BEST PLACE FOR A FIRST DATE 2003 | Kazimierz World Wine Bar | Food & Drink | Phoenix
Kazimierz Wine & Whiskey Bar
Kazimierz is such a fun, upbeat place that instead of a typical happy hour, it features "early evening hours of joy." Who couldn't have a great time at such a stylish hideaway as this, a dark, intimate cave decorated like a castle with lots of wood, stone and stained glass? Your date will think you're totally hip, just knowing how to find the joint. There's no sign, and the front door is hidden within a breezeway. You can toast your potential beau with exotic wines, chosen from a menu brimming with some 1,300 labels (the indecisive will appreciate the flight samplings). Cozy sofas lend themselves to comfortable snuggling; if things are going well, you can retreat to one of the private tables hidden behind red velvet drapes. In case you find you're so smitten you get tongue-tied, you can hide under the cool tones of live jazz, or KazBar's playful CD mixes. And how cute is the menu, with "global" plates designed for snacking and sharing: things like two-cheese fondue pot with apple slices and bread, or flatbread of house-made focaccia rock shrimp, smoked Gouda, buffalo mozzarella and pumpkin seeds.

Who says experiencing a "foodie fantasia" has to be some high-priced, completely complicated, rich and crazy (and expensive) undertaking? Fate chef Johnny Chu proves that the magic of fine food comes in complete respect for the most simple ingredients, left to their pure flavors and nudged to excitement by lightly applied but highly creative sauces. His Asian cuisine doesn't require elite recipes, fashioned primarily from vegetables. We can add in our choice of tender chicken breast, quality beef, shrimp or terrific deep-fried tofu, then select our sauces. Chu, born and raised in Hong Kong, does more with sauces than many of our best Valley chefs.

Real foodies like funky, of course, and Chu serves that up and more. His restaurant is also an art gallery and music salon, set in an old house in a questionable neighborhood. What's not to love?

Wow, if we had way, way too much money to burn, this is where we would do it. This concept is a full restaurant, with a full staff and a full gourmet menu, but it's designed for just a single party. As in one table, seating just two to 12 guests. We like to think of it as our own private Mary Elaine's, complete with fancy Reidel stemware, fresh custom flowers, a live baby grand player or any custom music we desire, custom scented candles, and stunning views from atop Eagle Mountain. Our evening brings six-course designer dinners of cheese, appetizer, salad, soup, entree and dessert (perhaps oysters with saffron, habanero oil, spinach and Parmesan; then prime New York strip pan-blackened with chile garlic butter, garlic-red jalapeo mashed potatoes). Our private (of course) sommelier helps us select from 300-plus bottles of wine, or 125 choices by the glass. And for the privilege, all we need to do is shell out $195 (for a basic dinner for two), up to $1,775 for a seafood indulgence, including wines and champagnes, for 12. The rich truly are different from us, and this is why.

Are we inside? Are we outside? It can be difficult to tell the difference at Postino. The place is a refurbished post office, and what used to be loading doors are now retractable walls that open up to an expansive patio. Whichever side we're on, it's all beautiful, with walls of wine, royal-toned paint, an opulent mahogany bar and cushy sofas. The music throbs, with jazz, blues and reggae, and we fill our gullets with the best bruschetta around: huge slabs of bread topped with a rainbow of flavors that we pick and choose. What goes with wine (some 200 bottles as an inventory) but cheese? And Postino has it, specialty wedges paired with nuts and fruit. This is definitely a place to see and be seen, even if we're really sitting in a parking lot of an old mail-sorting station. It's still the coolest patio performance anywhere.

Readers' Choice for Best Outdoor Patio: Sugar Daddy's

In its earlier days, Greasewood Flats was known only to a few folks lucky enough to have discovered the little place hidden off a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. Those folks included John Denver and Glen Campbell, who would do impromptu performances. Today, the circa-1883 former stagecoach bunkhouse is more widely known, feeding up to 400 people a day. And that includes us. On any given evening, you'll find us cozied up in the rustic bar, or, better yet, at one of the picnic tables outside. We kick back under the canopy of trees, listen to music, and chat with our pals. A cold beer, a grilled-to-order hamburger, and when we time it just right, a spectacular sunset over the mountains soaring to the west -- does life get any better?

We read somewhere that when political/royal structures were built in the old days, they were made to be as huge, ostentatious and overwhelming as could be, so as to intimidate visitors from other countries. So imagine bringing that finicky client to the Sanctuary, situated on 53 acres on the side of posh Camelback Mountain, with breathtaking views of the north Valley, including ooh-la-la Paradise Valley.

If the view doesn't bring your client to quivers, we guarantee the cuisine will. Executive chef Charles Wiley has earned international acclaim for his skills, focusing on farm-fresh American with Asian accents. Spinach and goat cheese casserole will have your client so distracted you can propose the most outrageous idea and it'll be a winner. Roasted duck breast with garlic polenta, wilted spinach and orange tamarind glaze? That client will be in such a swoon, he'll sign any contract you propose. As the saying goes, the best way to win someone over is through his or her stomach. Here, the philosophy is elemental to success.

