Okay. So you've just moved to Phoenix, and you want to know where the action is. Or you've just moved back here after a decade away, and you're in search of a cool coffee house and an authentic taco stand in your part of town. You know the sweet life is out there, somewhere — but where? Look no further than www.cenpho.com, which claims to be a directory to bars and restaurants in the cenpho (that's Central Phoenix, natch, defined by the cenpho folks as "the area from Glendale Road to Broadway Road, and 20th Street to 20th Avenue"), but actually one we've come to rely on for all things hip and happening. We found links to our fave new pita place; a list of cool neighborhoods where we should be living; and even a directory of well-regarded local dentists. Cenpho.com also turned us on to some better modern architecture blogs and filled us in on locally published magazines and newspapers and what we can expect to find in them. We found the site's list of bars where smokers are still welcome to be indispensable, and so now, if you'll excuse us, we're going to go light up and order a mojito at our favorite new nightclub. Thanks, Cenpho!
If you've ever wondered where most of the people are heading when they're heading downtown, chances are it's toward Fifth Street in the Evans-Churchill Neighborhood. While the block-long stretch of road between Roosevelt and Garfield Streets has always been popular with the masses on First Friday and other big nights, the area has gotten even more crowded in recent months because of a few additions to its palette of groovy galleries, boutiques, and art hangouts. Along with stopping by such mainstays as MADE art boutique, Route 123, and the Longhouse, art lovers of every stripe — be they tattooed punkers, scruffy college kids, or more serious collectors — have been visiting lavish wine-and-beer joint The Lost Leaf (run by the boys behind jazz trio Sonorous) as well as oddball painter Michael Little's bizarre new pad IN Gallery, and Derrick Pacheco's funky HoodRide Bodega (which hosts DJs and live bands). The other streets downtown better get their acts together, because Fifth Street is getting all the love.
Cindy Gentry's a mover and shaker, but only in the best use of the term — no bone-crushing handshakes or slaps on the back from this lady. Two years ago, Gentry started the Downtown Phoenix Public Market, which turned an empty lot near First Street and McKinley into a bustling Farmers Market. Thanks to her tireless efforts, Saturday-morning shoppers find a variety of locally sourced items — root beer, olive oil, flowers, and handcrafted goods — while stocking up on locally raised produce. Later this year, the Downtown Public Market moves into a permanent structure, adjacent to its current location, and will be open six days a week. For that, we'll gladly shake her hand.
Great Arizona Puppet Theater
In recent months, we've heard about at least two local historic Mormon churches abandoned to the bulldozers. That makes us more grateful than ever to the Great Arizona Puppet Theater, and the folks who restored it. If you watch HBO's Big Love, you might think some sort of divine intervention (or at least comic relief) led to a group of people who pull a lot of strings coming to own the former Second Ward Chapel of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but really, all it took was good taste and patience. The puppeteers waited for years for the state (which bought the building in 1972, intending to raze it for the I-10; luckily, historic preservation laws prevented that) to finally fork over the 1932 relic, then spent more time on the renovation.

We recommend you take in a puppet show — all the details of the current season are posted on the theater's Web site — but if you don't have time for that, you should really pop your head in sometime. The decorative ceiling panels in the Spanish colonial revival style, almost completely ruined by leaks and lack of maintenance, were restored by a muralist/scene painter (those puppeteers have good connections), and the entire complex has the kind of 1930s throwback vibe you feel all the time in southern California — and so rarely here in Phoenix.

BEST CORPORATE HEADQUARTERS TO POKE YOUR HEAD INTO

Empire Southwest

Empire Southwest
What? Heavy machinery as art? In a building off the 60, in Mesa? Trust us. Empire's HQ is way cool, using construction-related materials from copper ore rock mulch (trucked in from a client's mine) to "sheep's foot compactor drums," placed sideways on stone pillars to mimic Stonehenge. From the salvaged bulldozer stabilizer arms (now supporting a garden awning) to the antique bulldozer (now under glass, beneath the floor of the conference room), it all sounds like too much, but it works, somehow, particularly when you enter the concrete-hued (with a touch of Caterpillar yellow) lobby and check out the history on display. Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither was metropolitan Phoenix — and the Whiteman family, owner of Empire, has had a lot to do with the latter. It was gracious of them (and not surprising — they're wonderful philanthropists) to create such an intriguing monument to their industry and to the Valley.

BEST BUILDING WE CAN'T WAIT TO POKE OUR HEADS INTO

Tempe Center for the Arts

Tempe Center for the Arts
From the outside, it looks like a spaceship, but the buzz around town is that the new Tempe Center for the Arts is out of this world. The building is so new that as of press time, there hadn't yet been a formal performance, and we couldn't find a parking spot for the family preview day. But we heard from folks who were there that they are truly impressed with the facilities — both inside and out — which feature small and large auditoriums, a sculpture garden, and plenty of space to display art of the non-performing variety. And these are people who are hard to impress. Watch out, Scottsdale and Mesa, or it'll be curtains for your own facilities. We can't wait to get our butt in a seat, front-row center.
Pei Wei Asian Diner
Courtesy Pei Wei
Warning: What you are about to read might be very upsetting. If you are faint of heart or have an unnatural obsession with meaningless, ugly Phoenix buildings, please move on to the next category.

