Middle Eastern Bakery & Deli
Lauren Saria

Bet you've never tasted anything remotely like Middle Eastern Deli & Bakery's homemade lemonade, which this place sells gallons of every day. Middle Eastern's owner was kind enough to share the secret to its exotic, citrus-based concoction. First, lemon juice, water, and honey are boiled together. The brew is then spiked with rosewater, a flower-infused flavoring that's been used extensively in the Middle East and Asia in everything edible, from meat to candy (recipes using rose water date back to the 8th century). The finished product is like juicy candied lemons, with an addictive undertaste you just can't put your finger on. No wonder we have an overwhelming urge to dowse ourselves with this golden ambrosia.

T. Cook's
Royal Palms Resort and Spa

We're not sure what Heaven is like, but we imagine it to be something like T. Cook's lavish, all-you-can-eat "Mediterranean market buffet" brunch. Like the romantic Royal Palms Resort itself, brunch here is beautiful beyond belief, as mouthwatering as the glossy pages of food porn in Gourmet magazine. Everything is exquisitely displayed, from delicate pink slices of prosciutto and moist smoked salmon to abundant platters of roasted red peppers and portobello mushrooms, grilled asparagus, egg dishes, and fresh mozzarella with ripe tomato and basil. There are baskets of fresh rolls and bread, glasses brimming with shrimp cocktail, and all kinds of fruit. And freshly baked cookies, cakes, tarts, and other confections take up an entire table of their own. Under ordinary circumstances, all this temptation would lead us into a feeding frenzy, but the gentle strains of live classical guitar and the genteel atmosphere in the dining room make our gluttony somehow seem elegant. This is paradise found.

Quiessence Restaurant
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

There are actually two ways to experience the seasons at Quiessence. The first is simply to appreciate the setting itself — situated at the far end of the Farm at South Mountain, the restaurant is surrounded by lush trees and vegetation that provide so much of the relaxing ambiance here, no matter what time of year it is. And if you can snag a table outside on a glorious Arizona evening, even better. But "seasonal" is also at the heart of executive chef Greg LaPrad's daily menu, an ever-changing lineup that reflects what's fresh from local farms and purveyors (including Maya's Farm, right outside). That means you can count on ramps and fava beans in the springtime, locally grown squash in the fall. Besides the of-the-moment entrees, you can also expect excellent housemade salumi, an impressive list of artisanal cheeses, and mouthwatering desserts that are just as seasonally inspired as the savory stuff. Dinner at Quiessence is worthy of special occasions. We're pretty much always in the mood, no matter the season.

Zinc Bistro
David Holden

Depending on the time of day, Zinc Bistro takes on different guises — it's a bright, bustling place to see and be seen at lunchtime, and a romantic, candlelit hotspot at night. We'll take any excuse to stop by for chef Matt Carter's tasty French cooking (like ratatouille, braised lamb shank, or prime flat iron steak), but for some reason we especially love this place in the afternoon, when we can rendezvous with friends on the front patio, order a nice bottle of wine, and shamelessly slurp up icy-cold oysters on the half-shell as if there were no tomorrow. We're convinced this is how Parisians perfect their joie de vivre. On a sunny afternoon (let's face it: There are plenty of those in these parts), we'd much rather be hanging here than just about anywhere else — just don't tell our boss!

Sweet Cakes Cafe

"Life's short . . . Eat cookies." These are the words that greet you when you enter this charming little cafe in downtown Mesa. And cookies it has. Cookies about the size of salad plates. Sweet Cakes has all the classics (chocolate chip, peanut butter, snickerdoodle) and such originals as white chocolate cranberry and oatmeal coconut. But the real killers are the cookie bars. Our favorites include the Scotcharoos (think Reese's peanut butter cup meets Rice Krispies treat), lemon bars, and something called a Gooey Sweet Cake. We're not sure what's in the Gooey Sweet Cake, but it doesn't really matter because it's sweet, gooey, and impossibly good with a glass of cold milk. Oh, and Sweet Cakes serves regular food, too — if that's your thing.