Royal Palms Resort and Spa
The last thing we want when we're enjoying a luxury resort dinner is to feel like we're eating a luxury resort dinner. That's because so many resorts these days are enormous corporations, with sterile, appeal-to-the-masses menus that have us yawning in our caesar salad, roasted chicken and crème brûlée. Not T. Cook's, though. At T. Cook's, we feel like we're dining in someone's private dream. It's the dream of a gardener, given carte blanche to create an Eden that invites long romantic walks along winding pathways embracing the Royal Palms property. It's the dream of an interior decorator, who has fulfilled our every fantasy of ambiance, with luxurious Southwestern decor and intimate, elegant seating. It's the dream of a chef, who delights us at every meal, and surprises us at every season. Where else can we loll in such decadent dishes as cream of spinach soup with nutmeg and spiced duck confit; or scallops with red pepper gnocchi, fiddlehead ferns, leeks and carrot curry jus, all roasted in a giant fireplace before our very eyes? T. Cook's harvests our local organic farms for the finest fare, too, something no big corporate resort likely would do. A tip of our toques to T. Cook's!
Tom Carlson
We're not vampires. Really. But we do admit to having a certain aversion to sunlight. It's just so hot. And bright. But when we want to chill out and calm down, we make tracks for Durant's, a Valley legend since 1950. In good, old-fashioned style, Durant's keep the lights turned way down low, even during the lunch hour. If there are any windows in this joint, we haven't found them. The room is cloaked instead by deep red booths and walls, and black-topped tables, and manned by classic black-garbed waiters with sleepy attitudes. The menu is retro calming, too, with traditional selections like a beautifully juicy broiled T-bone. The meat is broiled on mesquite; we can see it sizzling as we come in the real entrance to the restaurant -- the back door, through the kitchen. This is hefty food to eat while shielded from the screeches of day, like "Fat Man's Specials" of thick-cut top sirloin, a full-pound hamburger, and even a 48-ounce porterhouse. Yeah, we could skimp and get an albacore tuna sandwich on Karsh's rye, with coleslaw or cottage cheese, but Jeez, we're at Durant's. It's nice and dark. We can eat whatever we want, get as messy as we want, take a nap, even, and no one will ever see us. Cell phones are strictly outlawed.

Sundays are for sleeping in. Unless we've got a reservation for brunch at El Chorro, in which case we might not sleep Saturday night at all. Brunch is served in the cool months, October through May. El Chorro is stunningly beautiful, nestled below the red cliffs of Echo Canyon of Camelback Mountain. It's historic, built in 1934 as a school for girls. As a resort, it's played host to celebrities like Clark Gable and Milton Berle. Many of the staffers are original characters, including the owners, Joe and Evie Miller (Joe started there as a bartender in 1952). The spread is much more intriguing than the typical eggs, bacon and Danish buffets, and excitingly retro. The magic begins with free sticky buns (homemade cinnamon rolls). Then it's on to eggs Benedict (classic, with turkey, filet mignon or vegetarian), a Spanish omelet, curried chicken salad, salmon fettuccine, chicken livers and eggs, chipped beef, beef stroganoff, or shrimp Louie. Now that's worth waking up for.

There are times when just another meal of mainstream Italian, Mexican or American just won't do. We live on the edge, darn it, and our dinner needs to celebrate our daring, dashing nature.

Food doesn't get any more exciting than at Manila Cafe. It's Filipino, a dramatic blend of Malay, Chinese and Spanish, with hints of Indian, Mexican, Arab and American influences. For real adventure, we often leave the ordering up to the friendly family that owns the place. Just bring us what's best today.

This means we sit at our table in the tiny store for hours on end, nibbling at plates of things that we can't pronounce but that are mesmerizing with multilayered flavors of vinegar, black pepper, garlic, anchovy and ginger. Perhaps we'll sample bulalo (beef kneecap with vegetables), binagoongang baboy (sautéed pork with fish sauce, tomatoes, onion and garlic) and pritong bangus (fried milkfish). If we're a bit frightened of an unfamiliar fare, we're offered freebie taste spoons of dishes like afritadang manok (juicy sautéed chicken with tomatoes, onion and bell pepper), or dinuguan (a surprisingly tasty dish of pork with pork blood sauce, pork ear, vinegar, black pepper and jalapeo over white rice). We'd never have imagined the charms of pinakbet otherwise, bringing a wicked stew of string beans, tart bittermelon, okra, meaty eggplant and chunks of skin-on pork boiled in anchovy sauce.

There's no doubt our madcap side is well-fed here, with far-out but fantastic assemblies like pochero, a plate of pork, beef or chicken sautéed in tomato sauce alongside Spanish sausage, bananas, potatoes and cabbage. Wild thing -- Manila Cafe, that is -- we think we love you.

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