Zoe's Kitchen
In our house, grandma is GaGa, and she's best known for her brisket. We're not sure who YaYa is, the name behind Zoës' delicious chocolate cake, but that's enough for us. There's nothing fancy about YaYa's Homemade Chocolate Sheet Cake, and that's the way we like it. This chocolate cake with chocolate icing tastes like you baked it yourself with some help from another famous lady named Betty -- but way better. Creamier, richer, more chocolaty. We're grateful for YaYa's chocolate cake, and more than that, we're grateful that rather than brisket, Zoës' main course consists mainly of chicken and salad, so we can justify dessert.
Cowboy Ciao Wine Bar & Grill
Heather Hoch
The folks at Cowboy Ciao are good cooks and good writers. Their menu is a work of art, with funny quotes from customers ("Sprinkle my ashes over Cowboy Ciao"), thorough descriptions (the Buffalo Carpaccio is rubbed with espresso and cumin) and creative names (an octopus/spinach mix is called the Big Biceps Salad).

But no name, no description, can do justice to our favorite dessert at this cowboy-chic spot. The menu dutifully lists the ingredients of the Cuppa Red Hot Chocolate: cinnamon-spiked chocolate pot de crème with chipotle crema, ancho chile honey, and cayenne-spiked ginger cookie. But nothing will prepare you for the impossibly thick chocolate (custard, pudding, mousse? We're at a loss, but it's the richest chocolate you'll ever taste) beneath a foam of what looks like the top of a cappuccino. Put a bite in your mouth and you'll immediately taste the cinnamon, then the chocolate, then a hard kick from the chipotle.

We give up. We can't describe the experience. You'll just have to trust us. Try it, and you'll be at a loss for words yourself, trying to explain to friends and family why they absolutely must run over to Cowboy Ciao for, um, a cup of hot chocolate.

BEST REASON TO GO OUT IN YOUR JAMMIES

Cereality

Thanks to local entrepreneur David Roth and his pal Rick Bacher, your inner child need never go hungry again. The duo last year launched Cereality, a Tempe-based cereal bar that allows the fourth grader in you to mix Sugar Smacks with Fruity Pebbles and call it dinner; to feast (in public!) on Frankenberry sopped with chocolate milk. Cereality turned a profit just two months after opening its flagship in ASU's Memorial Union, then launched plans for a nationwide chain (they've opened stores in Chicago and Philadelphia thus far) devoted to pushing Post Toasties topped with all manner of sugary crap -- candy, yogurt-covered nuts, even other cereals -- served up all day long by pajama-clad counter help called "cereologists." We like that there's a place we can go to order Grape Nuts topped with Gummi worms, and are especially proud to tell people that such a place originated here in the Valley. Then again, where else?
Matt's Big Breakfast
Matt's Big Breakfast
Matt's Big Breakfast serves a big-tasting breakfast in a sweet, sunny little diner, and if you don't time it right, you'll have to wait for a table. But it's worth it for the thick (yet still crispy) bacon alone; you might also want to sample the fresh orange juice, omelets and whole-wheat toast while you're there. The coffee's strong, and so is the chance you'll run into someone you know -- this has become downtown Phoenix's hipster hangout for the morning meal. If you can't stand that, stay away from Matt's kitchen. If that doesn't bother you, stick around -- Matt serves breakfast 'til 2 p.m., and at lunchtime, you can get a great Cobb salad.
We know, we know -- we're supposed to boycott chain restaurants. But when we're looking for lunch downtown, pardon us if we cheat a little, and head straight to il Palazzetto at the America West Arena. To all the members of Arizona's Chain Reaction: Save the hot air for your next balloon ride. See, this bright, elegant Italian grill, with its flawless service and satisfying eats, is part of Chicago-based Levy Restaurants, with 25 eateries nationwide. Levy restaurants are known for their quality, and il Palazzetto is no exception. We dig their traditional pizzas, panini and insalatas, as well as lip-smackin' entrees like spaghetti and meatballs, braciole alla pizzaiola (beef sirloin slices with both Alfredo and pomodoro sauces) and orecchiette con salsiccia (ear-shaped pasta with sausage and mushrooms in pomodoro). Here at last is one place in downtown proper where you won't be ashamed to take an out-of-town client. That is, without driving all the way down Central Avenue to Durant's. And if ACR can't hack it, let 'em eat cake -- or, in this case, tiramisu.
Lon's at the Hermosa
Jackie Mercandetti
For us, the best Sunday brunch is enjoyed at the table, with the food coming to us. Buffets are so much work. We'd rather relax in a beautiful setting with strong coffee and fresh juice. That's why our favorite place to brunch is Lon's, where we feel like we've been invited to dine with good friends -- who happen to be good cooks with impeccable taste. Lon's is in one of the most beautiful settings in town (you'll feel far out of town, in fact, when you enter the grounds), and the food is equally lovely. Dishes like eggs Megargee (poached eggs on wood-grilled natural beef steak and English muffin with grilled tomatoes, asparagus and smoked chile hollandaise) are served family-style at the table, so you can graze without getting up. Or try the warm cornmeal griddle cake with hazelnuts and sun-dried cranberries with huckleberry sauce. Not as hungry? You can order a bagel with cream cheese and smoked salmon. Your food will still come with a lovely setting on the side.
House of Tricks
Timur Guseynov
A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou patio, House of Tricks. That's all we ask. Well, you might want to throw in a field green salad with beets and a Dijon sherry vinaigrette alongside the basket of bread and bottle of wine (from a fine selection). And the coriander-crusted rack of lamb with serrano-mint syrup and pear salsa's not bad. We know we're making this place sound super-fancy, but you can show up in shorts and no one will blink. Instead, you'll be treated to the best seat in the house -- on the pretty brick patio (you can sit inside in shorts, too, but trust us), beneath a maze of grapevines, outside the 1920s bungalow that House of Tricks has called home since the late 1980s. We also like to call the outdoor bar home -- a lovely tile-covered affair with high, comfortable stools and wonderful cocktails.

