BEST DOWNTOWN LUNCH 2004 | Calabria Italian Grocery and Deli | Food & Drink | Phoenix
It's always a treat for us to do lunch at Calabria Italian Grocery and Deli. There are larger, busier places to go for lunch in downtown, but then that's the point of visiting Calabria, which only has a couple of tables, and mostly deals in takeout orders. Our favorite thing to do is take a late lunch and hide at the table wedged between a window and a tall steel shelf of Italian dry goods. Perhaps we'll order an array of Italian olives and pickled mushrooms as a starter, and one of Calabria's superb subs, like the Sicilian, made with mortadella, sopressata and prosciutto, for the main course. There are also calzones, and arancini -- rice balls with ground beef centers -- and, for dessert, a variety of Italian ice creams to choose from. Sure, Calabria is great for ordering to-go, but just give us that Sicilian sub, a lime San Pellegrino, and a good book, and we may even forget we have a job to go back to. Readers' Choice: Zoë's Kitchen

Most people like to hide after dark, but if you've never tried hiding at lunch, you really should. We recommend McCormick & Schmick's. Along with regular tables and booths, the seafood restaurant has half a dozen "snugs," described as "private dining booths with luxurious velvet drapes for the ultimate in dining privacy." Now, we wouldn't recommend that you get too intimate in a snug -- you're still in the middle of a restaurant, for heaven's sake -- but you can certainly hide out. And what you do in hiding is really your own business -- unless, of course, your waiter catches you.

As the proverbial Ugly American, we had no clue as to what constitutes a proper high tea experience. So we found ourselves some English ladies (well, one actually only went to school in England, and the other, frankly, is no lady) and headed to the Phoenician on a late summer afternoon. We were surprised to hear that reservations are required -- who knew there'd be a run on hot drinks in August? -- but luckily a table opened up and we settled gingerly on a plump white couch in the airy lobby of the Phoenician.

And then we immediately made a spectacle of ourselves, ordering herbal berry tea and spilling it all over the lovely linens. Our Brits assured us that English Breakfast is the only way to go (which confused us, since it was closer to dinner time) and we got a long lecture about how the tea has to be warmed just so, and you must use whole milk, not cream.

We made a mess, but the Phoenician held up nicely, with a three-course presentation fit for a king. (Or, in this case, three wanna-be queens.) First came finger sandwiches. We preferred the lightly spiced curry egg salad with watercress and daikon sprouts and the poached chicken salad with lemon and thyme on pumpernickel. But the classic cucumber sandwiches weren't bad, either.

Next arrived buttermilk and cranberry scones. Our friends told us that scone should be pronounced "skawn" (rhymes with pawn) and although they scoffed at the notion of dried cranberries, both scarfed their scones, dabbing them with lemon curd, fresh strawberry preserves and Devonshire cream, so rich we could all feel our arteries clogging.

And then, the pastries. The selection was broad, and our lovely waiter would have happily put one of each on our plate. We managed to down a chocolate-covered strawberry and something called a fruit tartlet.

By the time we stumbled out of the Phoenician, brimming with tea and stuffed with enough carbs to fuel a kindergarten class, we understood the meaning of high tea -- it was definitely the high point of the day. And our lady friends agreed.

Catherine Deneuve once said that "Sex in hotels keeps love alive," and who are we to disagree with a French film diva? Now, we may not be in Paris, but there are still plenty of places in town where you can schedule an amorous assignation with that hot and bothered hometown honey of yours. However, if we're doing the picking, there's going to be some Indian food involved before, after, or (if we're feelin' kinky) during. When we're ready for a little afternoon delight, we book a room at the Best Western on Central, just down from Burton Barr Library. Not only are the rooms recently refurbished and affordable, but the hotel harbors the only Indian joint in the vicinity, Downtown Curry and Grill, run by the ever-affable Prem Tamang, a Nepalese fellow whose first name means "love" in his native tongue. (How appropriate!) Tamang's restaurant is outfitted like any other hotel eatery, with no outward signs to betray its secret passion: some of the tastiest Indian treats this side of New Delhi.

Unless you ask for the Indian menu, the server may bring you the American one, which offers the standard burgers, fries and tuna melts. But it's Downtown Curry's savory samosas, chicken tikka masala, and mango lassis that'll fuel the fires of your sultry sexcapades.

For dessert, try the ultimate Indian aphrodisiac -- small, round auburn confections that Tamang likes to call "camel balls." More formally, they're known as lal mohan, and taste like doughnut holes drenched in syrup, unless camel balls are actually a lot sweeter than we imagine.

There are a lot of great happy hour specials in town, like the free popcorn at the Cork and Snort, or the two-for-one Manischewitz Mondays at Morrie's Hooch-House in Tempe. But we have to admit, Eddie Matney's takes the concept to a whole different level, which may be why it's so difficult to squeeze into the bar/lounge area of the popular eatery at the intersection of 24th Street and Camelback.

First off, Eddie's is home of the "nonstop happy hour," so happy hour prices prevail as long as you're in the bar. And as far as drinks go, featured wines, cosmos, lemon drop martinis and appletinis are just $4, with all well drinks $3. But what Eddie's is known for are its appetizers, often inspired by the Lebanese heritage of Matney himself, and as part of this reverse happy hour, these tantalizing delicacies are offered at reduced prices. Imbibers get to choose from eats such as Matney's mouth-watering sumac grilled lamb chops with mint hummus, his spicy "mo'rockin shrimp" with honey dough balls, the superb Lebanese chicken quesadilla with harissa sauce, or a to-die-for plate of seafood won tons filled with creamy mascarpone served over a raspberry jalapeo dip.

We could go on and on, but when it comes to Matney's marvelous morsels, we'd rather eat than talk. So we'll see you at Eddie's, if we're able to squeeze in.

If you've got spurs that jingle-jangle-jingle, or just a tape of Tex Ritter singing the same, then at some point you should give yourself a treat and ride that horseless carriage of yours up to Tortilla Flat, way up in the Superstition Mountains, where the Superstition Saloon serves Bullrider Burgers, Killer Chili and bread bowls filled with beans, cheese and salsa. Eating at the bar means sitting on a stool outfitted with a saddle, drinking your Amber Bock draft in a Mason jar, and checking out the thousands of autographed dollar bills, pound notes and francs that paper the establishment, left behind by the 300,000-plus visitors per year. Tortilla Flat is an actual town with six residents and a post office, and it sits on the site of a former stagecoach stop on the historic Apache Trail.

In addition to the saloon, there's a gift shop and a general store that sells homemade ice cream and fudge. But after that dusty, winding trek from Phoenix on Highway 60, past Apache Junction, up State Route 88 with gleaming Canyon Lake and sheer cliffs of red rock for scenery, nothing will taste as good on the back of your throat as that draft brew in a jar. Yippie yi-yay, indeed.

Jackie Mercandetti Photo
Dining at a restaurant table by yourself is a foolish exercise; eating at the bar is cool, and nowhere is it cooler than at Tarbell's. With a long, graceful curve, the bar is staffed by a friendly crew that appear to have no life of their own. The same folks are always on hand offering seemingly effortless service. The menu is both reliable and first-rate, and if you are there for more than 20 minutes, you will meet the owner.

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