Normally, having your meal slid through a small opening in the wall isn't a good thing. It reminds us of a brief time when we had a little, shall we say, less liberty than we do now. Of course, it was all a big misunderstanding, and as far as we know, our records were wiped clean years ago.

Still, there's a definite charm to the jailhouse-style food service, especially as it's practiced at Hart & Soul, a south Phoenix rib shack.

We know the routine well. Step up to the glassed-off ordering counter. Study a brief listing on the wall -- catfish, chicken, pork chops, maybe a barbecue special. Push a doorbell, and wait for a cook to slide open a tall, narrow security slot crossed with heavy black steel mesh. She takes our order, and the slot slams shut. When our food is ready, it's placed into a black kettle mounted in the wall -- the pot's back half is chopped off so that it spins like a revolving door to deliver our goodies.

Like a life sentence, Hart & Soul's initially daunting service will eventually grow on you. The food sure does -- our fave's a mighty fine fried catfish for less than $6, accompanied by two side dishes and a cornbread muffin.

Besides, this time we're on the right side of the wall. We get to walk away when we're done with dinner.

Downtown dining. What's it mean to you? Sports bars galore? Coffee shops? Nondescript pizza parlors and burger joints?

How about top-quality, inexpensive Cuban chow?

Chary's is something special, situated unexpectedly in what's otherwise pretty much a culinary no man's land. From the lighthouse mural called Castillo del Morro La Habana Cuba that's painted on the west side of the building to the creative cooking dished out by owner Chary Castro, this is a treat on the downtown street.

At Chary's, you'll stumble on masitas de puerco, lean pork medallions marinated in citrus juices and herbs. And arroz con pollo estilo cienfuegos, chicken cooked in wine, tomato, red pimientos and criollo herbs. Or try Chary's classic Cuban sandwich, stuffing bread with marinated pork roast, honey ham, Swiss cheese, Dijon and mayo to be baked and pressed.

Must be nice to be rich. We've never gotten a 50th wedding anniversary gift like the one Ada Wrigley received from her husband, William, back in 1929. For his beloved bride, the chewing-gum magnate put a bow on a $1.2 million mansion, perched high atop a hill overlooking the Arizona Biltmore.

But we can pretend we're well-off, since current owner Geordie Hormel found a loophole in regulations that require the home be used as a private club only. Membership in Hormel's club costs only $10 a year (and he donates that to local charities).

The Wrigley Mansion restaurant has terrific food -- delicacies like dark ale poached gulf prawns with peppered papaya cocktail; seared fois gras and lobster medallion on artichoke and asparagus salad; baked salmon scaloppini stuffed with Maine lobster tail; and king crab legs with lemon grass, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir sauce.

Just as delicious, though, are the stunning views of this originally named "La Colina Solana" -- the sunny hill. We feel like old Ada must have felt when we dine, taking in the dramatic, 360-degree view of downtown Phoenix, Camelback Mountain, the Squaw Peak preserve and the Valley beyond.

Call it the dieter's bachelor party.

The choice of where to indulge in a final meal before bowing to Jenny Craig is simple: Mrs. White's.

There's no need to get gourmet with descriptions here -- just imagine the best-ever Southern fried chicken, pork chops, smothered chicken, chicken and dumplings, chicken-fried steak and fried fish ever to bless your tongue. Picture great puddles of gravy, black-eyed peas, greens and home-style peach cobbler. Visualize massive portions that crowd every inch of the plate.

The meal is chosen from a menu written on the wall, surrounded by celebrity graffiti. (The Phoenix Suns are said to love this place -- sure, they can work it off on the court.) When you're done, tell the friendly folks behind the counter what you had, and they'll ring you up. They trust you not to cheat.

Now, if you can only trust yourself not to cheat on your diet.

It's the millennium. Babies know how to use computers. Pets have cell phones. Great-grandmothers surf the Net. Sometimes it all seems so crazy.

When we need an escape, we disappear into Somewhere in Time. The clock has stopped in this quaint shop, with creaking hardwood floors, the scent of roses in the air, and a comforting jumble of Victorian furniture, knickknacks and porcelain dolls. Even the shop owner's name makes us think of quieter, gentler days: Mary Alexander.

We take a seat at one of the half-dozen lace-topped tables (elbows off, mind you). It's time for tea, and we take our English Breakfast with just a few drops of milk, the way our grandma used to. Somewhere in Time uses only loose-leaf blend teas, of course, poured from antique pots into delicate china cups.

Lunch is lovely, with a plentiful assortment of classic sandwiches like Black Forest ham with cream cheese; egg salad with fresh chives; cucumber with sweet creamery butter; chicken and tuna salads; cream cheese with olives; and creamery butter with fresh raspberry preserves. There are homemade scones with lemon curd and clotted cream, plus wickedly wonderful cakes.

Pleasures like this never go out of style.

For some folks, a romantic restaurant means being insulated from the world, tucked in a tiny space, preferably sitting in the dark.

That's all well and good, but we can get that at home, especially when we don't pay our APS bill. No, for us, romance thrives in a little more open setting, where we can show off the love of our lives, and catch just a smidgen of adrenaline from the universe. It helps us connect, knowing that through the craziest of times, we always have each other.

Convivo is perfect for us, combining coziness with the camaraderie of our fellow guests, to mysterious success. The cafe is basically a little box, set with white cloth tables. But it's been made romantically slinky, with sensuous, curving carpet-to-tile borders, and serpentine coffered ceilings. The soft flowing layout makes us want to glide.

The lighting is dark, in a soft, filtered kind of way. It makes us feel gentle, sultry. There's a quiet hum of people talking all around us, but it's a respectful restraint that's somehow soothing.

And the food -- it swells our hearts with passion for life and each other. Northwest Golden Chanterelle mushrooms in porcini tarragon cream are luxurious. Even a simple chicken breast rises to grace, grilled with balsamic onions and mustard butter, creamy Yukon Gold potato and goat cheese gratin.

Love is a many-splendored thing. For us, it's Convivo.

Readers' Choice: Mary Elaine's

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.

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.

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.)

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.

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