Postino Wine Cafe
We love Postino for the $5 glass of Merlot at lunch and the comfy couches at happy hour, but we never expected to find inspiration at a trendy wine bar -- let alone in the ladies' room. But there we sat, in a beautiful rest room big enough for a table of six, admiring the candles and the deeply hued artwork, when we happened to notice a word -- just about our height at the time, if you get our delicate drift -- stenciled on the door: CREATE. Indeed we did, and headed back to the Merlot with a chuckle.

A month later, over another lunch, we sat again, and this time noticed a new message: BE UNIQUE. That may be a bit tougher, Postino, but we'll give it a shot. And we can't wait to see what the next message will be.

Best Place To See a Peacock West of Central Avenue

Wildlife World Zoo

Wildlife World Zoo
Heading west from Phoenix, there's not much between Luke Air Force Base and the state line. But we were delighted to find a funky oasis full of creatures you'd never expect to see in these parts. The Wildlife World Zoo has the requisite lions and tigers and giraffes (we didn't see any bears), but we were surprised to see a penguin house. On a mid-May visit, the tuxedoed crew looked sweaty -- even in their air-conditioned suite -- but the peacocks (labeled "peafowl") roaming the grounds looked quite content. One got up close and fanned its feathers wide -- stunning even the grouchiest of zoogoers.
Phoenix is lousy with little theaters, and most of them are a revolving door for would-be thespians who aspire to community productions of Neil Simon comedies. These petite playhouses cater to theatergoers who'd just as soon rent videos and don't want to be troubled with shows they haven't already seen. Then there's teeny Is What It Is Theater, a group of Camelback High School alumni who for the past five seasons have pushed the arts envelope with quirky and rarely produced shows that we'd never see otherwise. Last year the kids at Is brought us the seldom-seen Gingerbread Lady; a tidy take on What I Did Last Summer; and a risky adaptation of Orson Welles' radio drama The War of the Worlds. While not every one of this tiny troupe's productions is a winner -- its production of hoary old The Curious Savage was a reminder of why no one mounts this show anymore -- it's set a standard for alternative but still commercial theater. More impressive is the fact that the troupe has done it all on a shoestring.
Some ideas need a long time to gestate, and maybe the idea of spending your lunch hour watching live drama was just one of them. But this year did mark the return of Lunch Time Theater, an elegant little plan to coax office-workers into a theater with the promise of short, entertaining plays and cheap, crunchy lunches. Actors Theatre of Phoenix first trundled out the concept in the late '80s -- known then as Brown Bag Theater -- and it worked for a few years before going on a decadelong, er, hiatus. But in its new incarnation in the Herberger Theater Center, it seems to have found its niche -- presenting one-act plays by up-and-coming companies, while audience members chew on turkey sandwiches, diced fruit and little bags of chips. It's win-win-win. Actors get to hone their chops, troupes get to test out new scripts, and stultified office drones get some really cheap entertainment: $5 for admission and $5 for lunch, catered by Teeter House. And its year-round schedule has helped put the lie to the notion that, during the summer, the Valley's theater scene is pitch black.
It's not easy getting an audience for Shakespeare in this town. And no one knows that better than Actors' Renaissance Theatre. This truly local troupe started (and still exists) on a shoestring but is held together by strong performances, well-planned seasons, and the passion of its founders, husband-and-wife team James and Ashley Barnard. ART offers up the classics of Austen, Wilde and Shakespeare, stages an annual Valley of the Sun Shakespeare Festival, and debuts original works, like its recent world première adaptation of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. None of these things is exactly known for selling hordes of tickets, but ART still manages to put on good, affordable theater without going under, and without the help of underwriting or grants. In our book, that deserves recognition.
Phoenix Theatre's Little Theatre
After several consecutive seasons of mostly ill-conceived dreck, the Valley's oldest theater company rebounded with what was arguably the best show of the year. Phoenix Theatre's production of Sophisticated Ladies was so letter-perfect in performance and execution, it was nearly enough to make us forget the same company's laughably awful take on A Streetcar Named Desire of two seasons ago. Everything about Ladies was right: The dancing and singing were superb; the choreography fresh; the set and costume design outstanding. Every word, note and gesture jibed with our memory of Duke Ellington, whose music was celebrated in this tough-to-stage musical revue. Here's to hoping that Phoenix Theatre's upcoming season will repeat the stunning success of its Sophisticated Ladies.
With a single exception, the acting in Nearly Naked Theater's The King of Infinite Space was unexceptional. But Michael Sherwin's performance in the title role of Andrew Ordover's obscure morality play was so dazzling, it appeared to belong to another production. Red-faced and shrieking one moment, eerily calm the next, Sherwin delivered Ordover's lines with a riveting blend of chutzpah and megalomania. His performance -- which culminated in a final scene of glassy-eyed, catatonic madness -- rescued an otherwise dreary production from failure.
Orpheum Theatre
There are only a handful of theaters in the Valley of the Sun that were originally meant to be theaters, and even some of those have the acoustics of a dank cave. But the historic Orpheum Theatre, with its majestic proscenium, cloud-painted ceiling and rich red velvet seats, puts everything else in the state to shame. After a citizen-led battle to save it from demolition when it fell into shambles, 12 years of hard work, and $14 million, the Orpheum Theatre was reborn. The visible trappings were restored as much as possible, like the ornate carvings and stairwells, while retrofitting it as a modern theater capable of handling modern shows with all of their high-tech needs. And the round-light-trimmed marquee and side poster boxes at Second Avenue and Adams Street transport you to a time when having your name in lights really meant something.
Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art
In the past couple of years, Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art has hosted some impressive shows of cutting-edge stuff, like the mind- and space-bending work of James Turrell and the contemplative conceptual work of German artist Wolfgang Laib. Sure, we wouldn't mind seeing more work by local artists and fewer of those stitched-together theme shows, but by our reckoning, SMoCA is still the best bet for artgoers who are looking for a dose of timeliness, relevance and challenge to go with their wine and cheese.

Museo Chicano
At the city-supported Museo Chicano downtown, the gift shop is just about as big as the gallery space itself -- and for good reason. The wares on sale are oftentimes as gripping (sometimes more so, actually) as what's on display. Flashy fiesta flags hang overhead. Cigarette-chomping sugar skulls line the shelves. And dioramas of canny calaveras are the order of the day -- scenes of savvy-looking skeletons shooting pool, drinking booze, giving birth, hanging out on street corners.

Of course, el Museo also offers the requisite coffee-table books, art prints and gear dedicated to the supposed George and Martha of Mexican art, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. But in our opinion, it's the folk art that makes this place most firme.

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