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.
What do you want? The Pemberton probably has it. This Roosevelt Row entertainment hub, which debuted during the pandemic inside and on the grounds of a renovated 1920 mansion, features a rotating cast of tenants selling everything from craft cocktails served out of a camper (Baby Boy) to vegan pistachio almond ice cream (Melt) to vintage clothes and furniture (Vamp Rodeo, Clubhouse). The Pemberton holds yoga classes on the lawn, hosts live music, and is constantly signing up enticing new tenants, such as NamPik (Thai street food) and Moiselle (a "wine trailer" from sommelier Kristin Humphrey and Grace Perry, of Gracie's Tax Bar). It is also a scene on the weekends — an excellent spot to people-watch or, who knows, maybe even talk to a stranger when you're not Instagramming the food.
They mince the pork and pound the curry paste. They add the other aromatic ingredients: makrut lime leaf, lemongrass, cilantro, turmeric. They shape the sausage, a northern Thai staple known as sai ua. At last, they grill links over hot charcoal and slice them on a bias. Alex and Yotaka Martin's sai ua is explosively flavorful. No surprise there. This is no different from the curries, noodle dishes, soups, laabs, and the rest of the regional Thai deep cuts they lovingly prepare at intimate popup dinners and for preorder takeout. Food geeks have been high on Lom Wong for a year or two now. This is Thai food from the heart, and the stories behind it are on another level.
We could go on for days praising Hearth '61 at Mountain Shadows. The pedigree of the chefs — a culinary trio that includes luminaries Charles Wiley, one of the great fixtures and masters of resort cooking in Arizona — is part of it. Then there's the kitchen's centerpiece, an impressive, wood stone hearth oven that imparts a rustic charm and nuanced smoky flavor to signature dishes like tender short ribs with crispy Brussels sprouts and pork chops dressed up with spicy peaches and beer mustard. Finally, the ambiance: The tight, U-shaped counter is paneled with sleek wood and edged by blue-upholstered chairs. And this being an Arizona resort restaurant, there is Midcentury Modern decor and floor-to-ceiling windows offering scenic views of Camelback Mountain.
Lovecraft's previous happy hour setup, in which prices rose as the hours wore on, used to be like a little devil on our shoulder: It encouraged us to bounce out of work as early as possible to get the best specials. (Not that we would ever do that.) They've switched it up, though, so now whatever time you get there between 3 and 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, you're going to get the same delicious eats at the same price as everyone else. The food specials are selections from Lovecraft's New Mexico-inspired menu; the broken chip queso dip (we add brisket) and the green chile stew with a tortilla are favorites. Drink specials cover craft beers, wine, and cocktails. We've often gotten started at Lovecraft before 6 p.m. and lingered into the night to enjoy the elegant interior, friendly staff, and jovial atmosphere.