "Venice Beach" and the "Flex" -- chicken and turkey sandwiches, respectively. And who cares that the "Dead Lift" -- a protein drink that contains more egg whites in it than we could count -- costs about the same as a burger? After pumping iron, you'll happily pick up the check here.

McCormick & Schmick's Seafood Restaurant
We love a bargain. We love beer. We love bars. And we love burgers. So it makes sense that we're at our happiest when we're perched on a stool in the bar at McCormick & Schmick's.

This upscale place is known for its fresh seafood, with diners paying upward of $25 for a nice, aquatic entree. Good enough, but we won't pay more than $2 for our dinner when we eat at the bar.

Du jour items during happy hour include a quarter-pound cheeseburger with fries, oyster shooters and seafood chili. The cost? Just $1.95 with a one-drink minimum.

They're primo eats, too, not that prefab, fresh-from-the-freezer-bag stuff other bars try to fool us with.

How does McCormick & Schmick's make money on the deal? We don't know. We don't care. Just save us a seat.

Most people crave consistency. They seek out the safety of sameness. They want to know that no matter where they go, they haven't really left home. That in part explains the incredible popularity of chain restaurants. It's comforting to know that dinner at a chain will be the same whether you're in New York, Alaska, Turkey or Tokyo.

When the experience is as good as it is at Roy's, we're happy to stop in for a visit no matter where we are. We love the high-energy atmosphere and the buzzing exhibition kitchen. The clever menu planners know how to keep us interested. There's nothing routine about such vigorous dishes as crispy crab cakes with togarashi butter sauce, charbroiled garlic grain mustard beef short ribs and Mongolian barbecue lamb chops.

Roy's has it all -- good looks, good times and good food. It's like an old friend when we're traveling, and even when we're at home.

Roy's is no chain of fools.

Best Place to Watch First Wives and Lounge Lizards

The Velvet Room

Go to this sultry joint for the people-watching -- parades of twentysomething, swing-dancing poseurs rubbing shoulders with aging lounge lizards in crazy-wide lapels. Both are perfectly in style with the 1940s and "Golden Age of Jazz" theme at this funky supper club.

The kids, some decked out in sporty hats and coats, swing to the live sounds of Alice Tatum and Margo Reed. The singers croon smoky tributes to Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, Nat "King" Cole and, of course, Frank Sinatra.

Keep an eye on the older folks hanging at the bar, which looks like it could collapse under the crush of 40-plus first wives and Wayne Newton look-alikes. Hair extensions tacked into bouffants? Tight white Guess jeans, paired with $400 slingback shoes and Prada bags? Toupees and George Hamilton tans?

The Velvet Room is the perfect catwalk for these guys and gals.

Aloha Kitchen
Lauren Cusimano
Sometimes, we're surfing for a fast, simple, inexpensive supper. That's when we say "Aloha!" to the Hawaiian-themed kitchen of the same name.

Short of the slow-roasted sow you'll find at a South Pacific luau, there's nothing better than the luscious Kalua pig served here -- tender, subdued and tossed with steamed cabbage. Breaded fish fillet and charbroiled salmon are definitely fast-food menu upgrades, served plain and fresh.

But our favorite is saimin, a ramenlike noodle created by islanders. We love the skinny, crinkly noodles in a yummy, warm toss of slender Japanese fish cake strips, char sui bits, chopped cabbage and shrimp sauce; or in soup with won tons, bok choy, char sui dumplings and fish cake.

Aloha Kitchen -- it's a shore thing.

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