Tarbell's
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
There are plenty of fine tables around the dining room at Tarbell's, but we come here just for the fun of eating rock shrimp ceviche or Scotch beef sliders at the bar. It's a long, lovely swoop of glossy blond wood, the perfect vantage point for the bustling, open kitchen. Service at Tarbell's is friendly and attentive (our wine glass never goes empty when we're perched on one of the streamlined bar chairs), no doubt inspired by personable chef-owner Mark Tarbell's example. Sooner or later, we inevitably get a visit from him, and no, we're not all that special — he makes everybody feel like a million bucks. Since Tarbell's appearance on The Food Network's Iron Chef America earlier this month, we're worried that we'll have a hard time getting in here, kind of like when Oprah turned the nation's attention to Pizzeria Bianco. But that's okay. While Tarbell basks in the attention, we're happy to stake out our rightful place at the bar.

BEST PLACE TO MAKE YOURSELF AT HOME

Palatte

We're not exactly sure when it started, but cute eateries setting up shop in old homes is a full-on phenomenon in central Phoenix. Coronado Café, Lisa G Wine Bar, Fate, Cibo, The Roosevelt Tavern — they're all unique spots made even more appealing by the charming structures that house them. The latest to join in on this downtown trend is Palatte, a new breakfast and lunch destination that opened this summer in the William E. Cavness house. Constructed in 1914, the historically designated building has been beautifully maintained, such a rarity in a city where old and quirky places don't often avoid the wrecking ball. Whether we're feasting on scrambled eggs and griddle cakes in what we imagine is the old living room, or nibbling on a tart out on the patio, we can't help but think that spots like this are the perfect antidote to strip mall fatigue.
Kai
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
For über-foodies turned on by menus with highly unusual combinations of exotic ingredients, Kai is a gourmet mecca. Executive chef Michael O'Dowd and chef de cuisine Jack Strong masterfully combine familiar haute cuisine elements like foie gras, fennel pollen, and lobster tail with things you've probably never eaten, or even heard of — cholla buds, huitlacoche mojo, toasted saguaro seeds, and nopalitos are just a few of the ingredients that'll fire up your imagination (or maybe make you wish you'd brought a dictionary). Indeed, the descriptions of each dish can veer into the esoteric, but, rest assured, it's all delicious. Tres Pescado Ceviche — presented with a flourish of mesquite smoke — makes a memorable appetizer, and juicy grilled buffalo tenderloin with smoked corn purée is just one of the inventive, Native American-inspired entrees. Even the cocktail menu plays with the concept, from the spicy, lemony Skocu Thu (with ancho chile) to the fragrant mesquite bean martini. By the end of the meal, desserts like Mexican chocolate soufflé with wattleseed crme anglaise hit the sweet spot between high-concept and primal satisfaction. A few bites into it, when your foodie friends sigh softly and get a faraway look in their eyes, take it as a sign of approval.
Quiessence Restaurant
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
These days, hardly a restaurant opens up without some fanfare about its local organic produce or seasonal dishes. That's great and all — the more the merrier, when it comes to sourcing great ingredients — but still, we know a trend when we see it.

At Quiessence, though, they don't just talk the talk. They walk the walk every single day, when chef de cuisine Greg LaPrad and sous chef Anthony Andiario put their heads together and come up with a new menu that makes the best use of the freshest produce, seafood, and meats. That means organic vegetables grown right next door, at Maya's at the Farm, meats from local herdsmen, and other ingredients from Phoenix purveyors. Both LaPrad and Andiario have spent time working in Italy, where the Slow Food Movement was founded, so they're huge believers in the philosophy behind the food. On any given day, the menu might feature braised pork tenderloin with roasted peppers and wilted mizuna; buckwheat tagliatelle with duck confit, fava beans and sage; or pan-seared sole with shrimp, baby fennel, and sweet potatoes. More likely, you won't find any of the above due to the truly seasonal menu, but you get the picture. Housemade charcuterie, pâtés, and salads are ever-changing as well.

The beautiful thing about Quiessence, aside from the pastoral setting, is how it never gets old. We can't think of anywhere else in Phoenix where repeat visits are such a pleasure.

