Laura Hahnefeld's Year in Food: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

In addition to food trucks making the scene in a big way in 2011 (see the article here), the year in food for the Valley was chock-full of other newsworthy goodies as well -- even chef Payton Curry managed to slip in a last-minute announcement. 

Here are a few of Laura's favorites:

10. Chefs on the Move
Chris Curtiss left Noca and eventually ended up at Sam Fox's sixth NoRTH location, just a few blocks away; James Beard Award-winner Robert McGrath left Renegade Canteen to join Spotted Donkey Cantina in Scottsdale; Peter DeRuvo left Paradise Valley's Prado after less than a year and started his own restaurant in Old Town Scottsdale called Cuoco Pazzo (Italian for "crazy cook"), and Crudo chef Cullen Campbell, who was kicked out of his Scottsdale location in July, found a new home for his restaurant at the former Backstreet Wine Salon in Arcadia. (Whew!)

9. Downtown Goes Pop (Up)!
This summer, Valley diners were treated to a revolving door of unique eats from some of the best chefs in town -- from Andrea White's South African cooking to Josh Hebert's ramen to Jeff Kraus' "experience" of frog leg lollies -- courtesy of Cycle, the pop-up venue inside the in-flux Lexington Hotel in downtown Phoenix.

8. Up, Up, and Away Eating
Next year, travelers in Terminal 4 at Sky Harbor International Airport will be able to get a taste of the Valley's food scene, thanks to restaurants such as Barrio Cafe, Cowboy Ciao, and several Sam Fox and LGO Hospitality concepts making the contractual cut this summer under food service provider HMS Host. Beats airline food any day.

7. FnB Goes BYOB
Summer probably felt longer than most to FnB, the Scottsdale restaurant known for its flavorful fare and high-quality Arizona wines, when it was forced to go BYOB for nearly four months due to issues with its liquor license.

6. Attack of the Dine-In Theaters
While upscale dine-in theaters AMC Esplanade and Studio Movie Grill opened this year, Farrelli's Cinema Supper Club (the first dinner-and-a-movie concept in the Valley) closed after a decade-long run. Now that's a sad ending.

5. Gluten-Free Gets (Even More) Popular
Up until late last year, no one could even spell celiac disease, let alone explain what gluten was. This year, along with celebrity testimonials, daytime talk-show discussions, and grocery stores stocked with gluten-free products, scads of Valley restaurants touted their gluten-free menus, dishes, and even no-brainer ingredients like fruits and vegetables. Those with the eating sensitivity have never had it (taste) so good.

4. Pies Pick Up Steam
Though they still may not be as popular as cupcakes, this year, the classic baked dish saw more pie push than usual -- thanks to restaurants like Beckett's Table, Romeo's Euro Café, and new food truck Mamma Toledo's Pies and Homemade Desserts, along with beloved bakeries and cafés throughout the Valley (not to mention the second Pie Social from New Times' food blog, Chow Bella). That's in-sPIE-er-ing.

3. Focus on Farmers Markets
Eating local? So are a lot of folks. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there were 17 percent more farmers markets across America this year than in 2010. And for Valley shoppers looking for fresh, locally grown goodness during prime season, it may have seemed most of the increase happened in Arizona. Next up: community gardens.

2. Esparza and Bianco Branch Out
This year, Valley legends Silvana Salcido Esparza and Chris Bianco expanded their empires. Barrio Café chef and owner Esparza announced two concepts arriving this week in Old Town Scottsdale: a European-meets-Mexican restaurant called Silvana (set to open New Year's Eve) and the casual Barrio Queen Tequileria.

Pizza master Bianco was especially busy in 2011. In addition to releasing his own line of canned organic tomatoes with California cannery expert Rob DiNapoli; creating the menu with Doug Robson of Gallo Blanco for Cocina 10, the restaurant inside downtown's new music venue, Crescent Ballroom; expanding his sandwich and salad shop, Pane Bianco, by taking over the space next-door that had been Lux and adding dinner; and opening Pizzeria Bianco for lunch; Bianco partnered with British celeb chef Jamie Oliver to open a restaurant in London called Union Jacks, featuring wood-fired flatbreads with British ingredients. Bianco also announced plans to open a trattoria in Central Phoenix with former Prado chef Claudio Urciuoli (whom Bianco hired last year) at the helm.

1. Late-night eats
The trend of wining and dining into the wee hours of the evening heated up in 2011, with top-notch Valley restaurants like Petite Maison, FnB, Posh, Noca, Sens Asian Tapas, and Citizen Public House offering a select menu of late-night gourmet eats, sometimes called "staff menus," to hungry diners not yet ready to call it a night. Extras like celeb chef sightings and eavesdropping in on the latest restaurant gossip made the late-night meals all the merrier.

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