Smokey's Bar & Grill

This Main Street spot doesn't look like much from the outside, but there's a grip going on inside this laid-back, off-the-radar watering hole. There's live music basically all the time, an 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. happy hour every day of the week, and awesome video games like Big Buck Hunter. Then there's the bar's namesake, an indoor smoking patio that's accessible from the main room. It's well ventilated and there's plenty to gawk at, such as a vintage television tuned to infomercials and dudes/dudettes choking down cancer sticks on Bike Night (as in motorcycles; you'll see plenty of 'em on a Thursday).

Harem Lounge

If I Dream of Jeannie's magically delicious heroine had a secret lair, it would be the Harem Lounge. Part coffee shop, part hookah lounge, this Moroccan-themed strip-mall jewel is bathed in sumptuous red light cast by stained-glass lanterns that twinkle in the sexy loft above the cave-like shop. Soothing, exotic beats blare in the background as customers mellow with water pipe in mouth. Homemade chai, coffee and Middle Eastern appetizers are all on the menu, but the main course is the shisha offered in more than two dozen flavors, including black licorice, cola, and double apple. Though the hookah prices are a bit steep, we think the ambiance and late night hours — until at least 1 a.m. daily — more than make up for it. Plus, there's a ton of cozy seating arrangements inside or outside on the huge outdoor patio, so you can always tap a couple of friends to rock this Casbah with you.

Renee's Grand Avenue Tavern

You saw your ex hanging out at downtown's Lost Leaf, but she didn't see you — under no circumstance do you want to cross paths with her — so you head over to the Bikini Lounge and run into the dude that's dating your ex. Ugh. You should just go home, but you're dolled up and rocking a sweet pair of drinking shoes. Where to? The answer is about three miles west of downtown on Grand Avenue at Renee's Grand Tavern. The spot looks a bit different from its previous incarnation — Renee's closed for six months so that new ownership could upgrade the outdoor fireplace and other cosmetics — but the place still rules. Plus, they're bringing it with some super-cool entertainment and club events six nights a week. You may not know anyone at this off-the-radar drinkery, but, hey, that's how you prefer it tonight.

Modified Arts

You wouldn't think an all-ages, alcohol-free music venue that doubles as an art gallery would need an aggressive bouncer, but Modified Arts' Ami Johnson has stories that suggest it does. Like the story about the time some guy pulled a knife on her for giving him a small bottle of water instead of a large. Or the story about the time two bums dented her car fighting outside, pummeling each other until she chased them off. Or the story about the time a guy stole the venue's hand stamp and tried to sell it back to her. Through it all, Johnson, who's also probably the smallest bouncer in town, maintains an admirably friendly but firm attitude that'd be a great lesson to other doormen in town, most of whom work in much nicer neighborhoods. In fact, we're pretty sure she ought to teach a certification course for local bouncers.

Afterlife

Just because those officious bastards at the Department of Liquor License say you gotta stop boozing by 2 a.m., that don't mean it's time to hit the sheets. (Who are they, your effin' mother?) The nightlife game's still afoot in Scottsdale long after last call, and we ain't referring to what's transpiring at that Denny's over near Osborn. Nightclub entrepreneur Aron Mezo turned the former e4 into a virtual after-hours Pleasure Island awaiting those insomniacs daring enough to keep strong 'til the break of dawn. Obviously, there's no alcohol around (which allows the 18-and-over types to get in), but you can suck down Red Bulls or other energy drinks for a boost while DJs like EPHX and Nando keep the dance floor going until 4 a.m. A nonstop buffet of gourmet pizzas is served on the open-air patio alongside blackjack tables and TVs showing Japanimation porn. (Yowza!) If watching schoolgirls and tentacled aliens, uh, interacting doesn't keep you awake, then it may be best to call it a night.

Icehouse

Helen Hestenes, performance artist and owner of the Icehouse, on Jackson Street in downtown Phoenix, has never given up on her dreams for the city — or her arts venue. When she purchased the neglected historic property with then-husband David Therrien in 1990, Hestenes imagined an avant-garde gallery and performance space with an edgy, urban heartbeat married to a solid foundation of history. The faux-column façade, large open rooms and church-like "Cathedral Room" seemed the perfect match to her vision. In no time, Hestenes was bringing in the kinds of acts the culture-deprived community was missing: a 12-hour performance piece by Live Art Platform, the LIFE (Liberty, Independence, and Freedom of Expression) Festival, the Invisible Woman breast cancer exhibit and an international art exchange program made possible by a Rockefeller Foundation grant.

But her dreams didn't end with the property lines. Hestenes hoped that other artists would follow suit and revitalize the surrounding buildings into gallery spaces, cozy cafes and entertainment palaces for underground art. Think an American version of Paris, minus the Eiffel Tower. The city of Phoenix had different ideas; namely, razing many of the nearby historic buildings to make way for parking garages, more jails, and a morgue — plans that never came to fruition.

Hestenes has always been outspoken about the need to preserve Phoenix's historic properties. After the Borden Dairy building was demolished, The Icehouse staged a mock funeral complete with tombstone and eulogy. Admittedly, it was a little quirky.

Nearly two decades later, the building stands as a testament to Hestenes' resolve. Despite numerous code violations, cease-and-desist orders, and demolition permits, the Icehouse hosts art shows, raves, and private parties. Recently, Hestenes offered a large-scale painting by the late Phoenix artist Rose Johnson during the summer's barter exhibit in return for a handicap-accessible ramp or repairs to the venue's elevator system.

It's proof that Hestenes still has plans for the Icehouse.

Best of Phoenix 2009 In Photos

The extracurricular activities of Chromatest J. Pantsmaker are just as colorful as his nom de guerre, if not more so.