Skye
Courtesy of Skye
Wanna score major brownie points with Mom? Don't bother tattooing her name on your arm. Instead, take her out for dinner and dancing at Skye. This high-end, high-profile addition to the West Side dining scene — a cross between swanky supper club and disco inferno — attracts hungry patrons of all ages. But take one look around and it's pretty obvious: Baby boomers rule the roost. In the spacious main dining room, there's almost always a live band or solo artist performing Top 40 songs from Mom's heyday, and the decent-sized dance floor can get pretty lively when it's time to do the Electric Slide. Check out the scene as you settle into a cozy booth, and then listen to Mom ooh and aah over the menu. Executive chef Scott Tompkins' contemporary American fare includes classic appetizers such as shrimp cocktail and fried calamari, a fine selection of prime steaks, fresh seafood dishes, and specialties like succulent veal scallopine and juicy, pan-seared pork chops with sage and prosciutto cream sauce. And don't forget to order a round of cocktails — there's no better way to make Mom feel like a carefree dancing queen again.
The Brooklyn Cafe
Jackie Mercandetti
Grandma won't dig the edgy places young whipper-snappers like you usually frequent, and she probably won't be into the boomer-centric spots where you take Mom for a night out. Nope, she wants to dine on her terms — someplace elegant, someplace old school (your words, not hers), and preferably someplace French. Good thing there's Voltaire, a classic French restaurant that has a timeless, genteel atmosphere, polite (but not pretentious) service, and meticulously prepared cuisine. And although it attracts a well-heeled, older crowd — which will make Grandma feel right at home — we're pretty sure that outstanding onion soup (made with veal stock), tender steak au poivre, and crepes Suzette, flambéed tableside, will appeal to foodies of all generations. Sure, Grandma will love it, but so will you. Might as well bring Mom along for brownie points.
Mel's Diner
Small-town transplants and big-city East Coasters with a jones for a basic, cheap eatery serving heaping plates of food should hightail it down to Mel's Diner. The old-school establishment, located along an industrial strip of Grand Avenue, serves super-tasty breakfast all day and choice burgers and chicken-fried cuisine in the afternoons.

And a healthy dose of nostalgia, if the '70s and '80s count.

The opening credits and choice inside scenes for Alice — the successful sitcom that ran from 1976 to 1985, chronicling a Hollywood hopeful forced to take a waitress job at a diner after her car breaks down in Phoenix — were filmed inside Mel's.

The spot retains that no-nonsense charm, complete with a Mel Sharples-type character in the form of foul-mouthed Frank, a busboy who will begrudgingly pour you bottomless cups of coffee. Just don't smile too much because he'll wipe that grin right off with a verbal slap across the piehole.

Wrigley Mansion
Unless you're John-Boy Walton or Martha Stewart — or a glutton for emotional punishment — you're probably ambivalent about Thanksgiving. There's that enforced familial interaction (blah) and the infernal "dead turkey clock" that keeps ticking off the passing years. For example, if you've only eaten 10 birds, you're probably safe for a while longer — yet there's that yawning eternity of Thanksgivings looming ahead. If you're 75, you're reached the downhill slope of the turkey hump, but the Grim Reaper is sharpening his scythe.

Death by gobbler is gonna get you either way, so why not go out in style? The Wrigley's annual Thanksgiving feast is style personified. Get a load of these offerings from last year's menu: baby lamb chops with a mint glaze and grilled salmon with a roasted red pepper coulis. Even the turkey — slathered with cranberry chutney — is life-affirming. What price mental health? A mere $27.50 to $55, which we'd consider cheap at twice the price.

Richardson's of New Mexico
Now that you can't smoke in bars anymore, you can actually taste the food at Richardson's. Honestly, we're pretty sure it was always kick-ass, but up until this smoking ban thing kicked in, the closer you got to the bar, the more your enchiladas had to compete with the smell of ashtray. Richardson's drew a hard-smokin', hard-partyin' crowd whose heyday was the mid-'80s and usually looked like they stepped out of an episode of The Rockford Files. Nothing wrong with that, of course, unless you're not as inured to cancer-wand discharge as the Saturday Night Fever set. Because smokers now have to take it outside, the air is clean, save for the vague aroma of Hai Karate from the 50-something next to you. And your palate is finally free from the ravages of secondhand Pall Malls. So, thanks to government fiat, Richardson Browne's New Mexico-styled nook is the coolest place to eat at the bar in the PHX, not to mention drink. And if there happens to be an urban cougar on the prowl nearby, you'll actually be able to see her MILF-y, saline-enhanced, fortysomething curves, without having to strain through the fog of countless lit coffin nails.
Consider us impressed. We always thought that kids and a nice meal were like water and oil, but somehow Madelyn's has managed to pull off a classy restaurant where kids are graciously accommodated, but where grown-ups can still enjoy a sophisticated night out, feasting on chef-owner Brian Ford's contemporary American cuisine, including Zinfandel-braised beef short ribs and herbed pappardelle pasta. Make no mistake — this is an upscale neighborhood bistro not especially geared toward children. Still, each time we've been here, we noticed a few families seated amid the otherwise adult-filled dining room, which makes sense in the family-friendly enclave of Anthem. Props go to the parents of those well-behaved youngsters, but also to the thoughtful waitstaff, who managed to make even the littlest patrons feel welcome.

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