Donovan's Steak and Chop House
Choosing among the many, many world-class steak houses in the Valley is a darn-near impossible task (yeah, we know — cue the pity party). So this year, we're giving the Best Of to the one upscale steak joint that made us feel we were actually somebody — and this in a roomful of real somebodies. In other words, a trip to Donovan's is a glimpse into the world of high-rolling lawyers, doctors, CEOs, athletes, and, yes, the occasional celebrity. You can almost feel the deals going down as you look around while cutting into your exquisitely prepared, prime-grade $42 cut of beef. The windowless restaurant is dimly lit, beyond tastefully appointed, quiet, comfortable, and exudes class all the way. The servers (and their seemingly endless parade of assistants) are simply pros — helpful, courteous, and attentive. If you're like us, you probably can't afford to eat at a place like this more than once every year or two. So, save up for that special occasion (if you do it right, we estimate you'll drop about $100 per person) and, when it arrives, treat yourself to a night at Donovan's. For at least one day, you'll feel like somebody, too.

Perched atop a mountain ridge hundreds of feet above the Valley, Rustler's Rooste is hardly underground. But follow the winding road up to this cowboy-themed chophouse, wave at "Horny" the live bull standing in his outdoor pen, and ease open the massive wooden door. Suddenly, you'll find yourself inside a cramped, rock-lined mineshaft literally hacked into the side of South Mountain. Wrapping around the corner, guests emerge into a massive two-story dining space brimming with kitschy-cute charm, including a waterfall streaming down one entire rock wall and a metal slide leading down to the second floor. Yes, a slide. No wonder this 30-year-old landmark has hosted everyone from Clint Eastwood and former President George H.W. Bush, to, um, Ice-T and Coco. Sadly, only two of those people rode the slide, and it wasn't Dirty Harry or the commander in chief.

Ask a Mormon family to see their pantry and you might get a tour of the kitchen, but ask to see their "year's supply" and given the house's floor plan, you'll probably end up in the basement.

A year's supply is an LDS tradition, heavily encouraged by church leaders, in which individuals and families carefully plan, can, jar, and store basic items (water, flour, rice, salt) in ratios per person in the house and per month of expected storage.

Church members say a year's supply is never something purchased at once or backed into the garage with a truck. The collection (of what could easily be mistaken for a quick fix for 2012 or total wipeout) is a stash of long term storage with a rotating "three month's" supply of more perishable food items in case of community disaster, a sanitation issue — hell, even a crappy economy.

It's all about preparedness, church documents, and food preparation pamphlets, and it's often hard to do (especially in the desert and in houses without pantries — or basements). But individuals and families have adapted and thank modern-day solutions (read: The Container Store) for tubs easily disguised as hallway benches and false shelves that rotate to reveal hand-jarred preserves and tightly packed grains.

Frank & Albert's
When you think of old Arizona charm, the first thing that comes to mind is likely the Wild West and the kitschy cowboy aesthetic. Fair enough. But in its ninth decade of existence, the Biltmore resort — and its Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired architecture — is inextricably linked to old Phoenix, too. It truly is a jewel in this desert city, one worth visiting every now and then to appreciate the beauty and history of the Biltmore's environs. For excellent food without sky-high prices, Frank & Albert's is a worthy addition to the fine Biltmore tradition. Wright's understanding of design and lighting carry over in this comfortable restaurant, where diners can enjoy the Biltmore's longstanding tortilla soup, Mexican grouper, dry-rubbed pork spare ribs, and such comfort foods as grass-fed burgers, steak and potatoes, meatloaf, barbecued pork, and a couple of different pizzas. The meats and produce are locally grown and cooked with an attention to detail that one would come to expect from a restaurant with Wright's legacy attached to it. We recommend saving enough room for dessert, specifically the Tableside S'Mores, billed as "a Biltmore tradition." You'll receive a plate full of graham crackers, marshmallows, and two Hershey bars, along with a miniature grill, complete with open flame and two skewers. Go ahead, roast your own marshmallows, build your s'more, and just try not to have a smile on your face as you eat it. You'll remember what makes the Biltmore still one of the all-around coolest places to go in the Valley.
Durant's
Enough with the Mad Men stuff, already. When it comes to real retro style dining — big booths, red velvet wallpaper, and lavish décor — Arizonans in the know go to Durant's (through the back door, thank you). Servin' up slabs of perfectly prepared New York strip steaks and a hell of a good martini or two, this Phoenix landmark and classic chophouse — alive and well for more than half a century — has likely served your dad, or even your dad's dad, on more than one occasion. Go vintage-vogue in the lounge area with fresh oysters on the half shell or booth it up with friends and family for a feast of broiled steaks, chops, or Durant's famous liver specials. Old school? Yup. Old hat? Not a chance.
Organ Stop Pizza

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.

Best Place to Hang with Bottom Dwellers

Capitol Caf�

Joni's Capitol Cafe
Timur Guseynov

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."

Salt Cellar Restaurant
Evie Carpenter

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.

Cafe Monarch
Cafe Monarch
Café Monarch is untraditional in terms of restaurants, in that it's a one-man show that's as much an experience as it is a fine-dining restaurant. That one man is Chef Christopher Van Arsdale, and his mission is to create fresh and innovative American cuisine that caters to the needs of each guest. He's your chef, your waiter, and your busboy all wrapped up in a gracious package. Enjoy your meal on the garden patio or inside the small dining room, where you can watch him bustle around the kitchen. During brunch, you'll get one of two choices: sweet or savory. Like candied ginger atop baked almond French toast with almond butter and fresh blueberry sauce. Or a goat cheese-packed egg strata with spinach, roasted artichoke hearts, and basil-chicken sausage on the side. Light lunches make use of seasonal produce, with dishes like baked goat cheese and berries, turkey breast panini with orange cranberry relish, and chicken basil salads with heirloom tomatoes. The main event, though, is family-style dinner, like chutney-dressed lamb chops, garlic rosemary braised short ribs, and smoky barbecue pork tenderloin. Be forewarned, it's BYOB, and you might want to make sure you take advantage of this, because a one-man show tends to move at a slower clip than a fully staffed kitchen. Go, at first, for the experience, but we guarantee it's the food that will have you returning for more.
The House at Secret Garden
Jackie Mercandetti

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.

Best Of Phoenix®

Best Of