House of Tricks
Timur Guseynov

You won't find any wacky mirrors in this funhouse, although House of Tricks does have a way of skewing one's perspective — in a good way. Once you set foot into the outdoor patio, sheltered by huge leafy trees and decked out with tiny white lights, all feels right with the world. Your mood is bound to improve even more once you find something on the interesting wine list. Inside, the charm of this 1920s cottage starts to work its magic on you, and expert service only heightens the feeling that life is grand, indeed. As for the New American menu — well, that will make you smile, too. Options run the gamut from black tea-spiced ahi tuna to pistachio-crusted rack of lamb to smoked chile-glazed hanger steak. Nope, House of Tricks isn't the typical funhouse. But, hey, it's a restaurant in an old house — and eating here sure is fun.

Thanks to an overzealous dentist and a few mishaps with broken fillings, we were reluctantly forced as children to swear off candy apples, as the sticky-yet-fruity confection murdered the inside of our mouth. And our promise stuck — up until last year, that is, after we started indulging our sweet tooth with the deliciousness of Candy's Apples. More than just dunking the fruit in a hard candy shell, this north Phoenix confectioner takes gigantic Granny Smith apples and covers them with nuts, dollops of caramel, or other sinful substances. There are 10 selections — each weighing 1.5 pounds — to choose from but our favorite, by far, is "The Kum Ba Yah," which features a heaping portion of marshmallows and graham cracker pieces drizzled over with streams of milk chocolate. Another tempting choice is "The Texan," in which the apple is doused in ample amounts of pecans, caramel, and chocolate. We've attempted giving a few of these beauties as gifts to our friends and family, but somehow they've never made it into the hands of our nearest and dearest. Oops.

How do we love Digestif? We'd count the ways, but there are just too many. For starters, there's executive chef Payton Curry, who puts his heart into handmade pasta and housemade charcuterie. There's pastry chef Tracy Dempsey, who had already impressed us at Digestif's sister restaurants (Cowboy Ciao, Kazimierz, and Sea Saw) but now gives us new confections to crave. And how could we forget Pavle Milic, the attentive general manager, who's got more charm in his pinky finger than most people could muster after going through etiquette boot camp? Milic's snazzy old-school absinthe presentation, complete with slotted spoon, sugar cube, and vintage-style water fountain, is worth a visit unto itself. Not that we'd ever dream of coming here and not indulging in the fantastic eats. The delectable "Farm to Table" vegetable plate, the crispy skin duck breast, the chorizo-topped crostata fresh out of the stone hearth oven — it's all good.

Sometimes we come to Digestif just to soak up the laid-back '60s living-room vibe and hip, 21st-century indie-rock soundtrack (courtesy of Stinkweeds' Kimber Lanning), and even then we can't resist noshing on top-notch snacks, from Pecorino cheese to housemade pancetta. And what about drinks? The restaurant is named after a type of European liqueur that's supposed to aid digestion, so thankfully the selection lives up to it. Digestif's craft cocktails rock, and naturally the wine list is mind-blowing. We wouldn't expect anything less from restaurateur/celebrity wino Peter Kasperski, who definitely deserves a toast for this tasty addition to our culinary scene.

Pinnacle Peak Patio
Courtesy of Pinnacle Peak

These days, there aren't too many reminders that Scottsdale is "The West's Most Western Town," a slogan coined by the city's first mayor, Malcolm White, back in 1951. Heck, if it weren't for the lack of an ocean nearby, the glitzy scene in downtown Scottsdale might even pass as Miami or L.A. But there are still remnants of the Old West to be found here, if only in the form of tourist destinations. For proof, head north, young man — waaay north — to Pinnacle Peak Patio, where cowboy nostalgia has been in style since it opened in 1957. The place started out as a general store but has grown into a sprawling eatery where you can dig into a mesquite-smoked steak, knock back a pint of ice-cold Pinnacle Peak Amber Ale (one of the microbrews made on-site), and dance to live country music. Feel free to show up in a Stetson and a sturdy pair of boots, but leave your tie at home, lest it be snipped off and added to the collection hanging from the ceiling as a reminder of the restaurant's "no necktie policy." If you'd heard the desert was harsh, now you'll understand why.

You think it's a hike up to Cave Creek for dinner? Consider that foodies from around the country fly into town just to try chef-owner Kevin Binkley's inventive, French-influenced American cuisine, and then see how you feel about going the extra mile for a top-notch gourmet experience.

Of course, it'll all make sense once you're comfortably seated in the cozy, low-key dining room, sipping on a fantastic wine, enjoying attentive, doting service, and nibbling on a series of surprising amuses bouches between courses. Everything's beautifully presented and crafted from the best ingredients available, from the simplest salad to the most sophisticated seafood dish. Needless to say, it's worth the drive — and it sure beats trekking to New York or San Francisco to eat at other restaurants of this caliber.