Rancho Pinot
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

Is it dinnertime yet? The mouthwatering dishes at Rancho Pinot remind us of the kinds of things Mom used to make — if only Mom had been a gourmet cook. Chef Chrysa Robertson dreams up food that's rustic and soul-satisfying, putting the finest local produce to good use (not a surprise, considering her involvement with Slow Food Phoenix) in a menu that evolves with the seasons. Side dishes are a snapshot of the season, fresh from the farm, while appetizers such as hand-pulled mozzarella and ricotto gnocchi with lamb ragu are tasty enough to fill up on. But let's face it: There's always room for hearty entrees like handmade pasta or the famous "Nonni's Sunday Chicken," the kind of dish that traditions are made of. Braised with white wine, herbs, and mushrooms, this bird is fork-tender, the essence of comfort food in every bite. And the best part is, you can find it on the menu every night of the week.

Pane Bianco
Heather Hoch

We can't think of any takeout place that gets the kind of action that Pane Bianco does. The menu's minuscule and there's nowhere to sit inside. But there's always a lively scene under the shade sails out front, where customers congregate at rustic picnic tables to eat sandwiches and salads out of Pane's brown paper bags. What's the big deal, you ask? The crisp, bubbly bread is unmatched — celebrity pizzaiolo Chris Bianco is behind this place, after all — and fillings are impeccably fresh, from milky, handmade mozzarella to tangy tuna salad studded with onions and olives. Old-fashioned cane sugar sodas and dreamy rice pudding round out the offerings here. Considering how many sunny days we enjoy in Phoenix, we think al fresco is the way to go.

Elements

Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain has a real gem in elements, its signature fine-dining restaurant. Executive chef Beau MacMillan ranks among an elite group of chefs who've taken on an Iron Chef (in this case, Bobby Flay) and emerged victorious in the popular Food Network TV show. And his cooking is considered some of this city's most exquisite, meshing contemporary American with Asian flourishes, such as shrimp and pork pot stickers with hoisin butter, or juicy Maple Leaf Farms duck breast with bok choy, roasted butternut squash, and garlic cherry glaze. But the icing on this very impressive, delicious cake is elements' dining room, where the view is to die for. From this perch on the side of Camelback, surrounded by windows, you can see the sky glow at sunset, framed by inky mountain silhouettes and a twinkling blanket of lights below. If you've ever wondered why they call this Paradise Valley, a visit to elements should settle that question.

Kai
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

Restaurants sometimes use the term "award-winning" pretty loosely. But not Kai. This fine-dining spot has earned its elite status in some of the country's most prestigious restaurant rankings — most notably, the AAA Five Diamond Award and five stars from Mobil Travel Guide. That puts Kai up there among the best places in the country, worthy of a special visit. For that, diners will be rewarded with unique, sophisticated cuisine that meshes traditional luxury ingredients with distinctively Southwestern flavors and locally grown produce. An heirloom tomato and cheese tart is made with buckwheat and saguaro seeds, while smoked corn puree, scarlet runner beans, cholla buds, and saguaro blossom syrup jazz up the buffalo tenderloin. Suffice it to say, dinner at Kai is quite an event — one you won't soon forget.

Phoenix Palace

You can order off the lengthy Chinese menu anytime (there are lots of seafood dishes here), but dim sum is likely the biggest reason Phoenix Palace is packed with hungry hordes from across the Valley, especially on weekends. Folks flock to this strip mall spot, located adjacent to Lee Lee's Oriental Supermarket, for a mind-boggling variety of Cantonese small plates served up hot and fresh, from delectable classics like steamed barbecue pork buns, shu mai, spare ribs, and chicken feet to more unusual dishes, such as crisp, pan-fried chive dumplings, tripe, and unforgettable "snow mountain" buns, soft custard-filled pastries that really do resemble wintry peaks. (Get them when they're warm, and you won't be able to eat just one.) It's hard to hold back when the carts pass by your table, but don't worry — the only thing more shocking than how much dim sum you'll inhale is how little it'll cost you.

Best Of Phoenix®

Best Of