When it's time to escape to another world, there's no finer midday dark retreat than Bosnian Atmosphere Cafe. There's nothing fancy here, and we're happy to lounge on scuffed purple fabric chairs, taking it slow under wobbly ceiling fans. The windows are blacked out; we first guessed it was a restaurant because of the daily "specials" sign outside (in Bosnian, of course). This means the inside is dark, blissfully womblike, and the service relaxed, since, as our waitress reminds us, everything is made from scratch.

It's quiet, secretly special food, too. Svjeza kupus salata is cabbage salad sprinkled with black pepper, misted with oil, spritzed with lemon juice and capped with ripe tomato. Burek is a football-size phyllo dumpling packed with chunks of chewy beef under a dollop of bright orange paprika purée. And the cafe's signature cevapi is captivating, a thrilling sandwich of sturdy, grilled ground beef sausage links and white onion between lepina, a pitalike bread. It's a feast -- for the stomach if not for the eyes.

Blue Nile Cafe
Sometimes we enjoy escaping daily craziness to this charming little cafe stuffing ourselves with delightful kik alitcha (warm yellow split peas simmered in a mild sauce of onion, herbs and spices), and tebbs (tender sautéed chopped beef in a sauce flavored with onion, tomatoes, green chile, seasoned butter and spices).

We choose to sit in the traditional Ethiopian section of the restaurant, on intricately carved, swaybacked wooden stools, about half a foot high, clustered around a mesab, a handmade wicker hourglass-shaped table with a domed cover (think of a mini woven Taj Mahal). Eating Ethiopian food is part of the experience. When the mesab cover is removed, the server presents a hubcap-size tray blanketed with injera, an enormous quilt of unleavened bread that is the heart and soul, plus utensils, of Ethiopia. The steamed bread is more like a pancake, fluffy and pocketed with bubbles, tangy with sourdough character. The bread serves as a tablecloth of sorts, adorned with small mounds of food, and we tear off pieces of bread to scoop stews or wrap meats burrito-style.

As we feast here, it's easy to pretend everything in the world is okay. It's a simple case of de-nile.

Yes, folks, it's Arizona's first and only nudist restaurant, parked, appropriately enough, in a nudist resort. Here, bellying up to the bar takes on a new meaning, with men, women, and even children lounging for breakfast, lunch and dinner in the altogether. Chair seats are fabric, but out of courtesy and sanitation, guests are required to park themselves on personal towels. Only bistro staffers are required to remain "textiled" (inside nudist talk for people wearing clothes).

Had we ever noticed before that when we're sitting down, everything personal on anyone walking by is at optimum level? We have now. Yet soon enough, we're so distracted by the high-quality food we could be surrounded by monkeys. Sliced steak and bleu cheese salad. A basket of fine chicken finger nuggets with good, crisp French fries, spicy coleslaw and a ramekin of ranch dressing. Prime rib as a periodic special. And in the morning, three-egg omelets or French toast, partnered with bacon or sausage.

Shangri La welcomes day guests -- the $29 charge is applied to an annual membership if, after the initial three get-to-know-you visits, one decides to become part of the clan. We recommend it. Just be careful of spilling coffee in your lap.

L'Academie Cafe
We're the first to admit that dating sucks. Usually it's a waste of time; almost always it's a waste of money when we find out the person across the table from us at dinner should have warned us he or she was a vegetable, not a vegetarian.

There are several reasons we like to test our potential partners with a meal at L'Academie, an important one being the rock-bottom prices. This is a learning restaurant for students of the Scottsdale Culinary Institute, so the trade for our being guinea pigs is a low bill. Appetizers for $2.95. Entrees for $8.95. Desserts for $2.95. At these prices, even if our date is a washout, it won't leave us washing dishes in the kitchen.

We also like to use L'Academie to see how our date deals with potential mishap. Students haven't honed their server skills quite yet, but if our date has a meltdown over minor blips, we know we haven't met our true love.

It helps that the setting is high-class bistro, and the food is really tasty (spinach salad, prime rib, leg of lamb, bread pudding). So, if by chance our date turns out to have potential, we still look good in their eyes.

Cowboy Ciao Wine Bar & Grill
Heather Hoch
Like all our great Valley restaurants, Cowboy Ciao changes its menu on a regular basis, all the better to keep us interested in its creative cuisine: modern American food influenced by the flavors of Italy, the Southwest and Mexico. But we can always count on something special, manly and cowboy charming. Sometimes it's pesto-crusted elk loin, the strip grilled medium rare and served with pan-grilled vegetables, polenta and Cabernet wild and exotic mushroom ragout. Buffalo carpaccio makes a regular appearance, rolled in a cumin-espresso dry rub, seared, then paired with red onion honey marmalade and chèvre. We find favor with braised duck breast, too, two breasts with poblano mole, chile grits and black currant relish. And the crab-crayfish cakes keep us coming back for more, ladled in smoked red pepper-lobster cream. It's always exciting to come in, flip open the menu, and see what's in store for us at our favorite CC.