This is one of the few spots in town where you'll find us outdoors in summer, under the twinkly lights, drinking a cold glass of Chardonnay.

Different Pointe of View
Patricia Escarcega
It goes without saying that the view, like real estate, depends upon location, location, location. It also goes without saying that most businesses that invest in the view don't have enough money left to invest in the food.

Such is not the case with Different Pointe of View, located on top of an 1,800-foot mountain just north of Thunderbird Road. You can enjoy this spectacular outlook while sampling from a wine cellar stocked with a mere 86,000 bottles; more than 800 different wines are carried on the menu. Chef Ivan Flowers runs a kitchen that keeps pace nicely with the staggering alcoholic assemblage.

Bonus points if you can name the star witness in the state's most infamous corruption trial who was involved in a fatal car accident exiting the restaurant.

The Ritz-Carlton, Phoenix
Courtesy of Bistro 24
We are certain we detect just the hint of an English accent when we speak to Jeffrey Hattrick, the Tea Maître d' (yes, there is such a thing) at the Ritz. But Hattrick cheerfully admits that he hails from Portland, Oregon. No matter, we'd let him read our leaves any day -- he clearly knows his way around the tea pot. In fact, Hattrick tells us, he heads up tea service for the entire Ritz-Carlton chain. Lucky us. We put ourselves in Hattrick's capable hands, and he pours a lovely Earl Grey Supreme (plain old Earl Grey is clearly not good enough for the Ritz!).

We lean back into the comfortable lobby couches at the Ritz, and sip. Then we pig out. Er, we mean nibble. We promise, after Jeffrey's tea we will never make fun of a cucumber sandwich again. Now we understand that whole lemon curd thing. And we will never forget the pastries, nor the chocolate dipped strawberries.

Sated, we sink back into the pillows and sip more tea, our reverie broken when Jeffrey politely clears his throat to announce the presence of a birthday girl in the lobby and then launches into song.

What a tea party!

C-Fu Gourmet
Under the best possible circumstances, dining out with kids is enough to send you to bed for the night with a very, very bad headache. We have developed a close, personal relationship with Easy Mac, Kraft's foolproof (as long as you nuke the noodles, not the cheese powder -- true story) mac 'n' cheese. But mom and dad cannot live by faux-cheese noodles alone, and baby sitters are expensive. So sometimes we venture out, Tylenol waiting by the bed.

On such evenings, we're grateful to the very kind staff at C-Fu Gourmet. The cavernous hall of a restaurant is a great spot for dim sum, and an even better place to let the kids run (almost) free. From the fish tanks in the front to the generally empty sections in the back, this is a place where kids definitely feel like members of the family.

You won't find mac 'n' cheese or chicken nuggets on this expansive menu, but what kid doesn't like to cover herself in white rice, or slurp egg drop soup? Speaking of slurping, we've had many fun family contests, slurping lo mein noodles at C-Fu, and as long as you pad the tip a little, no one will mind the mess you leave behind.

Best Of Phoenix®

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