Jackie Mercandetti Photo

Phoenix is not a serendipitous city. We're stuck in our cars most of the time, deliberately driving from point A to point B in our strip-malled, paved-over landscape. How in the world does anyone make a new acquaintance here? You just have to be more proactive, and places like Welcome Diner go a long way in creating an intimate, neighborhood feel. Of course, if you don't care to banter with the cook or acknowledge the person sitting next to you, don't bother with this postage-stamp-size vintage diner, where a compact, nine-seat counter faces a short-order kitchen (complete with antique potato slicer for the French fries). Privacy is nil, and the bohemian crew of downtown regulars are friendly indeed. Stop by for a burger, and you might leave with a new pal.

Best of Phoenix 2009 In Photos

Courtesy of Essence Bakery

When it comes to the latest fad, too often Phoenix is the last to arrive on the scene. So we were pleased this summer when, on a visit to New York City, we noticed that French macarons were all the rage. Ha! Essence has been doing that for years. And doing it oh so well. We bet you'd be hard-pressed to find a more divine macaron in all of Manhattan or Paris. Unlike the chunky coconut Passover variety, these macarons are the ultimate sandwich cookie, two discs that manage to be chewy and crunchy at the same time, with a gooey filling. You can buy a mini version, but we recommend you take Essence up on their full-size offering — and get more than one, because who can be expected to choose between pink grapefruit and chocolate mint? The flavors rotate and you can sign up for a newsletter on the bakery's Web site to make sure you don't miss your favorite. And if you want to show off for someone out of town, Essence now ships the macarons just about everywhere.

Best of Phoenix 2009 In Photos

Jamie Peachey

Leave it to the hippies to come up with some of Phoenix's cheekiest eateries. We're not talking about just any peace-and-love throwbacks, though. We mean Jan and Andy Goldstein, the dynamic husband-and-wife duo behind the burgeoning Two Hippies empire.

It started a few years ago, when they opened a kitschy, pint-size burger and hot dog joint on Indian School called Two Hippies Magic Mushroom Burgers. Even though the shop's motto is "Don't tell ANYONE where you bought them," word is out on Two Hippies' cheap, yummy eats. There's usually a lunchtime line down the sidewalk for the namesake burger, smothered in sautéed 'shrooms, melted Swiss, caramelized onions, and Thousand Island "liquid sunshine sauce," with a side of hand-cut fries. We adore the hot dogs here, and the hot wings are just irresistible, especially with the insanely hot "suicide" sauce.

But no wonder the wings are so good: Andy Goldstein goes way back in the restaurant business, since his brother Ron founded the legendary Long Wong's almost 30 years ago.

This past year, Two Hippies spawned a love child — Two Hippies Beach House — and it's just as quirky as the burger spot, only with a breezy, beachy theme. Here, you can kick back on the outdoor patio and chow down on no-frills Mexican food with a lighter spin, like fish tacos or green chile beef burritos, washed down with a desert pear lemonade. Nothing's fried, they use organic ingredients, and the vibe is really pretty wholesome, as far as hippies go.

Just weeks ago, they opened Two Hippies Dropped Out of College and Opened a Pizzeria (yes, that's the name) and, soon, the Goldsteins are branching out with Two Hippies Breakfast Joint, which we expect to be just as psychedelic as ever (even the tablecloths will be tie-dyed, they tell us). Expect a menu full of homey morning treats like waffles, pancakes, and — obviously — housemade granola.

We have the munchies already.

Best of Phoenix 2009 In Photos

Downtown Phoenix's nightlife is picking up momentum. Want proof? Check out Sens, chef Johnny Chu's hip, modern Asian tapas spot, where you can stop by for a snack or a full meal until midnight — and until 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Chu's small-plates menu is a celebration of pan-Asian flavors, from Japanese-style grilled shrimp and red Thai curry chicken wings to authentic Chinese soup gyoza, filled with pork and savory broth. Tangy beef carpaccio, marinated in lime juice and fresh mint and served with crispy prawn crackers, is another standout dish. It's hard to find anything to eat in the wee hours, let alone food this delicious, so we think Sens is a true gem.

Best of Phoenix 2009 In Photos

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