As a member of such DJ collectives as the Salacious Beat Slingers and Warsaw Pact Entertainment, the 33-year-old broadcast engineer has spun pulsating breakbeats and glitch-hop at more raves and desert parties than you can shake a glowstick at. He's also participated in plenty of experimental noise jams, built gigantic pieces of installation artwork, and made multiple treks to Burning Man (natch) where his playa name is "Ben Monkey." Chromatest is also quite the prankster at heart, as demonstrated by his participation in the Arizona chapter of the Cacophony Society.

Never heard of it? Here's the lowdown: Created in 1986 by some Burning Man participants in San Francisco, it's an informal group of like-minded practical jokers, countercultural types, or anyone looking to engage in some zany fun. Author Chuck Palahniuk reportedly patterned Project Mayhem from Fight Club on the society and their madcap activities, which include everything from flash mobs and stripper bingo to gonzo sports like mondo croquet and pumpkin shooting. Chapters have formed in cities around the world, including Phoenix, thanks to Chromatest.

He'd heard about such shenanigans from Burner cohorts and decided it was the kinda thing that could make Phoenix a more freaky and interesting city. Along with friend Dr. Doctor (who'd participated in Cacophony in Seattle) they founded the Valley version in February 2007 by holding an Iditarod urban shopping cart race.

Based off the iconic Alaskan sled-dog race, it involved teams of five participants (some in costume) hooked up to the rolling basket and pulling it through the streets of downtown Phoenix while attempting to sabotage other players. Pit stops were held at bars like the bygone News Room, where a few beer-drinking challenges took place.

Drinking is a big part of AZ Cacophony events, as is the desire to dress in costume, cause a scene, and obtain quizzical looks from passersby. Hence the nature of "Santarchy," which is a mass bar crawl through Old Town Scottsdale in December featuring a drunken, chaotic mass of faux Kris Kringles. Come March 15 (or thereabouts) they also hold the annual "Brides of March" in downtown Tempe, where both men and women dress in wedding gowns and (you guessed it) get soused at bars like Gordon Biersch and Rúla Búla.

Anyone's welcome to join in the fun by surfing over to the Web site (www.azcacophony.org), where members discuss over e-mail what's gonna happen at the next outing.

"We're also brewing up some other fun stuff, and we're always accepting fresh ideas," Chromatest posted. "If anybody has some idea about culture-jamming, group-think rewiring, or just downright silliness, suggest it to the list!"

Best of Phoenix 2009 In Photos

Zach Sciacca, a.k.a. Z-Trip, is arguably the biggest DJ ever to come outta Phoenix. Enjoying a level of superstardom that many local turntablists and mix masters can only dream about, the 38-year-old Valley native has spent the past decade and a half using his stellar scratching skills to propel himself to international fame and glory.

His list of coups and kudos is both lengthy and legendary: Long before he started touring venues around the world and commanding six-figure appearance fees, Sciacca was a member of the renowned Bombshelter DJs — along with Emile and Radar — in the mid-'90s. Painting local clubs and raves with virtuoso soundscapes, Spin magazine cited the trio in 1999 as some of the best wax workers in the nation. And the praise kept on coming.

Rolling Stone dubbed Sciacca the "king of mash-ups" (based on his popularization of the turntablism art form long before it became a danceteria cliché) and gave his 2005 disc Shifting Gears four stars, the highest rating doled out that year. The 16-track album also included a guest appearance by Public Enemy's Chuck D., who's become a regular collaborator, as has artist Shepard Fairey. (And Z-Trip's most recent honor is probably his biggest to date, as readers of DJ Times magazine chose him as "America's Best DJ" for 2009.)

Not bad for a self-taught spinster who started out DJing at friends' house parties, huh?

While Sciacca's success led to his relocating to L.A. almost eight years ago, the Valley native remains intertwined with our electronic dance-music scene. Almost every DJ in the PHX is connected with Z-Trip in some fashion, if only tangentially. His protégés Tricky T and Element can be found burning up the record decks at such weeklies as the Blunt Club in Tempe or Bar Smith's Pinky Ring. Whenever Sciacca comes home, once or twice a year, he not only draws hundreds to his gigs, but also serves as an occasional lecturer at the DJ classes taught by Emile and Radar at Scotts­dale Community College. There have been countless cats who've been inspired to follow in Z-Trip's footsteps.

In October, Sciacca will extend his influence to the virtual world, as he'll become a playable avatar in Activision's DJ Hero video game. Much like its predecessor Guitar Hero did for wanna-be ax-slingers, the interactive beat-juggling title will undoubtedly inspire a crop of future dance club superstars; some of whom will wanna scratch just like Zach.

Best of Phoenix 2009 In Photos

SideBar

SideBar is so elegant, and has so much bon vie, that when we first walked in, we couldn't believe we were standing over a Pei Wei on West McDowell Street. Believe it. The best new bar in the Valley is a happy, social, stylish place — a place where you're just as likely to run into an old friend as make a new one. And don't even get us started on the cocktail list. Every drink on this menu is a gem, from the Cucumint Martini to the Lynwood Palmer. We recommend coming early and staying late — not surprisingly, considering all the aforementioned qualities, this place can get packed.

Best of Phoenix 2009 In Photos

Tuck Shop
Jackie Mercandetti

We're not sure whether it's the small-batch Scottish Hendrick's gin they use, which boasts "infusion of cucumber and rose petals," or the housemade tonic water, or that thin slice of cucumber garnishing this refreshing adult beverage, but the combo rocked our palate. Beware, once you've experienced this magical toddy, you might not settle for a G&T anywhere else, ever again. Don't say we didn't warn ya.

Best of Phoenix 2009 In Photos

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