Partying Hard on Mill Avenue

It’s Friday, and you need to put the week (and especially the memory of that lousy Psych 101 exam score) behind you. Mill Avenue beckons.

Will you start on the patio at The Handlebar? You will, because you’re trying to be pandemic-conscious but also because you like to start slow, with a couple of cold brews, and the Handlebar beer menu is impressive. The sausage sandwich at the next table looks tasty, but it’s too early in the evening for food. Maybe at the next stop.

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We're not sure exactly what to call the neighborhood where McKenzie's is located, on a busy stretch of Seventh Street between Indian School and Camelback roads. In some ways, it's not much of a neighborhood. Which makes it all the more impressive that the proprietors of the place have cultivated a homey vibe more reminiscent of a corner bar in Milwaukee than a McBar in central Phoenix. You'll notice McKenzie's from the street by the thousands of colorful lights dangling down off the gutters. It has some dive-like qualities — street signs, license plates, and yet more Christmas lights provide a good chunk of the decoration — but it's neither filthy nor too-cool-for-school. They serve cheese curds and there's a dartboard. You'll usually see the same bartenders, and eventually, they'll remember your name. It's located just off the Grand Canal, making it a good place to stop for a cold beer while out on a bike ride. The kitchen is open late, till 12:30 a.m. every night. McKenzie's is just a solid, reliable, well-run place where you can come as you are — really, all we ask of a neighborhood bar.

Superstition Downtown
Lauren Cusimano

In fall 2020, Prescott's Superstition Meadery opened a downtown Phoenix epicenter, bringing some of the world's most lauded and creative meads within easy reach. Co-owners Jeff and Jen Herbert pour their creations from 24 taps, some of which flow with Superstition's own ciders and orange wines. In the craft beverage world, the Herberts are known for their outlandishly creative libations: spiced meads aged in old whiskey barrels, sultry $80 bottles made with berries and white chocolate (Berry White). All said, they've brewed hundreds of meads — and folks sip great flights of them downtown in what feels like a luxe Viking hall.

Century Grand
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

The Platform 18 experience at Century Grand is so aggressively new that stepping onto the train car is like slipping through a wormhole into a new dimension. The interior is designed to look like a presidential train car from the 1920s. Every design element fits this theme: bartender garb, stools, tables, "windows" that are actually TVs showing a "passing landscape." A deep book of cocktails ranges from riffs on centuries-old classics to absolutely batshit, excellent concoctions like a libation that mimics peanut butter and jelly, with a sleeve of Campari cotton candy on the side for good measure. Drinks contain kumquat marmalade, guinea pepper, and sparkling green coffee tea, often in a single drink. The amazing thing is that just about all of them are bangers.

The west Valley isn't exactly known for being a blues hotbed. A few scattered places in the area have hosted jam sessions or occasional one-offs by musicians, sure. But a venue dedicated to showcasing the genre and its artists on that side of town hadn't been tried until Cindi Jackson and Paul Vincent Perez opened Westside Blues & Jazz at the Glendale Market Square shopping center in April. The retired couple, both longtime worshippers of the blues, built the club as a temple to the art form, with great acoustics, plush seating, and speakeasy decor. Their faith in the project, which cost an estimated $500,000 to create, was shaken when COVID-19 delayed its debut for an entire year. Once opened, though, it became a hit. Local blues/R&B greats like Lucius Parr, Francine Reed, and Big Pete Pearson have frequented the stage, as have such jazz scene mainstays as Delphine Cortez, Sandra Bassett, and We3. It's even gotten a thumbs-up from local blues guru and Rhythm Room owner Bob Corritore. High praise indeed.

Marquee Theatre

It's just our opinion, but we like to listen to heavy metal in a spacious atmosphere, one where the raucous drum solos and guitar shredding can echo off the rafters. Marquee Theatre's high ceilings and concrete floors make for an almost industrial atmosphere, one that pairs perfectly with the intensity and savagery of metal. English band Cradle of Filth plays here, as does Great White and Steel Panther. Marquee is also a frequent host of metal tribute bands such as Noise Pollution: The AC/DC Experience and The Iron Maidens. We recommend you get to Marquee early to carve out your own little space to head-bang at our local Metaldome.

