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.

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.

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?

It's a hefty drive -- some 35 miles north of downtown Phoenix -- and there's not a lot to look at on the lonely stretch of highway leading to this massive master-planned community in the middle of nowhere.

But that's exactly what makes the final destination so spectacular. Once parked on the patio at Persimmon, there's nothing to compete with the views of Daisy Mountain, soaring almost 3,200 feet above the desert floor. No towering buildings. No sense of the pulsing, gasping rat race we've left at the far fringes of Phoenix. Once the sun goes down, there aren't any city lights to compete with the twinkling stars above -- just a few muted porch bulbs from homes tucked across the yawning golf course that serves as Persimmon's backyard.

The grill faces west, meaning we're in for spectacular sunsets. The country club has yet to be overrun with residents, meaning we're able to enjoy some peace and quiet with our Pinot Grigio. The outdoor furniture is fancy, cushy and clumped in private tête-à-têtes.

And for now, the view is free. The grill is open to the public. Now, that's worth a toast.

Readers' Choice for Best Outdoor Patio: Dos Gringos and The Grapevine (tie)

At a time of night when other restaurants along Camelback's gourmet row have long since rolled up the kitchen, Barmouche sizzles with its first-rate, creative French cuisine. Midnight munchies include portobello lasagna with made-on-site mozzarella, ricotta, parmesan, goat cheese and spinach, an 18-ounce New York sirloin with choice of sides (Belgian frites and sweet-pea mashed potatoes are sublime) and a Scotch beef fall-apart steak in red wine gravy.

Even the sleepiest snacker will come wide awake with Barmouche's croque monsieur, combining hot ham, Gruyère cheese and Béchamel sauce in thick French bread. It's our pick, paired with a side of crisp, garden-fresh asparagus sautéed in butter.

Barmouche's restaurant is open until midnight seven days a week; the bar, which also serves food, remains open until 1 a.m.

You snooze, you lose.

You can grab an after-dinner latte and biscotti just about anywhere these days. But you'll gladly drive past strip mall coffeeterias and shopping center java joints to relax in this charming little spot.

Located just north of Main Street in downtown Mesa, its sparkling white decorative lights will lure you in. A trellis, framed by fragrant vines and trees, leads you into the lush front yard of a restored turn-of-the-century home. Inside the Victorian-themed house, you will find the usual coffee and tea offerings, as well as homemade muffins, cakes, pies and other pastries. You can browse in the gift shop or enjoy the free entertainment -- singers, musicians and comedians.

But it's better to head outside. Whether you're in a large group or a party of two, there's a spot for you, on the porch or gazebo out front or beside a tinkling fountain among the backyard ficus trees. And as you banter over the biscotti, remember -- it's the coffee talking.

Readers' Choice for Best Coffee House: Coffee Plantation

To say that this private party room is a little hole in the wall is entirely accurate. It's hidden, in fact, behind a door set inconspicuously into the paneled wood wall of the tiny bar called Dick's Hideaway. There's no sign anywhere -- not even outside, for the bar itself. You've just got to know where to look.

The search is worth the effort, unveiling a completely charming, comfortable room seating up to 25 people around a grand, copper-topped table and at comfy booth tables lining the wine-bottle-lined walls. Our favorite spot is curled up in front of the kiva fireplace.

As pretty as the place is, the experience is low-key. Dick's Hideaway is brought to us by the folks at Richardson's, and that's the same menu from which we select. That means creative New Mexican dishes like chimayo chicken (stuffed with spinach, sun-dried tomato, poblano chile and asiago cheese); pork tenderloin (marinated and pecan grilled with red and green chile jelly); and even posole (hominy and pork in red chile broth).

Best of all, Dick's Hideaway doesn't stick guests with a fixed menu, like most private rooms do. Everything's flexible -- individual meals, custom requests, open or hosted bar service, even birthday cake.

Now that's casual with class.

It's so hard to get good help. Sometimes the serfs at our castle revolt against us, and refuse to cater the elaborate dinner parties we like to throw. How gauche.

No matter, we've got a back-up with the ultra-luxe private dining room we can reserve at the Phoenician resort. Happily, it looks just like a castle, replete with Renaissance-era decor, barrel-vaulted ceilings, brick archways, European antiques and a full wall of wines. It's just spacious enough -- we can park up to 16 of our friends' premier posteriors on tapestry-upholstered chairs.

Adjacent to the resort's fabulous Terrace Dining Room, it also serves as the Terrace's working wine cellar. And when it's time to eat, we can have anything we want from the resort's flagship restaurant, Mary Elaine's. The magnificent modern French cuisine and highly polished service are just what we need to take our minds off our employment troubles at home.

It makes for such a peasant -- uh, pleasant -- evening out.

Best Of Phoenix®

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