Atlas Bistro
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

Here's a concept we wish we'd thought of: a BYOB restaurant with a wine shop right next door. The folks at Atlas Bistro really figured out a clever way to keep wine lovers happy. Who needs a wine list, anyway, when customers can browse the well-stocked aisles at AZ Wine Co.? The two businesses are actually connected by a doorway, so you can peruse the menu and check in with the hostess, shop for a bottle, and then settle in for a memorable dinner. True to the jet-setting connotation of the restaurant's name, Atlas chefs Brandon Crouser and Joshua Riesner create contemporary dishes with influences that are all over the culinary map, such as veal sweetbreads saltimbocca-style, or ginger duck breast with Grana Padana mushroom risotto and red wine hibiscus reduction. Sophisticated cuisine calls for stellar wines, and at Atlas Bistro, there's no shortage of those.

Razz's Restaurant & Bar

Chef-owner Erasmo "Razz" Kamnitzer is one of the best reasons to dine at his eponymous restaurant — that is, if you can get a coveted seat at the bar. If not, you're still in for a stellar meal, with polished service in a relaxed, classy setting. But snagging one of those bar seats, where you can get a full view into Kamnitzer's bustling open kitchen, is a total score. Watch the chef and his staff stir, slice, and sauté while you sit back, sip a nice glass of wine, and enjoy the show. Of course, when your meal comes, expect to be distracted by mouthwatering creations like crispy veal sweetbreads, alluring ceviche in a tangy tomato-lime-vegetable sauce, and splurge-worthy crespelles filled with chicken, cheese, mushrooms, and spinach.

If there's a momentary lull, don't be surprised when the charming chef comes over to chat — he'll make you feel like a million bucks. It's no wonder Razz's regulars are so fanatical about this place.

Best Place to Dine with the Beautiful People

Canal

At certain restaurants, sometimes the scene is just as delicious as the cuisine. That's definitely the case at über-chic Canal, one of the fine-dining establishments at the upscale SouthBridge development. Nope, we won't set foot in this place on a bad hair day — not when the rest of the crowd's so dolled-up. The dimly lit bar area attracts a youthful, good-looking bunch dressed in slinky attire, while the main dining room seems to draw its share of sugar daddies and stiletto-shod cougars on the prowl for young meat.

If you can manage to take your eyes off the action, you'll notice that chef Justin Beckett turns out some fine dishes, such as grilled lamb chops with minted couscous, sweet corn cakes with avocado salad, and "ahi three-ways," which we think might be some kind of sexy subliminal message. High-fashion images projected on enormous screens and an illuminated catwalk in the middle of the room scream "style" at full blast, while throbbing beats coming from the DJ booth suggest something more primal. At Canal, we sense there's more to lust after than just the food.

We've been infatuated with this classy neighborhood Italian restaurant from our very first bite of gnocchi draped in pesto cream sauce. Food like that makes us fall in love, fast. But there's something else that's endearing about Aiello's — the personal service. This is a family operation, and it shows, especially when chef-owner Joe Aiello makes his rounds in the dining room.

We've never been here when he didn't step out of the kitchen to schmooze with regulars and dote on first-timers. He's a larger-than-life personality, and he likes to keep his customers fat and happy. His wife, Myrah, is an equally welcoming hostess, sometimes stopping by each table to let diners pick a chance to win a free dinner. Yep, these folks will do anything to keep you coming back — although in truth, the food alone is enough to get us in the door.

Tarbell's
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

Loyal fans of Iron Chef America can call us out on this one: Technically, chef Mark Tarbell isn't an Iron Chef. That title is reserved for the handful of regulars who do battle against a constant onslaught of culinary challengers on the popular Food Network show.

Only a year ago, Tarbell himself made an appearance, going up against Iron Chef Cat Cora in a high-stakes cook-off where the key ingredient was apples. And guess what? He won. Since the show's airing, Tarbell hasn't ditched Phoenix to gallivant around the country and leave his kitchen in other hands. He's stayed put at his restaurant — right where he's always been, and right where regulars expect him to be. You see, Tarbell's way too sociable to step out of the limelight at his namesake restaurant, where locals flock to dine on upscale comfort food like double-cut pork chops with white cheddar polenta cakes, pan-roasted organic chicken with buttermilk mashed potatoes, and Mark's Famous Spaghetti & Meatballs.