Pei Wei Asian Diner
Why anyone would want to ruin an evening out by bringing along screaming little monsters who appreciate good food only if they can throw it, we'll never know. Haven't these people heard of baby sitters, or at least closets with locks?

Which is why, if kids must be part of the equation, we appreciate Pei Wei. It's already deafeningly loud, so a few more decibels won't matter. It's ultra-casual, so chucking food isn't too much of an embarrassment. And it's cheap, $5.50 to $9 for a full adult meal, plus just $3.25 for the little ankle-biters. While adults can fill up on P.F. Chang's-style coconut curry shrimp, spicy chicken chow fun, chili-hoisin beef or Mongolian scallops, the rug rats can stuff themselves on a Kid's Wei meal.

Pei Wei doesn't bother with any vegetables (just more artillery, since kids won't eat the stuff). The basics include teriyaki, honey or lo mein chicken on top of egg noodles. Simple. No nonsense. Enough carbs to ensure the kiddies will pass out on the car ride home.

If we had it our wei, kids wouldn't be allowed in restaurants until they could behave politely when released from their cages. In the meantime, we'll feed them at Pei Wei.

Hap's Pit Barbecue
We've been fans of Hap's slow-smoked 'cue for more than a decade, since the place started as a cart in front of a family car dealership in south Phoenix (the smoker was the frame from an old GMC truck). This has been a long love affair for us, drawn in by meat that's meltingly tender. This comes from long slow cooking, over low heat, following a loving massage of a special blend of spices and herbs. Sauce is spectacular, but it only gilds the lily.

The new Hap's location is open 24 hours, Monday through Saturday. Oh joy! Full breakfasts (pork ribs or hot links in picante sauce with egg). Drop-dead ribs, chicken, pulled pork and beef brisket, all served in Hap's trademark brown paper sack. One bite and you're in Hap's heaven.

Not the language, but the cuisine. Sure, we could be cynical and say that the classes are basically infomercials to promote Bosch kitchen appliances. But who cares? The seminars are free (periodically there's a small fee, like $5), and the information is valuable.

Their lesson plans span the globe. There might be an evening in Vienna, with Wiener schnitzel, spaetzle with pepper and crisp shallots, braised cabbage with bacon, and apricot crepes. It might be a menu of 10-minute meals featuring (surprise) name-brand pressure cookers. It might be American, Southwestern, Mexican or vegetarian. There's a lot of bread baking, with (who'd have guessed) Bosch bread-making machines. But it's free! Consider it a Tupperware party with a 'tude.

Who wants to eat hamburger every day? There's a big, exciting world of exotic animals out there, just begging to become part of our dinner. Antelope, rattlesnake, alligator, zebra and lion we've heard of people eating before, but since when did species like giraffe, beaver and kangaroo become popular? Leave it to game cravers to get creative -- owners Daniel and Jennifer Roosevelt can get their hands on more than 50 types of mysterious meat given a week's notice. They'll also process game from private hunters, and the Arizona BBQ Association (home of the eight-foot-tall inflatable pig) hosts get-togethers at Daniel's to spread the passion.

Most customers come in for the more traditional meats -- prime Iowa corn-fed beef and pork, sushi-grade fish, live lobster, handcrafted sausage and Young's farm poultry. Beef is made better by at least two weeks of aging, and extras are extra special (homemade twice-baked potatoes, artisan breads, produce).

We're envisioning a theme dinner party -- the Valley's own version of the Matthew Broderick/Marlon Brando movie The Freshman.

We wish Circle K could catch up with the times. Sure, once we convenience shoppers were a crowd craving beef jerky, soda and slushies, maybe a six-pack of Schlitz. But these days, we'd rather spend some extra time going into a real store for real quality deli noshes, fine wines and service from someone older than minimum age. Still, it's a pain to fight the crowds at the big shops.

Kudos to La Crème. Hungry? Grab a great, prepared-to-order sandwich made with Block & Barrel meat -- perhaps turkey breast, pepperjack cheese, lettuce and tomato on rye, or roast beef, pastrami and Swiss on sourdough -- for only $3 to $5. Thirsty? Alongside the Budweiser, there's Blue Moon beer, a Belgian wheat white ale; Napoleon Courvoisier cognac; and Patron Tequila Aejo. Other treats include cigars, Nanci's frozen yogurt, fresh fritters, sticky buns and cinnamon rolls, and those stop-and-go staples, Corn Pops and Lucky Charms cereal. And no Circle K we've found has spicy eggplant salad.

La Crème is the top of the crop for us.

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