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Folks who've never been to Phoenix are convinced that we dine solely on hunks of steak, barbecue beans, baked potatoes and paint-peeling coffee made with eggshells. Leave it to Cowboy Ciao, with its ultra-stylish, spaghetti Western ambiance, to show them creative American cuisine, spiked with influences from Italy, Mexico, and, of course, the Southwest.

The Stetson chopped salad is legendary, and we crave the calamari, tossed with chasoba noodles, sesame vinaigrette, chile oil and daikon radish sprouts. Entrees aren't for the timid, plated with starch and vegetables, and centered by such delights as espresso charred filet mignon (with pan-grilled vegetables, mashed tortilla potatoes, chipotle hollandaise). We endorse the signature dish, too, a fine fry of cremini, button and oyster mushrooms in ancho cream over double-cooked polenta with grilled portabellini, avocado, tomato and cotija cheese. Pure heaven.

Add a dessert of chocolate lottery torte, or Mexican chocolate pot de crème with chipotle cream, plus an inspired, globally encompassing wine list, and we're proud to call this new Phoenix chow our own.

It's easy to miss House of Tricks as you drive by on the two-lane street next to ASU -- and that's part of the reason we love it so. Set, amazingly enough, just steps from a row of Tempe's rowdiest bars and restaurants, this Victorian-inspired 1920s chateau lolls in quiet splendor behind a thick flush of trees, trellises and a picket fence. Sure, other places tout spectacular desert views, but at night -- or when you want to forget you're in tumbleweed country -- this is the place to go to let your cares melt away under the gentle gurgle of a fountain, sheltered by a vine-covered, light-bedecked canopy. Any time of day is right for Tricks' thrilling American contemporary cuisine. For lunch, try smoked ham and Brie on a pumpernickel bagel or grilled trout with chayote slaw. For dinner, kick up the class, with ahi tuna crusted in lavender and herbs and red curry sauce, or molasses-brushed rack of lamb with lemon rosemary mashed potatoes. Best patio dining? That's no Trick question.
Kazimierz shows how terrific the upscale sip-and-nibble concept can be, with a fashionably funky interior, eclectic music, creative wines and superb "small plates" of creative, refreshing snacks. After finding the door (it's hidden in the back, with no sign), snag a cozy, cushy, overstuffed armchair or sofa. Sprawl back amid candles and shrouded lamps, enjoying a magical display of lights behind an elaborate paper-and-gel "stained glass" window along the bar's northern wall.

The best way to eat here is to share sumptuous appetizers: nutty-toned truffle and duck pâté, salmon tartare, and Egyptian flatbreads (pizzas) with toppings like earthy morels and roasted shallots on Brie with truffle oil; or roast lamb, chèvre, figs and balsamic. The best way to drink here is with one of two dozen themed flight selections, each flight a trio of three-ounce pours of different wines. The best way to be merry here? Hey, if we have to tell you that, you're in the wrong place.

The idea of morning sure sounds good: happy chirping birds, gentle dew, rose-kissed clouds. But it's never that way as we stagger all sticky-eyed, wild-haired and crabby-spirited out of bed.

That's the time to treat ourselves to an indulgent breakfast at Squash Blossom, a gorgeous place overlooking a two-and-a-half-acre water playground. Breakfast is an expensive treat -- $10.75 to $14.50 for entrees -- but worth every penny. Petite filet mignon is high style, paired with poached eggs, herbed hollandaise sauce, breakfast potatoes and toast, while corned beef hash kicks it up with chile cilantro hollandaise. For a special experience, go for the Arizona toast, a raisin bread sandwich filled with cactus pear marmalade, dipped in egg batter and served with fig compote. Or swoon over the potato pancake trio, each dainty round with a different topping: smoked salmon, diced onion, tomatoes, cream cheese and capers; beluga caviar, cilantro and sour cream; and pan-smoked trout with creamed horseradish. Oh, what a beautiful morning.

