BEST NEIGHBORHOOD COFFEE HOUSE, CENTRAL PHOENIX

Willow House

Willow House has been around so long, it arrived before the coffee chains. The good folks of Phoenix continue to support the charming ol' green-roofed home with red trim originally constructed in the early 1900s. On any given eve, the joint is crowded with folks surfing the 'Net on complimentary Wi-Fi, enjoying acoustic singer/songwriter performances during open mic Mondays, or taking in Djentrification's sweet eclectic spins on Wednesday nights. Grub on veggie- and vegan-friendly eats and choose from a variety of coffee drinks and more than 10 David Rio organic teas. It's the kind of place that you remember stumbling upon on one of your bare-bones backpacking trips overseas, since the joint is filled with fliers for local shows, outdoor tables for prime people watching, a little bit of hippie grit, and inner-city charm.

BEST NEIGHBORHOOD COFFEE HOUSE, DOWNTOWN PHOENIX

Royal Coffee Bar

Royal Coffee Bar
With the real deal of a downtown Phoenix seemingly on the horizon, we've been longing (cups in hand) for a friendly java joint. Gloriously, we recently happened onto one just south of Sheriff Joe's empty old jail down on Jackson Street, and have found ourselves returning again and again. Royal is a small operation — a half-dozen chairs, a few cozy, black leather couches, and a couple of tables inside (there's also outdoor seating) on the ground floor of a newly opened apartment complex that seems populated with folks who don't plan on staying there long. An eclectic music mix plays all day. There's free Wi-Fi, certainly another plus. Adorned with colorful, abstract paintings and other locally made art, Royal is a welcoming place, mostly because of co-owner (with her brother) Gwen McNeil, a sassy, smart lady with a long memory for the off-the-wall requests of her many regulars. Gwen wears her feelings on her rolled-up sleeves, and the very idea of having to make a decaffeinated beverage with fat-free milk and a shot of sugar-free vanilla for the odd customer inevitably comes with an extended roll of her large, DeGrazia-like eyes and sad shake of the head. But even those results of her labors are delicious.

BEST NEIGHBORHOOD COFFEE HOUSE, SOUTHEAST VALLEY

Into the Bean

We've been big fans of this small coffee house, located across the street from Mesa Community College, since owner Luis Prado opened his doors in 2004. We dig the place's weird, shabby-chic vibe (including a multitude of Christmas lights and bizarre paintings from local artists) its eclectic baristas, as well as the constant stream of musicians who perform here throughout the week (like outrageous Christian troubadour Paisley Yankolovich and soulful guitarist Paul Raia). But the biggest draw has to be the Bean's line of imaginative signature drinks, like the decadent "Mocha Dong" (a frozen concoction of Hostess Ding-Dongs, chocolate sauce, coffee, caramel, and ice) or the "Rich Wake-Up Call," which consists of a mixture of Red Bull and espresso. We hear the latter is the kinda thing you should down before driving to another state or polishing off War and Peace in one sitting.
Xtreme Bean Coffee Company
Gold Bar? What's that? Oh, yeah, it was the beloved coffee shop that moved out of this former bank building a few years ago. We almost forgot — not because Gold Bar wasn't a great place for hanging out (still is — its new location is down the road at 3141 South McClintock Drive) but because Xtreme Bean was such a fine replacement.

We love the not-too-sweet iced mochas, the perky iced teas and the cappuccinos, which contain the proper ratio of milk foam to espresso. Food offerings are minimal, but we appreciate the more healthful choices they do, like the breakfast of nuts and strawberries.

The ambiance is as good as it gets for a Valley coffee shop. There's free wireless Internet access and plenty of electrical outlets. The place is airy with high ceilings, and natural light falls everywhere but the old bank vault, which is an excellent place to plug in a laptop and get to work. The main area is similar to a nice hotel lobby, and the shop is often crowded, even on weekdays, with groups of people engaged in brainstorming and solitary computer users working on their next unpublishable novel. If Xtreme Bean had beds and cable TV, we'd move in.

Orange Table
Jamie Peachey
The Orange Table has come a long way since its humble beginnings as a cramped coffee shop across the plaza at Scottsdale Center for the Arts, but it's remained true to itself as far as the quality of the coffee it serves. If you order a latte or a cappuccino, you won't get overpriced dishwater, nor will you get a wee Scottsdale portion. The OT's French press, which serves two, is strong and dark, with the faintest hint of spice (cinnamon, maybe?), but don't get the wrong idea — it's just enough warmth to bring out the depth of the robust brew. No "flavored" coffees here, thank you; they take their java the same way they take food and beer: seriously. And while the quality of the art on the walls is, um, variable, it's not the walls you'll be looking at anyway. It's the people — at least when you can take your nose out of that damn fine cup of coffee long enough to look around.
The Mix Shops at SouthBridge
Not since the Galleria opened on the other side of Scottsdale Road has there been such a buzz about a mini-mall in the Valley. That's because Fred Unger — the guy behind the remods of the Royal Palms and Hermosa Inn — is the mastermind behind the explosion of good taste anticipated to open this fall on the south side of the canal that separates Old Town Scottsdale from, for lack of a better geographical description, the land of Scottsdale Fashion Square. Not only will this project unite the two parts of downtown (with a bridge, hence the name), it will feature an array of restaurants (starting with the Dean and Deluca-esque FoodBar, which has already been open awhile) and — and this is where we get all tingly — a bevy of independent boutiques. That's right, independent. You want the Body Shop and Victoria's Secret? Go to Fashion Square. The Mix promises to be all things groovy and classy and clever, and so far, from what we've been hearing on the street, Unger will deliver. He's teamed up with boutique queen Jennifer Croll, and the list of tenants keeps getting longer. We've heard whispers about vintage couture and a candy bar. Our favorite part? We barely recognize a shop name we hear, because none of these is a retail outlet you've already seen in a dozen malls across the country.

We can't wait to get into The Mix.

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