We love the new Pei Wei/Starbucks compound at Seventh Avenue and McDowell. There. We said it.

Now let us explain. For months, we avoided the corner. We knew the beloved Emerald Lounge (really, more of a light green shack, if a shack can be made of slump block) was gone, with a couple of nasty chains erected in its place, and frankly, we just didn't want to have to look. But then we met up for dinner with a dear friend who lives a stone's throw away, and we had to sit in the parking lot for a few minutes, first, to compose ourselves. It was shock and awe, but not the bad kind. We were thrilled. Finally, a sign of urban civilization, a corner in Phoenix holding something other than a Circle K. (Don't worry, the one across the street is still there.)

We never expected a Pei Wei could look so hip, so, well, San Francisco (okay, you have to squint, but relatively speaking, you've got to admit that we're right). But with all the corrugated steel and urban-y architecture — and then the exposed brick, painted cement floors, and airy spaces inside — we have to tell you we were darn impressed. We figure somewhere at Pei Wei HQ there's a big notebook filled with prototypical Pei Weis — you know, the strip mall Pei Wei, the stand-alone urban Pei Wei. That means there are plans to put Pei Weis on urban corners all over North America.

Maybe we've lost perspective, maybe we're desperate, but we don't care. Give us our brown rice, chicken with broccoli, and a bottomless Diet Coke, and let us hang out a little longer, acting all urban and shit. We just hope Pei Wei plunks one of these suckers on a corner at 12th Street and Jefferson. But not the southeast corner, 'kay?

Bragg's Pie Factory
Anyone who wants to argue that the downtown arts scene isn't going anywhere can just shut their pie hole, after the first Friday in September. That's the night that Beatrice Moore and Tony Zahn opened their newest building to the public, for a sneak preview. The 15,000-square-foot Bragg's Pie Factory is quiet and cavernous, the walls a bright white, and metal work in the high ceilings painted in pastel shades (a Beatrice Moore signature touch, no doubt). But give them some time, and La Melgosa will make this section of Grand Avenue rock. A cafe is already slated to open (with talk of a farmers market) and there will be several retail spaces (an architect and graphic designer have signed up) and room for plenty more. We're delighted Moore/Zahn fought to get their hands on the building — they're the guardian angels of Grand, and we hope they never give up the fight to preserve and celebrate the down-and-dirty 'hood that has slowly become home to more galleries and nightspots, and that they show a lot of love to the wonderful, creative tenants they already have. (We're watching!) On the same evening as the Bragg's preview, the city officially celebrated the decision to (finally) allow on-street parking on Grand. We can't wait to see what sort of "Best of" we can give Bragg's Pie Factory next year.
If you've lived in Phoenix for any substantial amount of time, you've witnessed an overabundance of strip malls.

Don't hate them; they're a way of life. We must love them, coddle them, and appreciate strip malls for all the glorious things they can offer.

Too much effort for you? That may change with the help of Sloane McFarland, who has decided to spend $12 million to rip one of those drab suckers apart and build something fabulous. He's revamping the strip mall on 16th Street and Buckeye, and unveiled his plans in style this past May by opening the decrepit structure for curious guests to explore.

The redevelopment will be called Yourtown, and in each space, McFarland worked with colleagues to create art installations to express what his future plans will bring. Various abandoned retail shops were filled with conceptual evidence of planning that we are anxious to see come to fruition. In the space that used to be a flower shop, piles of ground coffee were dumped on the floor, emitting the pungent odor of what will soon surely be the hottest coffee shop in the area. (Or any part of this town, we dare say.) We look forward to what this local pioneer has to offer, and after his work is done, we may see our strip malls in a whole new light. At the very least, we'll have a cool new hangout.

Phil Gordon doesn't have the best taste in town. That honor goes to his wife, Christa Severns. So maybe she's the one who decided the mayor should set up his re-election shop in the former 307, a one-time transvestite bar just east of the way-cool monOrchid gallery that has stood largely empty for years. We're not too interested in the ghosts of drag queens past; what we really dig is a mural stretching across one wall, painted by none other than Ted DeGrazia. You may not recognize the name, but you've seen DeGrazia's images of sad little Indian — or are they Mexican? — children. DeGrazia's dead, so we can't ask him (nor can we ask him if it's true he painted the mural to settle a bar tab), but there's a big show of his work up for the next several months at the DeGrazia Gallery of the Sun in Tucson — go to www.degrazia.org for details. As for Mayor Phil, we think it's sort of silly that he bothered to open a re-election HQ at all. Maybe he just wanted to look at that cool mural. Can't blame him. In any case, we're glad an elected official paid some attention to a cool old building, even if he hasn't provided the leadership — so far — to make sure the downtown art scene really thrives. You got four more years, Phil. Do it for Ted.

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