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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.
Here it comes, spiraling toward the Earth, a spinning, hot orb that lands with a thundering thud. We're not getting out of the way, though, because it's a pizza, a beautiful feast that's crashed into our table at Cosmic Pizza. It's called the Meteor, and it's out of this world, monstrous with six meats -- pepperoni, sausage, sirloin, Canadian bacon, meatballs and chicken -- cheese and a zingy red sauce. To carry the weight of the toppings, we get the thick-crust version, hand-tossed, seasoned with garlic salt and baked on a stone slab. Houston, our pizza has landed.
We hate going to sports bars where screens are tuned to some obscure sporting event we have no interest in. Or worse, the game is something we care about, but the volume is turned down or the bar chatter is so loud we can't hear the play-by-play. At Damon's, you, the sports fan and diner, are in control. A hybrid family restaurant/sports bar, this place offers not only tasty ribs and other fare, but also power. All the dining booths are arranged facing four enormous screens. Audio devices at each table (kind of like drive-in movie speakers) let you tune in to your favorite match-up or background music and a trivia game. And for the littlest control freaks, Wednesdays are Kids' Nights, featuring cartoons and kiddy trivia on the big screens.
We know where to hunt down the most magical midnight snack: at Christopher's, where from 10 p.m. to midnight Thursday, Friday and Saturday, there's a sumptuous gourmet spread set out for a mouth-watering $9.95.

We choose cheese: selecting from Taleggio, Reblochon, Fourme d'Ambert, Camembert, Stilton and Tete de Moines. We pick pizzas, chomp on cheeseburger and fries, and crave a croque monsieur (a French ham-and-cheese sandwich grilled on a toasted baguette). But what makes our witching hour so wonderful is "little tastes" -- pâté, smoked salmon, tuna tartare, white bean hummus and roasted tomato served on toast. And if we're lucky, the kitchen lavishes us with "leftovers." These are Christopher's specialties that some poor soul was unfortunate enough not to order during regular dinner hours -- sole meunière on Thursday, veal cheeks on Friday and rabbit in mustard sauce on Saturday.

Paired with selections from Christopher's list of 100 wines by the glass, these are snacks with real sustenance and style.

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.

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.

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?

"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 pâté.

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

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