Best Local Eatery We're Glad is a Chain

Thai Basil

Thai Basil

What is it in the desert soil that's making Thai Basil flourish? We're not sure, but we suspect it has something to do with locals' taste for fiery food. (Surely you didn't think we limit ourselves to spicy Mexican cuisine, did you?) In just three years, Thai Basil has grown from one modest eatery (a dressed-up former sub shop near ASU) into a burgeoning chain with additional locations in Ahwatukee, Chandler, and central Phoenix. And if you count Thai Elephant, a popular downtown eatery run by the same folks, that makes five restaurants. Obviously, they're doing something right, from friendly service and a clean, cheerful atmosphere to craveable food that haunts you until you give in to another splurge (belly-wise, not budget-wise). We're hooked on the creamy, complex curries, the toothsome pad Thai, and the namesake Thai Basil, with fresh basil, plenty of vegetables, and a choice of meat in a fragrant garlic sauce. Strong, sweet Thai iced tea and sticky rice with ripe mango are essential, too, considering how well they soothe our taste buds after a "Thai hot" meal.

Matt's Big Breakfast
Matt's Big Breakfast

Matt and Erenia Pool, we love you guys. And, boy, we'd love to clone you — or at least your fantastic little, er, big breakfast joint. The buzz on Matt's Big Breakfast has been strong ever since it opened a few years ago, and indeed, there's always been a bit of a wait for a table. The growing popularity of the downtown farmers market, just a block away, has given more exposure to Matt's homey dishes, from perfect, fluffy pancakes to fresh-squeezed local orange juice to savory egg scrambles. And after a visit from the Food Network, which featured Matt's Big Breakfast on an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives earlier this year, the restaurant's hungry customer base blew up into a daily mob. We know Matt's has become a success precisely because it isn't a chain — it's a friendly, family-run spot where food made from scratch, with top-notch ingredients, is always the priority. So perhaps we'll never see a Matt's empire across the Valley — but it's nice to dream, isn't it?

Noca
Evie Carpenter

What happens when a food-obsessed restaurant fanatic teams up with an equally passionate young chef with an impressive résumé? You end up with Noca, one of the most highly anticipated restaurants of 2008. Without a doubt, Eliot Wexler is the city's most tireless gourmet, who not only became a regular at the best dining spots in town but worked a yearlong stint, unpaid, for acclaimed local chef Kevin Binkley — all to quench his thirst for culinary expertise. Wexler's plan to open a restaurant picked up speed when he recruited talented chef Chris Curtiss, who'd worked at some of San Francisco's top-rated restaurants with French Laundry alum Ron Siegel before coming to Phoenix and turning heads at downtown's now-defunct Circa 1900.

Together, Wexler and Curtiss have assembled a staff of seasoned professionals to give their fledgling operation the kind of polish that most newbie restaurateurs would kill for, and they've sourced the best ingredients available, from Bob McClendon's organic produce to fresh seafood from the same supplier that Sea Saw's Nobuo Fukuda uses.

That said, Noca's atmosphere is refreshingly unpretentious, and the ingredient-driven cuisine is far from fussy. In fact, it's playful at times, from the "caviar" of organic eggplant, served out of a caviar tin with warm blinis, to the "milk and cookies" dessert, featuring fresh chocolate chip cookies and a frothy malted vanilla shake. Ultra-fresh crudo dishes and luscious handmade pastas are not to be missed, while the juicy pork chop, paired with crispy, melt-in-your-mouth pork belly, will make you smile from the first bite to the last. Even the Simple Supper, a wallet-friendly three-course tasting menu, is craveworthy. But really, it's no wonder Noca appeals to foodies — it's run by the biggest one of them all.

These days, it's not too hard to come by restaurants that feature some kind of local, seasonal produce, but Slow Food isn't just about an approach to cooking — it's a full-on worldview. So if you're looking for a place to show your favorite Slow Food fanatic a good time, head to Rancho Pinot Grill, where you'll be in like-minded company. After all, chef Chrysa Robertson helped launch the local convivium (in Slow Food-speak, that's the Phoenix chapter of the international organization) and has led the way in celebrating organic ingredients from local sources. Rancho Pinot's menu is both homey and effortlessly sophisticated, with favorites such as ricotta gnocchi with rustic meat sauce, heritage Berkshire pork short ribs braised with hominy, cotija cheese, and radish-cabbage slaw, and grilled lamb chops on flageolet beans with roasted garlic and preserved lemon. Dishes like that are easy to love, no matter what your philosophy.

We'd call this the best wine bar in town, except that Fine's Cellar is so much more than that — it's a casual breakfast and lunch spot, a laid-back espresso and gelato bar, a wine boutique, and a hip bistro all rolled into one. You don't need a single sip of syrah to appreciate chef Cullen Campbell's cooking, but it sure does taste good with a nice glass of vino. Housemade duck confit bratwurst with truffled sauerkraut; outstanding sweet potato fries with three kinds of dipping sauce; braised beef short ribs with polenta fries, bacon vinaigrette, and Nebbiolo reduction; and roasted butternut squash gnocchi are just a few of the options that friendly, knowledgeable servers can pair with interesting wines available by the bottle, glass, or taste. And whether you're a curious dabbler or a hardcore wine connoisseur, proprietor Mike Fine — former owner of the celebrated Sportsman's Fine Wines & Spirits — is always happy to chat about his favorite labels and latest finds.

Best Of Phoenix®

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