Earlier this year, when music venues hadn't reopened and we were jonesing for some live, local music, only one thing took the edge off. The Way Back Sessions is a weekly YouTube series featuring host Adam Carter, camerawoman Kat Carter, and outgoing sound engineer Brian Pristelski, along with a rotating cast of musical guests. Over the course of 90 minutes or so, viewers get a livestreamed performance interspersed with interview questions and banter between Carter and the musicians. Carter's enthusiasm is infectious; you can hear him screaming in the background for beloved local acts like Banana Gun, Snailmate, Wurmfur, The Real Fakes, Chrome Rhino, Wyves, The Woodworks, and Big Finish. Beyond giving us a crash course in what's cool in the Phoenix music scene, The Way Back Sessions personalizes the concert experience for viewers; we come away from each episode knowing more about the people we see on stage at shows. Carter says he has big plans for the show, including getting regional and national acts into the WBS studio. We can't wait to go along for the ride.
Speakeasy spots, rowdy saloons, dingy dives, and new Arizona-forward cocktail lounges currently comprise the Phoenix bar scene — but this historic tiki tavern is still tops. The Bikini Lounge is a well-loved neighborhood bar — okay, dive — in the Grand Avenue Arts District. And though it's old Phoenix, we're not too worried it's going to get run out of the burgeoning downtown scene. It's too much of a fixture. Open since 1947 and named for Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, it's one of the last of the first-wave tiki bars that were popular in the midcentury Valley. The cash-only haunt is also known for a lovable but stern longtime bar staff. Bikini was remodeled in the 1960s and is still adorned in Tom Cooper murals (most iconically, the topless woman above the bar), a bamboo-walled back patio, and even a tiki-themed bike rack.
Great creative cocktails. Minimal theatrical bullshit. This has become a rare combination in the age of the themed or otherwise grandly designed cocktail bar. Highball lasers in on drinks with zero distractions. Libby Lingua and Mitch Lyons' dim, copper-plated bar features cocktails as exciting as any in town, building from complex mixed bases of cognac and apple brandy, uniting unalike ingredients like coconut matcha and fernet, and infusing rum with Fruity Pebbles. If you think you've sipped it all, post up and try a riff like Amongst the Trees (a spice-tinged, fruit-layered paloma). Or order something wholly new, like Pardon Anything (cachaca and graham cracker?). Even the wine offerings and shots are next level.
Even now, even in its unlikely digs sharing a building with The Grey Hen and Century Grand, UnderTow immerses you so deeply into its imaginative vision that, looking out a "porthole," you can almost feel the "ship" riding the waves. Why is this the best reboot? Because it preserved one of our best bars through stormy waters. During the pandemic, UnderTow moved a few dozen yards from its previous spot inside a Sip Coffee & Beer. The tiki-style experience remains excellent and one of hospitality group Barter & Shake's crown jewels. Rums, tequilas, and other tropical-leaning spirits take the stage. Flavors call to mind teal waters and giant sunsets. Tiki drinking doesn't get better.
Don't let Sunbar's distractions — the pinball room, the outdoor patio bar, its small convenience store — fool you: The soul of the place is the cavernous nightclub-like venue in the heart of the property. It's equipped with an enormous dance floor (the largest in the city), a premier PK Trinity Sound System (the only one in Arizona), a wall-sized LED projection screen, and multiple VIP areas. (Did we mention the massive laser light shows?) Since opening in 2019, Sunbar has been a major dance destination in Tempe, luring in throngs of patrons with its over-the-top amenities and high-profile DJ/producers in the mix every weekend via its connection with Relentless Beats, the Valley's most prominent EDM promoter. Sometimes, being bigger is better, and in the case of Sunbar, it's what makes it the best club in town.
A great place to day-drink erases all sense of time. The back patio at Thunderbird Lounge does just that, making clocks and email feel about as relevant as they were 500 years ago. Part dive, part hipster hangout, part zero-fucks-given, and nothing but itself, Thunderbird provides a sticky haven to kick it with macrobrews, no-bullshit cocktails you could have made in high school, and newfangled hard seltzers. It's not a place to oooh and aahh over craft libations or design. It's just the ideal spot to have fun and snap open can after can after can, forgetting it all.
"Pool bar" might conjure memories of sugar-bomb frozen daiquiris or clubby bottle service that only oil barons can afford. Lylo changes the formula, introducing casual Japanese-leaning food alongside flawless original cocktails. These come from the mind of Ross Simon, the "cocktailian" behind Bitter & Twisted and Little Rituals. They spotlight rum (mostly), and they are bomb. Two rums are blended into soft-serve ice cream for the deeply nostalgic Dole Whip. Another two rums lace the pineapple and lime juice to make a complex, supremely refreshing rocks drink. And an artful, three-berry frozen daiquiri will banish even the saddest resort daiquiri memories.
On the (relatively rare) days when we feel like it'd be nice to escape Phoenix for a little while, but can't, we head to Casey Moore's. In addition to being one of the finest bars in the Valley, Casey's is also a kind of sanctuary. (It even looks like a sanctuary, much of it shielded from the street by trees and flowers and foliage and latticework.) Here, on the large, brick patio, the shade is abundant and Tempe's fading college-town vibes are well-preserved. You'll find cool professors, townies (but not the scary kind), pretentious English majors (god bless 'em), people who still smoke cigarettes (we don't judge), and lots of dogs. So much of Phoenix feels new, sometimes to its detriment. Casey's is that rare bar where the past is still alive and thriving.
The rooftop bar at Cambria Hotel Downtown Phoenix gives you a straight-shot view of all the best Valley landmarks: Camelback Mountain, Piestewa Peak, and all the construction happening along Portland Street down below. The high vantage point also means you can scout Roosevelt Row to see if the nightlife is popping — or finally dying down. Head up to From the Rooftop for after-dinner craft beer and cocktails, or before dinner for a dip in that shimmery rooftop pool. And for fans of hyper-local drink names, try the Camelback Sunset: passion fruit, sparkling wine, apertivo, and orange zest. Seating is first-come, first-serve, and reservations can be made for the furniture clusters — upscale patio furniture fancy enough to make you feel like you're in an old Pier 1 Imports commercial.
How many dive bars let you smoke a cigarette? From how many can you see stars? The ceiling at Ernie's is partly open, making both possible. And that's just where things start to get good at this north Scottsdale watering hole. A low-key, zero-judgment crowd kicks it at Ernie's until 2 a.m. every night of the week. Pool balls clack, karaoke voices howl, and people keep an eye on sports on high TVs, discussing (and half-forgetting) life while the drinks flow. Miller and well drinks are the norm. The menu doesn't fuck around, offering tuna melts and club sandwiches. A proper dive so far north in Scottsdale almost seems like a myth at this point, but that's part of Ernie's charm.