Ah, we miss the days of the dungeons. Time was we could punish an inept private chef by chaining him to the rack, and tossing the leftovers to the crocodiles. Now, our staff is unionized and gets all bent out of shape over a little constructive criticism.

Unless we reserve the ultra-luxe private dining room at the Phoenician resort, in which case we're treated like the royalty we think we are. Every wish is granted, in regal, tantalizing style. The place looks just like a castle, too, replete with Renaissance-era decor, barrel-vaulted ceilings, brick archways, European antiques and a full wall of wines. It's the perfect place to host a gala for our favorite 16 other well-to-do pals, all for a mere $2,000 minimum.

The room does double duty as a wine cellar, servicing the Phoenician's elite restaurants. And this means our custom menu is as good as -- no, better than -- what our fellow guests are enjoying at Mary Elaine's. Better because it's ours, all ours.

Ah, it's good to be king.

Best Private Dining Room For The Rest Of Us

Dick's Hideaway

Dick's Hideaway
Patricia Escarcega
How cool is it to take a sudden turn, open a door that looks as if it leads to nowhere, and announce to your companion that you've arrived at your highly select dining secret?

This private party room is a little hole in the wall. It's a hidden hole in the wall, in fact, behind a door set invisibly into the paneled wood wall of the tiny bar called Dick's Hideaway. Making it to Dick's Hideaway is difficult enough on its own -- there's no sign outside. And there's not even a doorknob for the private dining area.

But seek and you shall find 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. Dishes are the non-stuffy sort, featuring creative New Mexican fare 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). Prices are down-to-earth, too, with a room minimum of just $500.

The speakeasies of yesteryear had nothing on this place.

Best Place To Pig Out For Just A Few Pennies

Bennett's Bar-B-Que

This is a belly-buster, an all-you-can-eat fiesta with five meats (pork, brisket, sausage, chicken and pork spare ribs), served with beans, coleslaw, French fries and garlic bread. At just $14.99, we don't know how this restaurant makes money. Because, while other places might try to trick us with subpar products, the 'cue served here is topnotch, slow smoked over hickory for 14 hours, and paired with a killer, tangy-tart sauce. It's plate after plate of fall-off-the-bone tender meats, until we fall off our chairs, stuffed to a stupor. Oink, oink.
There's something so purely sensual about the setting at Latilla. Tucked into the Sonoran Desert foothills, the restaurant treats us to a symphony of wood, white adobe and Native American weavings. Giant wood posts stand sentry; the room's ceiling is crafted from ocotillo branches (latilla, or "little sticks" in Spanish). We nestle in booths in the intimate, staggered seating areas, staring lovingly into each other's eyes . . . and at the menu.

Love is in the air with appetizers such as the foie gras over creamy polenta with beet slices, fresh berries, and a port reduction. Entrees quicken our heart with delights like seared Chilean sea bass with shrimp pot stickers and crisp chicken in a spicy crayfish broth, and Italian Cowboy veal chop garnished with Sicilian green olives, peppercorns and artichoke hearts.

After dinner, we cuddle on the desert-landscaped patio, spooning in the glow of a fireplace and splashing waterfall. Our whispered sweet nothings are seconded by the faraway howl of a coyote. What's not to love?

Palm Court
"Conference Resort" rarely conjures images of fine dining. And the name describes this property perfectly. It caters primarily to large groups; we can't even get a table without being asked which company we're with.

But, hey, we'll lie about our affiliations if it gets us seated for the surprising sustenance served here. This is old-style class all the way, rich with tableside presentation and a grande dame atmosphere of ornate chandeliers and brocade fabrics. Food is over-the-top classic. Remember appetizers like beef consommé (stocked with root vegetables, tomato concasse and fresh basil), or prawns Provençal, sautéed with garlic and pimientos? Entrees even sound elegant: Lobster Lord Randolph, truffled and flambéed in Courvoisier; and duckling aux framboise with raspberry bigarade sauce. Sunday brunch is something special, too, served with unlimited champagne and made-to-order omelets, eggs Benedict, carved prime rib, smoked salmon and retro-but-loved deviled eggs and thick-sliced pté.

For creative, quiet, unexpectedly elegant dining, Palm Court is our best frond.

Flancer's Cafe
Lauren Saria
To look at this simple little storefront, you'd never think that its chef-owner, Jeff Flancer, is a graduate of the renowned Culinary Institute of America. All doubts will be put to rest after one bite of any of his creative, full-flavored creations. Just as surprising is the fact that his party platters, which each feed 25, cost an incredibly low $39.99 to $43.75.

