Best Of :: Bars & Clubs
Orange trees and Japanese flower stands hugged a quiet two-lane road in the early years of South Phoenix. On that same road today, in a still-quiet lot across from a lone gas station, Amano Pizza Bistro is working to make some noise. Eric and Katy Bower opened their neighborhood bistro as a place where locals and foodies can chat over a glass or two of wine in the shadow of South Mountain. But enough relaxing: It's happy hour. Tuesday nights are half-off bottles of wine, Thursday nights are ladies nights (girls get $3 glasses of reds and whites), and on Sundays, kids eat free. If the Bowers keep it up, that lot may not be so quiet much longer.
So you've had a couple of drinks and someone hands you a microphone while a canned instrumental track of your favorite '80s song starts to play. You're ready to tear it up, but it's hard to feel like a rock star when you're following a bouncing dot across a TV screen. If you really want to feel like a superstar (or just a glorified drunk), get onstage at Blue Martini Lounge on a Monday night, when local cover band The Instant Classics will back you up. This solid, seven-piece band has an extensive repertoire of songs, from Lady Ga Ga and Pat Benatar to Bob Seger and Snoop Dogg. They even have a keytar player with a mohawk, so you can rock that Flock of Seagulls song. The audience at Blue Martini is generally very enthusiastic and supportive, and they'll cheer for you whether you burp into the microphone or not. And if you get up there to croon Sinatra's "My Way" and find yourself frozen with stage fright, never fear — there are three singers in The Instant Classics who'll be happy to make it sound like you're just, uh, harmonizing.
Before its unveiling in January, Revolver Lounge was hyped as one of the hottest new clubs to hit Old Town. Thanks to an air-conditioning eff-up on opening night, that literally was the case. The sheer number of tanned and toned bodies crammed inside the Western-themed Stetson Drive swanketeria caused things to get steamy. (Guess everyone had to cowboy up.) While the snafu was fixed double-quick, the place hasn't cooled off since. Formerly home to the similarly stylish SIX, it's just as in vogue as its predecessor. Conceived by owner Steve McDonald as an upscale dancehall with a Scottsdale twist (hence, antique chandeliers sharing space with posh couches), it's had packed weekends all year, hosted a SMoCA shindig in the spring, and welcomed pop star Rhianna on her 22nd birthday. Revolver's proved so popular, in fact, that Southern-style Shotgun Betty's opened up down the block mere months later. Those copycat cowboys!
There are plenty of delish cocktails we could recommend at Sens, Johnny Chu's always-fabulous Asian tapas hot spot, and we're delighted that they've finally built a bigger bar to accommodate our cravings. But if you're looking for a new twist on an old favorite, we humbly suggest the Hot and Dirty. It's got all the dirty martini basics — olive juice, vodka, ice, and a big, fat olive — but it's also got a nifty lil' addition that will blow your mind. Namely, shochu, which is ostensibly the Japanese version of vodka. At Sens, they infuse this liquor with the hottest of Thai chilis, so you get both hot and cold in every sip. If you're not a fan of hot and spicy, don't order this drink. But if you're willing to give the heat a try, just ask the bartender: He or she'll be happy to work with you by adding more vodka and less shochu. They may push the envelope at Sens, but they're not sadists.
These days, everybody wants to prettify the martini with rose petals or gold flecks or God knows what else. But what the hell is a martini except a way to convey the maximum amount of gin? And that's why we've been increasingly enjoying martinis at bars that would never dream of listing a martini as a house specialty. At an old-school watering hole like downtown's Seamus McCaffrey's, the focus may be on the Scotch, but we guarantee they'll pour you a perfect martini should you order one: icy cold, slightly dirty, and with at least three shots of gin. God bless Seamus McCaffrey.
During our probably-too-long drinking career, the bloody Mary had ranked near the bottom of our desired beverage list, hovering somewhere around a Smoker's Phlegm (Jägermeister and mayonnaise) in the gross department. That's until we hit up Carly's Bistro during its weekend brunch and ordered the eatery's version of the drink, which includes V8, vodka, balsamic vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, pickle and olive juices, various spices, horseradish, and hot sauce. And, wow, Carly's version of this hair-of-the-dog remedy actually rocks, especially when a lovely bartender by the name of Ann makes the beverage.
OMG. We've slurped down some tasty adult beverages in our day, but nothing beats the red sangria at Rita's Kitchen, located in the upscale Camelback Inn Resort and Spa. Seriously. Though the food's not bad, the I'll-have-another-round cocktail infuses fresh apples, grapes, and an amazing blend of vanilla and cinnamon into a royalty-worthy elixir. If it's a nice day, take this wonderful drink outside to the resort's patio, gaze at Camelback Mountain, and watch the sun put on a Sonoran Desert light show at sunset.
La Bocca offers white sangria by the glass or pitcher. The bartenders use a special recipe of wine, spirits, spices and fresh fruit, and they're not telling what's in the mix — for good reason, too, because this is a secret that keeps you coming back to drink more. A glass of Blanco at La Bocca is so refreshing that you quickly realize ordering a glass was a mistake — and when the waiter returns, you'll be sure to order a pitcher. And here's another handy tip: That Blanco goes down really well with one of La Bocca's handcrafted pizzas.
We went to Caffe Italia in search of a quick dinner — maybe some spinach lasagna or a little penne in clam sauce — and ended up having our life changed. How did we make it this far in life in the desert without frozen sangria? This taste sensation is like a Slurpee for grownups: Sweet red wine steeped in fresh fruit and then spun into crushed ice and topped with still more fruit slices. There's a white wine sangria, too, called a Bellini, and on nights when we're not expected to drive or spell our names, we order both. The Bellini is tart and tangy, made with citrus fruits and what we swear must be a splash of peach liqueur. Whatever's in there, this is the best frozen sangria we've ever had.
Some places just cram mint leaves in the bottom of a glass, pour rum over them, and call it a mojito. But at MercBar, the mojito is a piece of real craftsmanship. Bartenders take their time crushing ice and mint leaves together in the glass before adding just the right balance of rum, sugar, lime juice, and soda. Some of the mint leaves float to the top of the glass, but most remain at the bottom, effectively infusing the drink with fresh mint flavor for the duration of its existence — which, given its refreshing tastiness, shouldn't be very long. In fact, the Merc Mojito may take longer to make than to drink, which may be why it costs more than the bar's acclaimed martinis. But when it's hot and sticky in the Valley, a minty fresh Merc Mojito is very cool indeed.
You know you've arrived at a good bar when the bartender doesn't know how to make the drink you've ordered but knocks it out of the park anyway. This recently happened to us at the Roadrunner Lounge. On previous visits to the seen-better-days establishment, we've received a perfect Jameson Manhattan with sweet vermouth, bitters, and a maraschino cherry. But then, a few months back, we ordered the drink from a male barkeep we'd never seen before, and he reacted as though we had just spoken Russian or an African tribal dialect. After shooting us a friendly yet blank stare, the man consulted a spiral-bound cocktail book and mixed the ingredients. Minutes later, Manhattan bliss hit our lips, and it was cheap — only $3!
We've always loved the patio at the Royal Palms, where you can sip champagne under the stars. But, lately, we've been pledging fidelity to the graceful lounge just inside the front door. Choose either a comfy couch or a seat at the curved bar, settle in with a craft cocktail, and let pianist Dwight Brewer sweep your heart away. This is the rare bar in town where you would not feel out of place in a little black dress. or even a big one; this is a lounge for adults, not club kids.