It's easy to love living in Phoenix when the citrus trees are in bloom, the sun is shining just brightly and warmly enough, and the local heirloom carrots are freshly picked and ever so sweet. Sadly, that relentless eight month desert heat is just around the corner, killing that carrot growing season, and any affection I have left for this town. After 12 years of loving Phoenix, hating it, and saying 'meh' to it, it's time to leave it and move on to less sandy and much greener pastures.
As I get my knives and cookbooks ready for their cross-country journey, it's time to think of those things that make the Phoenix dining scene great, and perhaps less than great. Better to get the bitter flavor out of the way first.
'Local' salmon. Dear tourist without whom the Arizona economy would probably tank, you came all this way to eat that organically farmed Scottish salmon, right? I thought so. There's nothing else that would explain its presence in so many of those Valley restaurants offering Southwestern cuisine to tourists featuring 'local' product. Dear chefs, if all you can find locally to put on an entree plate is a brightly colored and perfectly sweet heirloom carrot, the product sourcing problem is yours, and not caused by Arizona's climate. Think a little outside the staid tourist fare.
Daytime summer patio dining. There's nothing better than misted over brunch food while sticking to a burning hot metal chair on a sun-drenched and crowded patio as buzzing flies and the unmistakable scent of sweat and sunscreen surround you. Right? Any delusions of this being a fantastic dining setting is just the call of that bloody mary bar in the corner calling your day drinking, sweat mark stained shorts over.
Overly casual service. If I had a nickel for every time a server has sat on a spare chair at my table, squatted down next to the table, stuck their order book into their waistband, became touchy feely with the table, tried to share their entire life story or put on a theatrical show in between describing the special of the day, I could easily pay for a meal at any of Scottsdale's priciest restaurants - establishments where the high price point is not enough to keep the behaviour any more formal. There's friendly, then there is awkward, overwhelming, and sucking the need to socialize with one's dining companion out of the evening. Elitist as this may sound, a good server is much like a good umpire, a decisive, knowledgeable, and authoritative figure, yet an unmemorable presence.
Overly casual dress code. Phoenix is the kind of town where a man wearing a suit means either wedding, funeral, or lawyer, flip flops are all-terrain, all-weather footwear, and a bathing suit cover up doubles as formal evening wear. I exaggerate perhaps, but it's not uncommon to see a rumpled or half-naked slob, with crusty feet exposed and flip flops loudly flapping, making their way through a high end dining room to enjoy a carefully prepared meal. If the hostess looks like a runway ready model next to you, and not just because of her natural beauty, it may be time to put some effort before leaving the house, buddy.
And is that circulating hipster in the colorful plaid shirt, skinny jeans with careful 1" cuff roll over leather work books that will never see a speck of sawdust in their life a friendly server, or just another aimless hipster? Be careful of when you ask for a drink refill, that hipster, they may not be your server.
It's like watching British television or films. Watch a bit of British television or films and you realize it's the same twelve to fifteen actors in everything, year after year; the same superbly talented bunch, all getting a little older, a little thicker in the middle, and a little less original with each expertly delivered, beautifully accented line. Maggie Smith is a delight every time she cracks wise with a depth of elegance rarely found outside of a royal family, Colin Firth does the handsome, stiffed lipped, judgy yet loving thing better than anyone, and yet, isn't it time to see some of the other talent Great Britain, er, I mean, the Phoenix culinary scene has to offer? For years Phoenix has been losing it's young ambitious talent to cities like San Francisco and New York, places that offer a wider audience, a higher level of competition, and a bigger paycheck. Keep your talent and develop it Phoenix, or it will win those James Beard awards elsewhere.
Next week, all the things that I will dearly miss about the Valley dining scene.