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.

T. Cook's
Royal Palms Resort and Spa

Whenever we need a reminder of just how good we have it here in the Valley of the Sun, we have to head to T. Cook's spectacular Sunday brunch to put ourselves in the right frame of mind. Just setting foot on the Royal Palms property is enough to lighten our hearts — certainly one doesn't need to be a guest at the resort to appreciate its lush landscaping, stunning views of Camelback Mountain, and romantic Mediterranean courtyards. And inside T. Cook's, the energy is soothing and sophisticated, with sunlight brightening the elegant dining room as a classical guitar player serenades guests.

The buffet is as gorgeous as it gets, a decadent, all-you-can-eat spread, with artfully arranged platters of smoked salmon, egg dishes, roasted and grilled vegetables, shrimp cocktail in martini glasses, prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, and several kinds of soft rolls and bread. Just as delightful (or maybe more so, if you have a sweet tooth) are pastry chef Pierino Jermonti's exquisite tarts, cakes, cookies, and bonbons, which take up a few tables of their own. Thanks to T. Cook's, Sunday's our favorite day of the week.

Christopher's Restaurant and Crush Lounge
Lauren Saria

At Christopher's, the swanky new restaurant from James Beard award-winning chef Christopher Gross, we get the best of the old and the new. What's new is the streamlined name and chic, contemporary setting, a welcome change from Gross's previous eatery at Biltmore Fashion Park, Christopher's Fermier Brasserie. We liked the last place just fine, but the updated digs are stylish and comfortable, with convertible glass walls creating intimate dining nooks, and a cool open kitchen where you can sit at the counter and see what's sizzling. There's also Crush, a luxurious, inviting lounge run by sommelier Paola Embry. What's tried and true at Christopher's is Gross's top-notch French cooking. The menu's been freshened up with new items, such as pied de cochon garnished with sweetbreads, while old faves remain, from hanger steak with sautéed shallots to steamed mussels and chorizo in a white wine broth. And Embry's extensive wine list, winner of the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for 10 consecutive years, is as intriguing as ever.

Hana Japanese Eatery
Lauren Saria

Just how fresh is that sashimi you're about to gobble up? The quality of the seafood couldn't be more obvious than at Hana Japanese Eatery, where, if you're lucky, you just might witness sushi chef Rick "Koji" Hashimoto hauling in the catch of the day. The day we saw him hoist a giant piece of bluefin tuna onto the counter — tail and fins included — we couldn't believe our eyes. Neither could anyone else at the restaurant. Within seconds, everyone was snapping pictures with their cell phones, completely amazed. But after some expert slicing, the sleek silver creature from the deep was soon carved into elegant pieces of rose-colored sashimi, and all the customers were eager to sample the goods. It's not every day that Hana has a photo op quite as dramatic as that one, but even the huge wooden boat-shaped trays, bearing lavish arrangements of sushi and wasabi and even flaming sugar cubes, make it worthwhile to bring a camera to this fantastic sushi spot.

Eddie's House

Admit it: You missed Eddie Matney. It's okay to 'fess up, because you're definitely not alone. And somehow we sense that the celebrated chef knew we were jonesing for his creative, Mediterranean-inspired cooking. After all, it had been awhile since he'd given us a taste of it. After closing his eponymous restaurant at 24th Street and Camelback a few years ago, he didn't interface with the public as much. His short-lived stint at Stoudemire's Downtown didn't turn any heads, and after that, he went to feed the elite at a private golf club. You'd see Matney's name on the roster at gala events, and you'd see his face on TV, but you'd be left with an insatiable craving if you were in the mood for some of his bacon-infused meatloaf. Well, now Matney's back with a place all his own, and the menu's got plenty of the dishes that made him famous in the first place. Even the meatloaf.

Best Of Phoenix®

Best Of