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.

Best Place for Old-Fashioned Tableside Preparation

Le Sans Souci

Le Sans Souci
Sans souci is French for "without a care." That may be true for us, the lucky diners relaxing in this elegant French chateau, but not for the servers concentrating on preparing our elaborate meals right next to our tables.

These professionals, under the watchful eye of legendary Valley restaurateur Louis Germaine, are dedicated to making sure every tableside trick results in a memorable, classical French meal (longtime residents will remember Germaine from his 35 years owning Chez Louis in Scottsdale).

Something about seeing -- and smelling -- our dinner as it's prepared makes it taste even better. We watch as our server rolls up his geridon (carved wood cart), sets out his rochard (small propane burner), and arranges his mis-en-place (ingredients) to make our spinach salad for two. He sizzles chopped bacon in Worcestershire, mustard and red wine vinegar in sugar, then dumps it all over a big wooden bowl of fresh greens.

As we eat, he works up our entrees, steak Diane, and les tresors de la mer (seafood). Pounded flat filet mignon cooks in bubbling butter, mushrooms, garlic, onions and capers added from little ramekins on the cart. Then our server splashes the pan with brandy and sherry, inciting great flames that leap as high as his eyebrows. A dab of Grey Poupon and the steak is complete. Shrimp, lobster tail and scallops take barely a minute to cook, soaking up lots of sherry and brandy.

Bananas Foster bring more fireworks, torching crème de banana, sherry, butter, cinnamon and brown sugar that spits out sparks when tossed to the flames.

Is it polite to applaud in a fancy restaurant?

It's a kinder, gentler Arizona these days, where upscale restaurants don't limit themselves to impressing us with exotica from faraway lands.

The new fine dining experience celebrates the products born and raised in our own Valley of the Sun. Chefs like Rancho Pinot's Chrysa Kaufman insist on using locally grown or raised organic produce, eggs and dairy products as much as possible.

That's why we can usually be assured that the produce we're enjoying in Kaufman's dishes, such as wood-oven roasted vegetables with crispy risotto-wheatberry cake, came from a local grower. Or that the quails we're feasting on were raised at a local farm.

Rancho Pinot celebrates Arizona heritage in the 21st century, with its funky cowboy-chic interior. It celebrates the take-it-easy Western past, with Kaufman's commitment to "Slow Food," an international organization that promotes cooking from scratch, using the freshest, artisan boutique ingredients.

Of course, everything tastes magical, from roasted beets with toasted almonds, sheep's milk feta and spicy greens to Nonni's Sunday Chicken, braised with white wine, mushrooms, herbs and onion over toasted polenta.

Can't face another drive-through meal of burger and fries?

No problem. Latino Express comes to your rescue with gourmet, South American treats created by local chef Erasmo "Razz" Kamnitzer, owner of the upscale Razz's in Scottsdale.

Housed in a former Jack in the Box, the drive-through accommodates gourmet motorists with a decidedly un-fast-food menu featuring the likes of grilled ostrich, mofongo (charbroiled chicken and beans) and tostones (fried plantains). Traditional grease 'n' go fare, this isn't. The few fried items are virtually oil-free, and many dishes (most dinners are priced at $7 or less) are healthful combinations of fresh grilled meats, veggies, rice and beans in light sauces.

Say, you wanna supersize that mofongo?

The status of appetizers has changed in American restaurants. It used to be that most starters were mild-mannered offerings, designed to keep diners quiet while the kitchen had time to work on the main event. Appetizers used to be little more than tossed salad, soup, deep-fried veggies and, in a nice place, perhaps a shrimp cocktail.

Today, in good restaurants, appetizers are works of art. They're prepared as meticulously and creatively as entrees -- sometimes even more so.

At Ridge Cafe, however, appetizers aren't just as elaborate as entrees, they're almost as big -- at half the price of a full dinner.

The chefs here serve up a generous asparagus and shrimp combo, with beautiful veggies served cool and crisp under two truly jumbo shrimp in a tidy, red onion and dill vinaigrette. What could be better than a massive chile relleno, a pristine pasilla pepper in lacy batter stuffed with whole mushroom, chicken breast and jack cheese? And how about a mussel appetizer, bringing a generous baker's dozen of bivalves in a savory white wine, tomato, garlic and fennel broth?

A few slices of bread, a glass of wine, and there's simply no room left in our bellies. Change is good, we've been told. We have to agree.

It's all a matter of priorities. Do you want to live 90 years eating Dairy Queen, or 40 years eating Ritter's? When given the choice to Live (fat) Free or Die, we and our Dionysian fat friends invariably choose the latter. Ritter's gourmet custard (glorified ice cream) is sumptuous, voluptuous and fat on rich flavor. This strangely retro little malt shop in Gilbert offers daily specials that, cumulatively, are now referred to by area residents as "Murderer's Row."
Bravo Bistro
All couscous is not created equal. Some are achingly dry, like herby dust. Some are sadly sodden, like seasoned moss. Some, like the kind served at Bravo Bistro, are spectacular.

Bravo's couscous is Moroccan, which means it's larger and moister than the tiny seffa variety served around town. These caper-size beauties pop in the mouths, exploding with wholesome, grainy goodness. Bravo serves this dish with sautéed grilled chicken and fresh vegetables in an aromatic herb broth.

It's the couscous we choose.

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