Buffalo Chip Saloon
Lauren Cusimano

Every honky-tonk around these parts has tallboys, twangy tunes, and rustic kitsch, but nothing as truly cowboy or cowgirl as Buffalo Chip's outdoor rodeo arena where amateur and pro riders can attempt on Wednesdays and Fridays to hang on for eight seconds. That's one way this joint rises above the rest of the herd. Here are a few more: The sheer amount of features and distractions it boasts, some of which aren't found elsewhere. The Chip's sprawling compound has fire pits, lawn games, and an outside stage area with live bands on weekends. Inside, you can hop atop the bar to dance (there's an overhead rail to prevent accidental faceplants) or ride in a swing hanging from the ceiling. There's a large dance floor if you'd rather stay closer to the ground when two-stepping, though. The menu has unrivaled barbecue and the bar has one of the biggest selections of beers and booze in Cave Creek. A small church is located on the premises with services every Sunday, should you need to atone for your indulgent acts earlier in the weekend, pardner.

Chopper John's
New Times Archives

There's a lot to see at Chopper John's, from the lineup of hogs outside (it is, of course, a biker bar at heart) to the dollar bills stapled all over the ceiling and the band memorabilia on the walls. But the main attraction is whoever's on stage, which is often one of Phoenix's beloved punk bands. We've caught The Posters here, along with JJCnV, Some Jaywalkers, and plenty of others. Other genres are often on display here, too — most notably rockabilly, trash-a-billy, and the like. If you're looking for cheap drinks and a lively crowd while listening to loud, fast, angry music, Chopper John's is your spot.

Best Place to See A Hip-Hop Show

Aura

Like other local music scenes, live hip-hop in the Valley took a hit last year when the pandemic forced gigs to go virtual or evaporate altogether. Once crowds could attend shows again, hip-hop promoters, artists, and fans flocked to Aura in Tempe. The 9,500-square-foot Mill Avenue club has become a go-to spot for the genre. Why? Its amenities are conducive to the needs of the scene: The large main room can host superstars like Wifisfuneral one night or work in tandem with a side stage in Aura's lounge for local mini-festivals the next. Its bookers work with promoters both small and large (Justus Samuel of Respect the Underground swears by the place). The top-notch sound system means you can hear every bar being uttered, even if it's a mumbling SoundCloud rapper on the mic. And, unlike other local venues looking to maximize liquor sales, Aura will sometimes run all-ages shows. Younger fans can get a taste of the fun while teenage performers get the opportunity to shine, like when 17-year-old Phoenix rapper Xander (a.k.a. XaniMonsta) brought the place down in August.

Q & Brew

Why does Q & Brew keep racking up awards from us as the Valley's best billiards joint? Chalk it up to the place's straightforward focus on pool, drinking, and not much else (save for a few pinball machines by the front door). The rates are cheap ($5 per hour on the regulation-sized Brunswick Gold Crown tables, with free games from 3 to 6 p.m. on the 8-footers), the staff behind the tuck-and-roll leatherette bar aren't stingy with pours, the cues and other equipment are well-maintained, and caricatures of billiards legends like Ralph Greenleaf and Willie Mosconi adorn the walls. Speaking of history, Q & Brew has been in business since 1968, and given its popularity, will keep hustling for years to come.

Shady's
Lauren Cusimano

Picking the best jukebox in town is no easy feat. Options are pretty limited, as old-school, non-internet machines are a dying breed. Those still left around town are all great in their own right, but no matter which one you chose, someone's going to disagree. Shady's jukebox outshines its CD-slinging brethren and earns our nod because of its sound quality (crystal-clear jams come from the well-maintained machine) and the depth of its curated and rotating selections. Flipping through the pages of the juke is like digging through the crates at a choice used record store as you encounter disc after disc of diverse options, rarities, and obscure gems. Art punk and psychedelic space-surf. Japanese ska and Chicano rock. French New Wave and weirdo soul. And in between, there's R&B from Etta and Aretha, hard-to-find albums from local indie and soul artists, and "grab bag" compilations occasionally included by the staff. We're sure hipsters, music fanatics, and culture junkies will all agree with our pick. Anyone who doesn't can find us feeding bills into the box down at Shady's if they'd like to debate.

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