Chef Danielle Leoni is a James Beard Award-nominated chef and a pillar of sustainable restauranting in Arizona — dare we say the country. Here's a quick resume: She holds an Executive Master of Sustainability Leadership from ASU, the James Beard Foundation awarded her a "Seafood Sustainability Seal," and she's a member of the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch Blue-Ribbon Task Force. But none of that mattered when COVID hit. Within weeks, she shuttered her restaurant, The Breadfruit & Rum Bar, penned an open letter to Governor Doug Ducey on behalf of local eateries, and started the Arizona Small Restaurant Coalition. Yet her pandemic work was just getting started. Since then, Leoni and her Breadfruit team have delivered high-quality, locally sourced Jamaican food to A New Leaf and Roosevelt Community Church to feed families experiencing homelessness. She has joined the James Beard Foundation Women of Arizona alliance to promote female-owned restaurants in the Valley. And, during one of the most memorable election days in history, Leoni was part of Chefs for the Polls — a nonpartisan effort initiated by World Central Kitchen that fed voters (for free) at the Camelback Center on November 3.
During the pandemic, Scottsdale Community College faculty member Danielle Carlock got up to some interesting work. Carlock's sabbatical project was meant to address food insecurity for students through a farmers' market-style event at SCC, where Carlock would distribute free vegetables and edible plants from the campus food garden. But when SCC shut down due to COVID, she instead expanded the other part of the project: the free Maricopa Native Seed Library, which focuses on native plants — ecologically specific to Maricopa County — and seeds that aren't readily available at Valley nurseries (many of which Carlock herself collected in the field). These native seeds are free to students, faculty, and the public. They come in packets of 20 or so, which can be picked up or mailed. Food plant seeds include kale, lettuce, firecracker penstemon, white Sonora wheat, Salt River Pima pea, and desert chia. And now, Mesa Community College's Red Mountain campus is home to many of the parent plants, making it something of a showroom for the seed library.
Co-founded by former Phoenix Mercury player Bridget Pettis, nonprofit urban farming organization Project Roots AZ grows fresh fruits, herbs, and vegetables on land at the Spaces of Opportunity garden in Phoenix and the Local First Community Garden in Mesa. In addition to providing plots for people to farm their own food, the founders and staff of Project Roots AZ make community education a huge part of their activities, offering garden boxes for people to grow their own food on their patios or balconies, conducting gardening and yoga classes, making produce box deliveries, and running a soup kitchen out of their Mesa space. Project Roots AZ's garden bounties can also be found at the Downtown Phoenix Farmers Market.
Old-school Phoenix foodies might remember the original Christopher's Restaurant & Crush Lounge, the beloved eatery and bar manned by the James Beard Award-winning Chef Christopher Gross. It was located at Biltmore Fashion Park for a decade till Gross relocated to Wrigley Mansion to run Geordie's in 2018. (There was also a brief Sky Harbor satellite location, Christopher's, in 2019). But as of this spring, Gross opened a new restaurant: Christopher's at Wrigley Mansion. The eight-course tasting menu spotlights seasonal ingredients from a prix-fixe menu at $250 per person, as well as Christopher's Classic, a lighter tasting menu served at lunch. The 26-seat, 1,500-square-foot space, sitting right next to the mansion, was designed by architect Wendell Burnett, and boasts 180-degree views via floor-to-ceiling windows and a retractable roof. It's quite an experience, if you can swing it.
We live in an age when so many restaurants just pretend to offer tapas. Pa'La Downtown is the real thing — a creative, Italian-leaning, Japanese-accented, unbelievably interesting restaurant where the only move is to roll up with friends, order a host of small dishes, and split them all. Sure, you could come for an excellent Neapolitan-esque pizza whose crust Claudio Urciuoli has laboriously blended from many kinds of flour and blazed in a tiled, wood-fired oven. Sure, you could come for a sandwich, maybe impeccably sourced tuna on the headiest, airiest focaccia in the Valley. But to experience the full Italy-meets-Japan project of Pa'La 2.0, go small or go home. Jason Alford and Urciuoli plate inventive crudi, beef tataki, scallops with apple miso, anchovy-funked New York strip spiedini, squid and fregola, octopus and yuzu, burrata and tomatoes ... the list goes forever on, changing with the seasons, high-end imports, and chefs' imaginations.
