Best of Phoenix 2021
Photography: Jacob Tyler Dunn and Peter Speyer
Last year, when not much was open in Phoenix, we’d sometimes just drive around the city. The roads were usually empty, but being behind the wheel helped us feel closer to the places we missed, and hoped to visit again soon. Phoenix is a driving town. Our freeways and streets connect us to each other and to the life of the city.

As a way of paying tribute to our asphalt jungle — the highways and byways that take us to work, to play, and everywhere in between — we’ve themed the 2021 edition of Best of Phoenix “In the Fast Lane.”

In the pages ahead, you’ll find 350 categories celebrating our favorite news stories, bars, shops, athletes, bands, restaurants, art, and more. (There’s even a whole new section devoted to cannabis.) You’ll also see tributes to some of the Valley’s most iconic streets.

Welcome to Best of Phoenix 2021. Enjoy the ride.
Frances

This year, the boutique Georganne Bryant founded in 2006 and named for her grandmother underwent a significant transition when Bryant sold the shop to Jade Noble. Instead of an abrupt change, Noble opted for keeping a lot of the store's charm and slowly brought in new offerings that gave it fresh appeal for both longtime customers and first-time visitors. Frances continues to have that perfect blend of modern and vintage flair. It's where you want to shop for others, whether grown-ups or little people, because you know you'll find the perfect item that isn't sitting on every other shelf around town. But it's also nice to shop for yourself, because you can walk away with a new hat to jazz up your jeans look, a set of highball glasses to give your bar cart new life, or something as simple as a sticker or hair clip that adds that little bit of cheer to your day. Humorous objects abound, as do items that show local love. Comfy couches signal the fact that everyone is welcome here — and remind you that shopping can be more than merely gathering objects.

Buffalo Chip Saloon
Lauren Cusimano
Barrio Cafe

President Joe Biden, then a candidate, stopped into Barrio Café with Kamala Harris for a photo op in October 2020. And somehow, the legend of Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza grew. It's been growing for a while, since she opened on 16th Street two decades ago. Most recently, during the first months of the pandemic, she turned Barrio Café into a community kitchen, stewing chile and folding burritos for her "fellow man" in need. Times got hard even for Barrio Café. Still, it remains one of the most interesting, thoughtful, and on-point menus in town. Esparza still rocks out her famous dishes, like guacamole with chiles en nogada, and seafood enchiladas that blend Mexican and French techniques. Over the years, she has adapted, incorporating the smoker more and more. Sitting at the tiny bar with cochinita pibil and a frosty margarita remains one of the great culinary and cultural pleasures in town.

The path to legal pot in Arizona was a long and winding one. It started in 2010 when medical marijuana was legalized (actually, longtime advocates will tell you, it started a good while before that). In 2016, a proposal to legalize recreational marijuana suffered a defeat at the ballot box. It returned four years later, survived a legal challenge, and was approved at the polls by a 60-40 margin in November 2020. But even then, it wasn't clear how long it would be until dispensaries would be given the green light to sell recreational pot; in other states, the process had taken nearly a year. Then, one Friday afternoon in January, boom: The state approved dozens of licenses at once, swinging open the doors to recreational sales. There have been lines out the doors of dispensaries ever since. Often, as we walk around town, we now catch a whiff of cannabis in the air, be it in downtown Phoenix or a quiet Arcadia side street. It's just normal now — the way it should be.

It's not always seasonally appropriate to bring a book to a Phoenix park, but when the weather cooperates, there's nothing lovelier than turning some pages under a gentle sun and a light breeze. And ever since the city's revitalization project gave the western edge of the Margaret T. Hance Park a heavy-duty makeover, the whole strip has come alive. The park connects opposite sides of Central Avenue in downtown Phoenix, features a beautiful array of trees and desert fauna, and provides space for families, skateboarders, joggers, and dog walkers. Most importantly, it also features ample spots to post up and read for a few hours during those beautiful days when we can bear to be outside.

the larder + the delta
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

The imaginative New Southern food dreamed up and impeccably executed by Chef Stephen Jones is like no other cooking in town, and no other chef feels even vaguely similar. His hot chicken can hang with any fried chicken in Arizona. He also plates creations like tuna crudo with rhubarb vinegar and leaf-thin radish, unreasonably delicious hoe cakes, and a legendary Buffalo cauliflower. There are always next-level ingredients woven through his food in some beautiful, until-then-unknown way: special vinegars, pickles, smoked ingredients, heirloom beans and rice. His cooking has so much richness yet so much lightness and finesse. What's more, Jones roots his cooking firmly in near and far American history. Posting up at his bar always feels like a celebration. We're lucky to have the opportunity to eat here in Phoenix.

We'll always remember fondly this summer's Phoenix Suns playoff run. It didn't turn out how we wanted, but one of our favorite takeaways from those thrilling weeks was "Suns in 4," a catchy track by local hip-hop artist Robbie Tripp. The title comes from the viral video in which Phoenician-turned-Denverite Nick McKellar got in a fight with a Nuggets fan during Game 3 of the Suns-Nuggets series: "SUNS IN FOUR!" McKellar screamed defiantly at his aggressor. The short song is an appreciation of Phoenix just as much as it is an ode to its basketball team with lyrics like "We the Valley here together / Man, we all we need / I put the city on my back / I wear it on my sleeve." Sure, it might not be the most complex or thoughtful tune to come out of the Phoenix music scene this year. But to us, it's a musical time capsule that will never fail to remind us of the summer of 2021, when it seemed like the whole city was united in a spirit of hope, excitement, and local pride.

We were excited to get the vaccine, of course. We were less excited about driving from central Phoenix to Glendale, in the middle of the night, to wait in line for somebody to jam a needle into our arm. So we were surprised to find ourselves moved almost to the point of tears upon arrival at State Farm Stadium, which since the beginning of January had been transformed into a 24/7 vaccination factory, the largest such site in the state and one of the largest in the country. (President Biden called the effort a "national model" after it cranked out more than 100,000 shots in less than three weeks.) A well-coordinated team of mostly volunteers greeted us, directed hundreds of cars, checked us in with iPads, helped the medical staff administer the shots. Like a lot of the previous year, the experience felt like something out of a sci-fi movie. The only difference was that, this time, under the bright-white parking lot lights, surrounded by all these smiling people saving lives, we had finally made it to the happy ending.

The Clarendon Hotel

The rooftop pool deck at The Clarendon Hotel and Spa is generally an excellent place to hang out. But as a setting for a multicourse meal infused with marijuana, it's hard to beat. Chef Derek Upton has been hosting an educational culinary series here called "Elevated Under the Stars" since early spring. The cool rooftop views of central Phoenix are accompanied by anything from gnocchi to infused Bolognese and served with mocktails (infusion optional) and a discussion of cooking, dosing, and flavor profiles and pairings. Tickets for these flower-powered fine-dining events cost $250 each for the gastronomically curious who want to eat, and $50 for a gallery seat sans dinner. Upton often has as-seen-on-TV guests join him for the cannabis dinners and is a bit of a celebrity chef himself since appearing on the 2020 Netflix original series Cooked with Cannabis.

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