Phoenix's independent source of
local news and culture
If you like your pizza served with heaping piles of cheese, then you'll love this iconic concert hall/dinner theater. A Mesa tradition since 1975, the star attraction at this 600-seat supper club is a historic Wurlitzer pipe organ that rises dramatically out of the basement — organist and all — to kick off each show. Originally built in the 1920s to provide musical accompaniment for silent movies, the massive organ has been expanded and reconfigured to include nearly 6,000 individual pipes, plus 57 individual instruments such as snare drums and sleigh bells, all controlled by a single musician. In fact, you really haven't lived until you've seen organist Lew Williams rock out to "Bohemian Rhapsody," using both hands (and feet) to manipulate all the keys and pedals. Somewhere, a shirtless Freddie Mercury is smiling.
Located in the creaky old basement of the Arizona State Capitol's Executive Tower, the Capitol Café serves up surprisingly good (and crazy-affordable) grub, as well as all the latest political gossip. Open weekdays for breakfast and lunch, everyone from office drones to the big-time politicians we all love to hate can be spotted bellying up to the salad bar or chowing down on all-American meals such as the rib-stickin' meatloaf. Run by a former Marine named Robert E. Smith, Capitol Café also is a great example of public-private enterprise, as it's operated under a federal act created in the 1930s to help blinded military veterans find gainful employment. According to Smith, who lost his sight 35 years ago, this program has led to the creation of more than 5,000 privately owned restaurants and snack bars that serve federal and state properties nationwide. No wonder why they call politicians "fat cats."
With little more than a door and a few blue awnings visible, this long-running restaurant looks less like the upscale seafood joint it claims to be and more like the kind of fast-food joint where disinterested, college-aged servers wearing eye patches would dish up greasy fish and chips. That's because most of The Salt Cellar is hidden underground in a cavernous dining room with no windows and only a skylight for natural light. The effect is a little eerie, but the chef's dedication to importing fresh seasonal catches such as Georges Bank sea scallops, New Zealand Bluenose sea bass and mussels from Maine makes us willing to overlook any claustrophobic discomfort.
We're not sure why more people don't know that there's a new-ish restaurant at the Secret Garden, but this is a secret we think should get out. This casual eatery, located in the shadow of South Mountain and housed in a restored 1929 Spanish-style mansion, is a real treasure. A New American menu featuring mostly locally grown foods, posted in the window, lured us in when we attended a wedding at the Secret Garden, a favorite place for matrimony over the past several years. We ventured back and were glad we did, because this still-largely-undiscovered "secret place" is unlike any other restaurant in town, and well worth the drive to 24th Street and Baseline.
We started with a drink under a massive carob tree, then moved onto the patio, where we enjoyed hors d'oeuvres and a glass of wine before moving indoors to the barrel-ceiling dining room for some sophisticated dining —and the discovery of another secret worth sharing: shrimp and grits, a taste sensation that's both down-home comfort food and light, fresh dinner fare. Also worth shouting about is the handmade papardelle with local sausages, cherry tomatoes, basil and shaved Pecorino. For dessert, don't miss ricotta fritters with fig and balsamic syrup.
Owners Pat Christofolo (formerly of the Farm at South Mountain) and her son, Dustin, have brought together some of the best local purveyors to make each menu item that much more special. Fossil Creek Creamery, Queen Creek Olive Mill, McClendon's Select, Power Ranches, and Black Mesa Ranch are among the names that make us feel like we're part of a special club of local food fans when we eat here. But forgive us for not wanting this to be an exclusive club — we're shouting out loud about this great place, hoping to make the House at Secret Garden not so secret any more.
We're still surprised whenever we hear someone say they've never heard of Tuck Shop, one of the best casual-dining spots in town. Opened about three years ago, Tuck Shop (named after snack stands popular in the UK, where one "tucks in" for a quick bite) offers tapas-style dining with a delicious menu designed by restaurant consultant Mitch Hoverman. We love the mac and cheese with prosciutto and lobster, the skirt steak, and especially the citrus-brined chicken and white cheddar waffles. And, seriously, where else in Phoenix can one go to get beer-battered cheese curds? We always start with those, and then move on to a plate of the dates stuffed with chorizo and Gruyère, washed down by a gin and tonic (with a paper-thin slice of cucumber as garnish!), because Tuck Shop makes its own tonic water, a slightly tart, lightly syrupy concoction that makes everything we eat while drinking it taste even better.
On weekends, there can sometimes be a wait for a table, but we love cozying up to strangers at the big communal table in the middle of the room — or eating at the bar. Tell a friend about Tuck Shop, which is tucked away at 12th and Oak streets, smack dab in the center of the Coronado historic neighborhood.