Restaurant bars stopped being strictly bars years ago. Nowadays, many people consider them the best seats in the house for a casual dinner that doesn't require reservations, waiting, or a deep reservoir of patience. Because most of them operate on a first-come, first-served basis, customers are free to grab a stool and get the party started -- no pomp, no circumstance, and just a linen napkin to serve as a place mat.
Here are 16 great places to belly up to the bar for a full-blown meal.
Windsor/Postino Central/Federal Pizza If you're smack in the middle of DeMarco/Baileyworld on Central Avenue just north of Camelback, you're sitting pretty when it comes to finding a great dining bar. In fact, nine times out of 10, it's the absolute best way to go, given the crowds and sometimes lengthy waits at all three places (45 minutes to an hour at Federal on the weekends). You may have to hover a bit, but keeping a sharp eye and snagging a seat within minutes means you're already well into carpe diem before the poor slobs with their names on a list have even been seated. So take your pick: Will it be loaded chips and bahn mi at Windsor, bruschetta and panini at Postino, or a pizza at Federal?
Binkley's Restaurant I know, I know. It's a special-occasion restaurant with a decidedly romantic ambiance. So why on earth would I recommend you slum it by sitting at the bar at Binkley's? Because there is no slumming it (not really) at Binkley's, and this is a great way to make a somewhat formal experience more fun. Park your butt at the right end of the bar and you'll be able to watch the food coming out of the kitchen (it's a great way to make decisions about what you want to eat), and if you're lucky, chef-owner Kevin Binkley will pop his head out of the kitchen to describe an ingredient personally or make a suggestion or two.
Citizen Public House The oval-shaped bar, parked smack in the middle of the room, is the focal point and the beating heart of Citizen -- which is just as it should be, given that this casual-but-upscale Old Town hangout bills itself as a "public house." Certainly, the surrounding tables fill up, but if you're a restaurant industry type (and they often come here) or a regular, you're at the bar. It doesn't hurt that the barkeeps are super-friendly or that chef Bernie Kantak dishes out great New American guy-food dishes (don't miss happy hour's kabanosi), or that head barman Richie Moe is capable of keeping an entire section of the bar watered, fed, and entertained.
Durant's When Jack Durant opened his namesake restaurant in the late '40s, he probably thought people would come in the front door and see the bar first thing. But of course, it didn't pan out that way. Everyone enters the restaurant through the kitchen -- like the mafioso, some of them may well be -- which positions the bar at what is technically the back of the restaurant. But it all works out. Phoenix's movers and shakers know where to find the bar as well as the martinis for which it's famous. And when it's impossible to get into the restaurant proper without a reservation or a wait, they grab a seat there for dinner, which takes some doing on a busy night, when half of downtown seems to be here for an after-work cocktail and maybe a steak.
Los Olivos Mexican Patio During season (and especially spring training), this atmospheric relic is a tourist favorite -- and therefore a zoo, which means long waits for the city's best cheese crisp and other old school dishes, such as sour cream enchiladas and steak picado. But if you can find a seat at the bar in the cozy cantina, you'll not only get that cheese crisp at a bargain price (during happy hour, that is) but you'll get it quickly. The bartenders cater to their clientele (a slew of regulars most of the time), dishing out cerveza and chips like the pros they are. The square-shaped bar bleeds into two rooms -- the low-slung cantina on one side and an high-ceiling, open dining room on the other. Try to get in on the dark, cozy cantina side. It's more comfortable and more quiet (although that's really just a matter of degree when season's in full swing).
Richardson's/Rokerij/Dick's Hideaway Richardson Browne runs his own little empire, and has for many years, on 16th Street between Bethany Home and Maryland, although Richardson's moved in with the Rokerij after a devastating fire a few years back. Back in the late '80s, Browne knew precisely what his North Phoenix neighborhood wanted (a cool bar to hoist a few, some spicy New Mexican food, and a relaxed hangout for a morning-after headache), and he gave it to them. Nowadays, he offers his hospitality three ways: the new Richardson's (which looks just like the old one, right down to the centerpiece bar that dominates the room), which is known for its carne adovada; the Rokerij -- a pitch-dark steakhouse with TVs and an open kitchen (great for entertainment value); and Dick's Hideaway, a tiny hole-in-the-wall offering the same chicken Chimayo and other dishes found at Richardson's. Oh, and then there's a very cool, tucked away, covered patio between Richardson's and Rokerij, which is probably the best choice of the lot in good weather.
Rancho Pinot I could probably count on one hand (okay, maybe two) the number of times I've sat at a table in Rancho Pinot. There's just something irresistible about the bar, situated near the front door and, therefore, conducive to people-watching. As is true of so many good dining bars, it's the place regulars gravitate to, half-hoping for a brief chat with feisty chef-owner Chrysa Robertson and fully expecting great service (not to mention informed wine and cocktail suggestions) from Jon, the dimpled young bartender whose quiet, charming, down-to-earth demeanor is always just right. Jon is a plus, and Robertson knows it. Meanwhile, there's not a better place to graze on Italian-inflected salads and appetizers or spend a little time luxuriating over a full-blown meal built around local, seasonal ingredients. And instead of napkins as place mats, you get place mats as place mats, which makes this wholly satisfying experience a bit like being at home -- without the dirty dishes.
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House of Tricks Although the lush, flower-filled patio has its charms, the best place for Tricksters to be is invariably the outdoor bar, roofed and shaded by two towering old trees. It's a tile-topped rectangle, raised up a few steps from the patio floor, giving the slightest hint of a tea party in a tree house. Chef Kelly Fletcher's eclectic New American menu offers plenty of tempting possibilities, but if money is an issue, come for the excellent, affordable happy hour.
Christopher's Of course, the elegantly furnished, contemporary dining room in the back is lovely, but it feels a bit formal for every day, and what if you're wearing jeans and flip-flops? That's when you park yourself at the expansive bar overlooking the exhibition kitchen. Sit on one end and you can watch Christopher Gross and crew cooking in the wood-burning oven, or just gaze out huge picture windows, which, by day, flood the room with light while offering up a never-ending parade of mall shoppers. The stools are plush, the seating spacious, the contemporary French menu steeped in tradition and the wine list excellent. This is one of the prettiest, most appealing rooms ever for day-drinking, and the affordable happy hour is pretty sweet, too.
BLD BLD stands for breakfast, lunch, dinner -- three squares a day at this cheery, neighborhood spot in Chandler. It's a family-friendly restaurant with the faintest hipster edge, which explains the glass-walled wine cellar, the community table, and the roomy indoor-outdoor bar. Drop in for pancakes and fresh-squeezed juices in the early morning, when it's still pleasant enough to sit on the outside looking in (which may sound like a sad song but isn't, in this case). And when it gets too steamy outside, reverse it. Point is, it's a sweet, unpretentious place to relax at the bar and chow on good old American food with contemporary touches.