That's only $1.59 to $1.75 per person for such delights as green chile mushroom phyllo pockets, baked pesto Brie en croûte, smoked salmon with artichoke hearts and cream cheese, and cold noodle sesame ginger chicken with oriental vegetables. Healthful platters abound, such as salads -- chef, Caesar chicken, albacore tuna, Greek, antipasto or crispy Parmesan chicken. Then there are balsamic portabella mushrooms and sherry-glazed roasted onions with rosemary flatbread, or crispy scallion shrimp won tons with tamari dipping sauce.

Why take a chance on the perfect party? Just order the perfect platter from Flancer's.

Miracle Mile Deli
Our time is valuable. We don't always have the luxury of a relaxed, hourlong lunch. (Okay, actually we do -- but our bosses are reading this.) But no way, no how, are we going to waste our greenbacks (or our guts) at most drive-through grease pits. Why would we, when we have Miracle Mile delicatessens, where the time between ordering and eating never surpasses five minutes? You can get to-go service, but sit down. Pick the pastrami. Lean and luscious, it's partnered with melted Swiss and hot sauerkraut for the Straw sandwich; with red bell pepper and carrot-spiked coleslaw and Thousand Island dressing for the New Yorker; and with Swiss, lettuce and dressing for the triple-decker. These two-fisters come complete with French fries, potato salad, macaroni salad or coleslaw and a hefty pickle spear, all for about six bucks. Daily specials such as meat loaf and chunky mashed potatoes are priced the same and equally delicious. Fast food, this cheap and this wonderful? That's a miracle.

As Scottsdale has grown up around it, the Pink Pony, owned by the same couple for 50 years, has stayed firmly in its past -- from the large, rose-colored ceramic pony behind the bar, to the comforting retro menu that has long charmed spring training baseball camps -- the Cubs, the Angels, the A's, the Mariners and the Giants.

There's real Arizona history here, with black booths that once seated stars like Billy Martin, Harry Caray, John McNamara and Stan Musial. The jerseys on the walls are from the greatest players, autographed by the best, and hung alongside World Series-issue bats signed by modern-day teams.

There's also welcome value at lunch and dinner: The Pink Pony Special, a hefty sirloin steak complete with soup or salad, baked or French fried potatoes or rice pilaf, hot biscuits and honey, is just $15. Main courses remind us of Sunday dinner at Grandma's: golden pan-fried chicken, genuine calf's liver with bacon and onion, and -- for a fancy treat -- prime rib or barbecued pork ribs.

When you want to remember old-time Arizona, ride on over to the Pink Pony.

Different Pointe of View
Patricia Escarcega
The views from this place are pretty enough to eat. We're standing on the patio, mesmerized by the panorama of the Valley from 1,800 feet above the desert. When we move inside for dinner, we take the beauty with us, seated next to floor-to-ceiling windows framing a stunning Arizona sunset. After dinner, we collect for drinks on a gorgeous patio, decorated with a fire fountain and scads of flowers, the flames sending shadows dancing across the virgin mountainscape that cradles the resort property.

The menu offers some notable Mediterranean-influenced favorites: jumbo shrimp slicked in a delightfully wicked lemon-habanero glaze, teamed with glazed mushrooms and roasted pancetta sauce; or ravioli stuffed with ample butter-braised lobster and caramelized shallots in a ghostly rich beurre blanc. Fish, too, is fantastic, such as buttery Coast Chilean sea bass sided with cranberry beans, pequillo peppers and a smoked bacon-lobster jus. Still, in this setting, food is almost an afterthought. Surrounded by such natural, pure Arizona beauty, even cardboard would taste good.

Carlsbad Tavern and Restaurant
Meagan Simmons
What is it with casual Valley restaurants putting us on a patio where we're face-to-face with the car bumpers that crowd strip malls? Carlsbad Tavern is having none of that. This funky, New Mexican eatery had adapted its building along busy Hayden Road to take advantage of its virtues.

Originally a seafood restaurant, the property wraps around a Disney-style "pier" overlooking an "ocean" that's more blue-painted concrete moat than splashing shore. Thick, tall stucco walls seclude the patio in a cozy, quiet courtyard decorated with wagon wheels, hanging chiles and a fountain.

It's a fine, fair-weather spot to kick back and sip on a major margarita and enjoy specialty dishes like Santa Fe duck ravioli (crispy chipotle pasta with smoked duck and Brie cream sauce), carne adovada or a searingly spicy habanero cheeseburger (with a free glass of milk to extinguish the flames). For a comfortable price -- about $8 at lunch, $15 at dinner -- and a laid-back outdoor experience, park it at Carlsbad Tavern.

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