• Best Of
  • Restaurants: Right Place - Right Time
It's another one of those days. The boss is being completely unreasonable, expecting us at work before noon, when we only get up at 11 a.m. so we won't be late for our lunch break. So we soothe our ruffled dignity by hiding in the cozy heart-of-downtown darkness that is Monroe's. Descend weathered wooden stairs to reach the dim, candlelit and red-light-bulbed interior of this live jazz club/cafe. Once we can see, we find dark wood walls with brick, with some Christmas lights twinkling in the black, low-slung ceiling.

This place has excellent bar food, most items priced at less than $6. Onion soup is a smooth starter, the beefy, not-too-sweet broth buried under mounds of soft, hot provolone. A cheese steak is terrific, too, packed with quality, lacy-thin beef and buckets of melted provolone on a soft hoagie roll that's been grilled to a wonderful crust.

Ah, now that's what we need to cure those big boss blues.

The new El Portal hasn't been in business long, but this little house turned eatery has become a fast favorite among the downtown crowd, with some of the best Mexican food anywhere in metro Phoenix. Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox and her politico husband Earl refurbished the old, long-shuttered facility last year with simple booths and tables, accented with terra cotta tile. Parking is plentiful, but the place does fill up, and beware -- it closes at 2 p.m.

An early arrival is well worth it. (The cafe opens at 7:30 a.m., and breakfast, by the way, is served all day.) Service is quick and the menu complete -- from complimentary chips and salsa, through à la carte regulars such as tacos, burros and tostadas and combination plates with treats such as beef machaca. Drink refills arrive before you even ask, and if you're lucky, Mary Rose herself will bring your meal to the table.

Now that's what we call a good public servant!

Pity the poor dieter who believes that eating well has to taste bad. These pitiful creatures have never embraced the power of fresh ingredients, fats served only in restrained portions, and everything snapped up with exotic spices. At Green Leaf Cafe, healthful dining goes global, influenced by the cuisines of Persia, the Mediterranean, Italy, America and Mexico, even Cajun and the Orient. Vegetables take center stage, partnered with tofu, and accented, if we choose, by modest servings of chicken, turkey, fish and eggs -- but never any red meat. Even the simplest vegan plate soars with the magic of fresh herbs and spices -- oregano, basil, mint, dill, fennel, cumin, garlic, capers, parsley, ginger, fenugreek, cilantro and more. For a sweet but not sinful finish, we pick pumpkin pie, all natural and vegan, of course. Green Leaf is a healthful new leaf we're happy to turn over.
In some restaurants, getting an up-close view of the kitchen and the folks who are slaving away over the proverbial hot stove might just spoil your appetite. But at Guedo's, watching the cooks work adds to the sheer joy of eating their signature tacos. We love waiting in line to order here, because while Spanish music blares from the speakers, these guys sing, dance, laugh and bang their pots around. They belt out romantic ballads at the top of their lungs, hooting and hollering to the salsa songs. ¡Arriba!
Talk about cooking lessons. We've always loved Chef Razz Kamnitzer's creative Mediterranean-inspired dishes. Now, with his newly relocated restaurant, we can sit at the bar directly overlooking the master in action in the tiny, galley-style kitchen. We study Kamnitzer performing his ballet, his neatly tied signature ponytail spinning as he makes it look easy to work on a half-dozen orders at a time. The only problem? Seeing these dishes prepared makes us want to order them all. Duck and vegetable spring rolls, escargots, crespelles, cashew-crusted salmon with hibiscus broth, bouillabaisse -- we've got a severe case of entree envy.
Why would we let something as superficial as a fork get in the way of genius? Nothing comes between us and the incredible pizzas crafted by chef Halim Nefic. His pies aspire to art, spun in whisper-thin circles, topped with the freshest, most vibrant ingredients, and baked in a wood-burning oven to crisp, perfect contentment.

Dough is made fresh daily and hand-spun. Tomatoes are hand-crushed and blended with special spices, and cheese is mozzarella, also lovingly made by hand. So that's how we eat these lovelies: by hand. The 12-inch pies are said to feed two, but that's only if we're sharing our adored Four Seasons blend: tomato sauce, mozzarella, imported Italian prosciutto, wood-roasted mushrooms, fresh sliced tomato, Parmesan, black olives and artichoke hearts.

Two thumbs up!

As with any business presentation, preparation is key. So study up on Gregory's menu before bringing that Fortune 500 bigwig client to the restaurant. You'll want to impress him or her with your world-class knowledge of fine cuisine and wines. And if any Valley restaurant tests your skills, it's Gregory's. Starters stun with ethereal combinations like salmon ceviche with white-bean hummus, parsley-scallion oil and salmon roe; and pan-seared Hudson Valley foie gras with sweet-potato tart, strawberry-rhubarb compote and 20-year-old balsamic vinegar. Entrees entice, starring delicacies like lion's paw scallop in sweet vermouth lobster broth with micro arugula and foie butter; or grilled Wagyu Kobe beef with nori-wrapped wasabi risotto and Kobe beef won ton. Service is impeccable, the setting warm and ultra-luxe. In short, Gregory's will make you look so special your clients won't even blink when, over dessert, you tell them you're doubling your fees.

Thriving for several decades in a former IHOP A-frame, "The Don," as regulars affectionately refer to it, can never be accused of lacking atmosphere. Go in -- hungry, of course -- and munch thin, hot chips and admire the year-round, Mylar Christmas decorations that spin and twinkle lazily in the manufactured breeze. Vintage bullfighter portraits compete with velvet paintings and more contemporary (but equally bizarre) prints, while oldies ooze out of a radio whose dial hasn't budged in years. Check out your dining companions: lone curmudgeons, young moderns, and big families with the occasional screaming child. Order the heavenly cheese crisp, heaped with guacamole; chat with chipper waitress Tami; and ask for the green ketchup for a real visual treat. More good news: All this atmosphere comes cheap at the only sit-down restaurant where two can enjoy dinner for under $10 -- and where it's always Christmas, to boot.

Divorce? Death in the family? Nothing that a little meat loaf and mashed potatoes can't fix. Because we turn to comfort food during difficult times, it had better be nice food. No hard edges, nothing challenging, no effort involved. Nonni's Sunday Chicken, which is always on the menu at Rancho Pinot Grill, is a hearty, soul-satisfying bowl of love. To describe it as wine-braised chicken and vegetables served over crunchy polenta cakes doesn't capture the most comforting aspect of this dish: its texture. This chicken asks nothing of you -- it just helpfully falls off the bone, as though it knows you've had a hard day. Or perhaps it senses that you shouldn't be trusted with a knife.

Best Of Phoenix®

Best Of