BEST PLACE TO HIDE IN THE DARK 2003 | Durant's | Food & Drink | Phoenix
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.

Frankly, we have all the view we need when we dine with our honey -- that face, those eyes. But we have to admit, it's mighty romantic to do our staring in a sumptuous setting, for when we do look away, the surroundings should be at least as gorgeous as our companion. For that special view, we are smitten with Acacia, and particularly its Spanish-style balcony. It's a semi-private veranda, just a small collection of tables lit by flickering votives, and done in rich wood. We feel absolutely swallowed up in the cocoon of the high Sonoran Desert loping below us, and the intense drama of the sunset over the Pinnacle Peak mountains just beyond. There are more than 40 acres of open resort property for our pleasure, lavish with towering saguaro, ocotillo cactuses and sagebrush. Really, after we've had enough of staggering summer heat, all it takes is a trip to Acacia to remind us why we live here (yes, we can appreciate the views through the windows, too, when we dine inside in the AC). The icing on this cake? Luscious steak house cuisine that has landed Acacia a Four Star rating. It's the perfect addition to the stars in our eyes.

Courtesy of Alexi's
This must be the place to be since we've seen Governor Janet Napolitano and her entourage of burly security guards dining here (what they ate, we don't know -- the goons wouldn't let us near her table). Secrets can be spilled here, because with the din of closely packed important shirt-and-tie clientele, nobody is listening to anyone but themselves. The waiters don't bug us, either, waiting until we've stopped talking to dive in for our orders. We know what we like for a classy midday repast -- trout amandine (with roasted almonds in lemon white wine sauce), angel-hair shrimp feta, or calamari steak with tomatoes, capers, olives and basil. This almost feels like New York, actually, with the restaurant based at the bottom of a high-rise, pretty much hidden from the road, and altogether exclusive.

Readers' Choice: Durant's

We can't remember how many times we've gone to the theater, or a movie, or simply overslept the dinner hour (hey, we're night owls, and it happens). After 10, we've got no place to go, other than a noisy bar or some place slinging Grand Slam sadness. That's why we're so very happy to have Zen 32, where, no matter the day of the week, we can eat really terrific Japanese food until midnight. Sometimes we lounge on the misted patio, watching the lights of cars whizzing by while we munch on stellar sushi, like the rainbow roll layered with shrimp, salmon, tuna and hamachi; or asparagus with salmon and crab. If we arrive an hour earlier, we can select from the entire menu, an interesting grilled fusion happening (we especially like the sake-steamed fish, featuring Southeast Asian farm-grown Basa fillet wrapped in a sake steamed leaf with fresh steamed vegetables drizzled in Asian Zen sauce; or the chili-glazed shrimp, grilled with a mango, ginger and chili glaze, served with Asian slaw and Thai peanut sauce). Oishii! (In Japanese, that means delicious. Learn it. You'll need it here.)

Readers' Choice: Denny's

There's something exciting about watching a professional chef at work. The skill, the flair, the panache of a trained restaurant talent. We've never quite mastered the art, but with the Monastery, we can pretend we have. Here, at these casual, artsy restaurants, we get to be the chef ourselves. We like the original Indian School location the best, taken as we are with the rickety 80-year-old home tucked away under weeping willows, but the other two shops are endearingly similar. While our buddies play volleyball, horseshoes, Ping-Pong and shuffleboard, we man a barbecue and grill burgers, chicken, steaks, pork chops, Polish sausage or a vegetarian garden burger (if we need assistance, one of the staffers -- dressed in brown monk robes -- will help us manage the flames). We sip some beer or wine, select some sides (potato salad, salad, chips and salsa, bread and cheese board). This is one restaurant meal we'll never be sending back.

Jamie Peachey
Ever wonder how you can be so busy, yet so broke? So when your long hours and lean wallet get to you, treat yourself to a meal at Cherryblossom.

There's nothing more expensive than $10 on this lengthy menu of big, tasty noodle dishes, and most ring in at $5 to $8. The variety is constantly interesting -- Japanese, Thai, Korean, Italian, and even some offbeat Japanese-Italian fusion recipes. The setting is soothing -- the place is fast service, but instead of a cheapie snack shack, it's a real sit-down affair.

You'll love the yakisoba, sautéed with fresh vegetables, plus chicken or seafood (shrimp, scallop, squid and octopus). Korean spicy beef is sizzling, over clear, egg white or potato noodles. For a lighter nosh, try the pasta primavera, loaded with eggplant, tricolor bell pepper and sweet onion under marinara sauce.

You know where to get fast food, cheap and delicious. Just use your noodle -- Cherryblossom's noodle, that is.

Okay, we confess: We eat more than just lunch at My Florist Cafe. We have breakfast there every Friday, because we can't get enough of their yummy baked oatmeal. And you'll find us there several nights a week, digging into the superlative pear salad and grooving to the impossibly swell stylings of pianist Nicole. But most of the time we're there midday, elbow-to-elbow with folks who know that this is the chic place to break bread. Even if we're craving lunch at 11 p.m. we get what we came for, because all of My Florist's lunchtime specialties are available all the time. Day or night, sandwich or salad, My Florist is our all-the-time favorite lunch hangout.

Readers' Choice: Durant's

Courtesy of J.P. Pancakes
Our brain is pounding. Our stomach is churning. Our eyes hurt, our mouth tastes like old eggs, and we've got that heavy, guilty misery that can only mean one thing: We drank too much again last night.

Perhaps we should punish ourselves for our indiscretion with the evil spirits, but aren't we already suffering enough? Darn right we are, so now it's time to treat ourselves to the only thing that'll make us feel better -- a huge, fattening, filling breakfast to soak up all that alcohol.

JP is our little cocoon for mornings like these. It's always genteel quiet in the tiny shop, no matter how busy it gets. It's dark, decorated in lots of black and slender mirrors, with soothing jazz music that makes us feel classier than our escapes of the evening before would suggest. The food is fresh and fantastic, with amenities we can't find elsewhere: hot-dog-size Hormel sausage links, thick-cut Hormel bacon and dry-cured ham, golden biscuits with chunky sausage gravy, billowy oven-baked apple pancakes, Belgian waffles and tasty daily specials like quiche or tomato-fresh-herb-goat-cheese omelets.

Coffee is strong, hot and bottomless. Boy, we feel almost good enough to go out tonight and get drunk all over again.

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