We've been known to stay out a bit past curfew on weekends, and most places roll up the carpet by 10 or 11 p.m. That's why we're so thrilled that LEO takes its "late, early and often" acronym seriously. Until 3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, get a jump-start on breakfast with a fine steak-and-eggs or three-egg ham-and-cheese omelet, both served with home fries and a bagel. Or plow into a first-rate pancake stack, balanced with two eggs, two bacon strips and a sausage link. If it still feels like nighttime, end your long evening with a sandwich -- a full half-pound of primo deli meat (the brisket and the Reuben are both awesome), teamed with steak fries, creamy coleslaw or a potato pancake. Burgers are among the best, including a hefty garlic mushroom model, and even one crafted of salmon. Top it off with a sugar wake-up call -- carrot cake, chocolate blackout cake, coconut cream pie, New York cheesecake, apple strudel or cheese blintzes.
The only problem with Coronado Cafe is that it's so hard to find parking. And, if we show up at high noon, it's so hard to find a table. We don't mince words when telling our lunch dates that they'd better be on time -- this cafe doesn't seat partial parties.

Once we've settled in, though, utopia usurps in this charming home turned gorgeous garden of full-flavored soups, salads and sandwiches. We can justify a life toiling downtown because it places us close to the Gorgonzola walnut salad, tumbled with sliced apples and red onion; or the roasted turkey sandwich, laden with smoked Gouda, cranberry/serrano chutney, red onion and greens on honey whole wheat bread.

Hey, hey, this is our cafe.

Lon's is generally known to be a great place for a nice dinner, and it's often difficult to get a reservation. But it's easy to get a table at lunch, which is strange, given the fact that the outdoor patio is the loveliest place in the whole Valley to sit outside on a nice day. Visitors will be suitably charmed by the old-Arizona authenticity of the Hermosa Inn and its desert landscaping; there's an impressive view of Camelback Mountain, and the food is actually quite good (although this place could easily coast on its scenery and lush setting alone). The best bets on the menu -- besides the side of sweet potato fries, which you should order regardless of how hungry you think you are -- are the salads. These enormous, hearty offerings are definitely not for food-phobic, salad-ordering ladies. Bring your corn-fed Midwestern guests who want to eat well while basking in authentic Sonoran sunshine. You won't be sorry.
This classy supper club gives us hope that, yes, Phoenix will someday have an honest-to-goodness downtown dining scene. Business associates will be impressed with A League of Our Own's 1940s-style elegance, featuring Tiffany-look lamps, plush booths and vintage photos of famous women.

They will also be impressed with your taste in cuisine, as you guide them through an ambitious -- and highly successful -- luncheon menu starring such dishes as confit of artichokes, hoisin duck scaloppine with blackberry and mango wasabi paint, Blue Point oysters with sapphire gin and caviar, and the Jive Turkey, a smoked turkey sandwich on zucchini bread with baby spinach and Turkish fig butter.

In the eyes of our associates, lunch here puts us in, you might say, a league of our own.

Its roots are in Europe, but it has taken firm hold in the Valley. It's the chef's table, an exclusive seating directly off the kitchen, with personal attention from the celebrity chef. With six to eight of our closest friends, we're in for a remarkable seven-course meal, custom-crafted, and with each detail explained by award-winning chef-owner Michael DeMaria -- an incredible bargain at $100 a person. Michael's contemporary American cuisine might include an appetizer of cucumber-wrapped Dungeness crab salad with seared scallop and braised spinach, smoked tomato water and horseradish vinaigrette. Then, arugula salad with Rosti Asian pear, walnut and Maytag blue cheese tart, and lemon-walnut vinaigrette. Next is potato-wrapped sea bass on summer asparagus and roasted shallots with cockle-clam vinaigrette. To clear the palate, an intermezzo of spring sorbet. Our entree this evening is barbecued braised short ribs with sweet corn, baby carrots, onions and fingerling potatoes. Finally, it's some imported cheese, please, and dessert of tiramisu crème brûlée. On an evening such as this, we're just so pleased to be us.
This little place in an Ahwatukee strip mall is aptly named. It's a snob-free zone where everyone feels at home at wine-tasting classes, theme nights and private parties. Best of all, you can stop by anytime, belly up to the bar and sample any of the 40 or so open bottles. Buy some cheese and crackers and hang out for a while. The selection of wines is impressive, but the secret to the place's huge popularity is the hospitality of owners Kathleen and Tom Fordyce, who will warmly welcome you and maybe even join you for a glass or two.

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