Instrumental Hospitality's Southeast Asian-inspired restaurant in Melrose hits best when you're planted at the dark bar and a drink is plunked before you. The food at Belly can sing. Crab banh xeo has all the sea-sweet notes of the crustacean and the crisp goodness of the rice-flour crepe. Braised pork belly in a clay pot is richer than a pharaoh. Riffs on Southeast Asian tradition tend to be solid. Still, drinks kick up the experience several notches. Cocktails lean strongly tropical and bright: mezcal and rhum agricole, citrus, makrut lime leaf, intense aromatics. Try the Spicy Hydra, a margarita relative with pineapple and a tamarind salt rim, or the Because I Got High, which goes huge with mezcal, green chartreuse, matcha syrup, and coconut.
The photos on Durant's website are misleading: Durant's is dark. Really dark, like you need to wait for your eyes to adjust a bit dark. It adds a certain amount of flair and intrigue to your dining experience, as does the way you enter the restaurant through the back door. Once you're inside, you can sit down and squint at the menu, which is composed of pricey-but-worth-it steakhouse classics like filet mignon, strip steak, and grilled scallops in herb cream sauce. Whatever you choose, don't rush your meal; the food and the atmosphere invite you to linger in a subtle, classy dining room where you don't have to see clearly to enjoy what's on your plate.
You laugh. Isn't Hillstone a chain? Yes, it's a chain. And yes, if you glance at the menu, you'll find a lot of straightforward dishes: wood-fired rotisserie, a French dip, a cheeseburger, some sushi rolls. If you like restaurants where you are afraid to pronounce a menu item, perhaps move along. But if you're in the mood for the classics done exceptionally well, Hillstone is the spot. We have some recommendations for the (mildly) more adventurous eater, too. The Thai Tuna Roll, which contains macadamia nuts, is one of our favorite things to eat in all of Phoenix. The Thai Noodle Salad, served cold with mango, mint, chopped peanuts, and basil (we swap out the chicken for steak), is an absolute explosion of flavor — the perfect thing to eat on a hot day. The margs, heavy on the Cointreau, are $15 but somehow worth it. And, though we can't usually afford to hang at Hillstone, we often see people who seem vaguely famous when we do. Like a local CEO, or a guitarist from a famous '80s band who retired to Scottsdale, or a woman so beautiful she must be a model or the owner of a 500,000-follower Instagram influencer account. Maybe not the crowd you run with. But if you ain't been to Hillstone, they know something you don't.
Dom Ruggiero has one of the most diverse skill sets of any chef in the Valley. Beyond being a supremely gifted cook, he has grade-A chops in butchery, smoking food, and curing meat, yet also can rock out inspired vegetable cookery. Ruggiero is an underappreciated, quiet master of pasta, too. At Hush, he can usually be seen in the open kitchen or out in the restaurant delivering plates and chewing the fat with friends and regulars. There is a warmth to Hush that's as pleasant as the food. It's a place you want to return to again and again — and yes, it helps that Ruggiero's oxtail Italian beef, chicken liver pâté, and date cake are already stone-cold Valley classics just a few years in.
FnB could win this category on Charleen Badman's imaginative modern Arizonan food alone. It also could win on nothing but Pavle Milic's next-level drink program, highlighted by potable finds from up and down our varied state. Put the two together and you get some black magic. Somehow, Badman seems to get better year after year, turning out stellar dishes like chilled melon soup, lamb ribs over fregola, and Peruvian spring rolls, melding the top, most unusual local produce with her array of global techniques. Milic is a library of knowledge on drinks reaching to the far corners of our state. He sources small-batch ciders from cooler heights where apples grow and even bottles from, yes, Los Milics, his very own Sonoita vineyard.