The fact that Tarbell is Phoenix's own Iron Chef makes the dining experience that much tastier.

Ever heard the phrase "Think Globally, Act Locally"? Turns out it applies to eating, too. Somebody even coined a word for people who consume foods that were produced close to home — say, within a 50- or 100-mile radius: locavores. The motivations behind it run the gamut from environmental friendliness (less fuel used to transport the food) to culinary superiority (as in, this stuff tastes better and is more healthful because it's fresher and in season). Either way, who are we to argue? After all, "locavore" was the New Oxford Dictionary's Word of the Year for 2007. It also happens to be the name of the fantastic dinner series started up by chef James Porter of Tapino Kitchen & Wine Bar. Focusing on using only Arizona ingredients, Porter cooks up multi-course feasts paired with Arizona wines. As a special perk, guests get to actually mingle with the local farmers, ranchers, and producers whom Porter supports. Even better, extra-motivated types can visit a local farm a few days before the event to help pick out the veggies. Needless to say, these Locavore dinners have become quite popular with the sustainability-conscious gourmet crowd, which tells us there must be something to that whole notion of "local tastes better."

Cibo Urban Pizzeria
Jacob Tyler Dunn

There's a reason Cibo feels so homey that we hardly want to leave — like so many of central Phoenix's neatest restaurants, it's situated in a renovated historic bungalow. From wood floors to a cozy layout, this place has a warmth and character that make it the perfect place to share an intimate meal with close friends. Owners Tony and Karen Martingiglio and their son Michael welcome guests as if they were family, and chef Guido Saccone's Italian cooking inspires good cheer, too. What's not to love about organic salads and rustic antipasti, flavorful pizzas from a wood-fired oven, and crepes for dessert? Try it for yourself, and you might wish you could move in, too.

Elements

If you're going to get your mojo working, it helps to have a sexy setting. At elements, the fine-dining spot at Sanctuary on Camelback, every aspect of the restaurant seems designed to conjure up romance, from sleek furnishings and an unforgettably gorgeous view of the surrounding mountains to chef Beau MacMillan's Asian-inflected, seasonal cuisine. Dishes like pan-seared wild salmon with udon noodles, shiitake mushrooms, snap peas, sesame, and ginger are sure to make your loved one's mouth water, while decadent desserts like chai-spiced honey cake and chocolate three-ways will help you leave subliminal messages about what's in store after dinner. And if the aphrodisiac effect of so much wining and dining kicks in too soon, don't worry — this is a resort, after all.

La Piccola Cucina

There are so many different reasons that restaurants can find success, but somehow La Piccola Cucina has achieved a trifecta of good food (homestyle Mediterranean dishes), adorable ambiance (it's in a beautifully restored 1924 house), and personal service. How personal, you ask? Well, chances are, you'll meet owners Andy and Debbie Pappas on your first visit, and they'll go out of their way to treat you right and make you feel like this is where you belong. Debbie, a retired flight attendant, will shower you with motherly attention, whether you're trying to pick a panino or just narrow down your gelato choices. And Andy, a restaurant industry veteran who's also a trained actor, will probably burst into song at some point. Seriously, the guy loves to schmooze, and if he's in a good mood, he might even serenade you. Of course, we crave the delicious, affordable menu here, and the location's close enough to downtown that we can swing a visit on our lunch break. But the Pappases really make La Piccola Cucina a place to love.

The Farm at South Mountain
Courtesy of The Farm

There aren't too many rain days in Phoenix, and the folks who run The Farm at South Mountain take full advantage of that. Except for the hottest stretch of the summer, when they close for three months, Morning Glory Café and The Farm Kitchen are all about dining al fresco and enjoying our abundant sunny days. The former is breakfast-only, with views of Maya's Farm (an on-site organic farm) just beyond the expanse of umbrella tables where customers dig in to French toast, homemade granola, and omelets stuffed with local vegetables. The latter, a shady picnic nook surrounded by lush pecan trees, specializes in gourmet sandwiches, salads, and a tempting display of baked goods, including cookies, cupcakes, and cobblers. Amazingly, this place is convenient to downtown Phoenix and Tempe alike, but it feels as though you're far away from the city. When we need to get away from it all, The Farm is our go-to spot for instant relaxation.

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