But those two downtowns are only part of the light rail's appeal. There's actually plenty of good stuff along the way — restaurants that are about to get a lot more exposure now that so many people will be walking by on their way to and from the trains.
The northernmost light-rail station (Montebello/19th Avenue) may not be a culinary attraction (slushies at Target, anyone?), but once you hit Camelback, there are some noteworthy spots. Near the 19th Avenue/Camelback station, fill up on cheap, homey Cuban food at Sabor Cubano Buffet (2030 W. Camelback), or indulge in budget-friendly Vietnamese eats at Da Vang (4538 N. 19th Ave.).
It's already quite the bustling intersection, but expect the Central Ave./Camelback stop to only get busier, thanks to the sheer variety of spots. There's classy, family-run Italian (Aiello's, 5202 N. Central, aiellositalianrestaurant.com), and a well-rounded restaurant that does it all, from morning 'til night (Maizie's, 4750 N. Central, maiziescafe.com). In the next couple of months, two more high-profile places are set to open in this 'hood, too: St. Francis Place (111 E. Camelback) and the second location of Postino Wine Cafe (5144 N. Central, postinowinecafe.com).
Further down Central (Indian School and Osborn stations) is another handful of eateries that truly deserve whatever business the light rail might bring, considering how badly the streets were torn up during construction. Really, it's a blessing that places like these managed to stay in business. If they hadn't, where would we go for some fish and chips and a pint of Guinness (George & Dragon, 4240 N. Central, georgeanddragonpub.net)? Or the best homemade mozzarella sandwich in town (Pane Bianco, 4404 N. Central, pizzeriabianco.com/pane/contact.html)? Or a killer cocktail and some great Middle Eastern-inspired noshes (Fez, 3815 N. Central, fezoncentral.com)? In the case of China Chili (302 E. Flower, chinachilirestaurant.com), the restaurant's original location on Central did succumb to construction hell, but thankfully it reopened nearby.
Near the Thomas and Central Avenue station, you can go fancy or casual. Swanky Durant's (2611 N. Central, durantsaz.com) features valet parking and top-notch steaks, while Wild Thaiger (2631 N. Central, wildthaiger.com) and Switch (2603 N. Central, switchofarizona.com) are more stylishly laid-back, with classic Thai eats at the former and a globetrotting assortment of salads, sandwiches, and shareable plates at the latter.
Heading to the Heard Museum? Your best bet — and frankly, your only bet — at the Encanto station is Arcadia Farms, tucked right into the museum (2301 N. Central, arcadiafarmscafe.com). Fuel up on a gourmet sandwich or salad before checking out the exhibitions. Or, if the Phoenix Art Museum is on your agenda, Arcadia Farms runs the in-house café there, too (1625 N. Central). Also around the McDowell station is Thai Hut (101 E. McDowell), with affordable noodles and curries in a diner setting, as well as Cheuvront Restaurant & Wine Bar (1326 N. Central, cheuvronts.com), where the menu of 40-plus cheeses is irresistible.
Hop off at the Roosevelt station to get to several restaurants just beyond the downtown fray. Carly's Bistro (128 E. Roosevelt, carlysbistro.com) is cozy and open late, serving sandwiches and salads, while two blocks over from famous Matt's Big Breakfast (801 N. First St., mattsbigbreakfast.com) is restaurateur Matt Pool's lesser-known hangout, The Roosevelt (816 N. Third St.). It's basically a bar, open only in the evening, but the menu is craveable even when you're not in the mood for a beer.
Like I said, you'll have no trouble finding things to eat downtown. But once you get east of Seventh Street, things start to spread out. Halfway between the Third Street and 12th Street stops along Jefferson, Mrs. White's Golden Rule Café (808 E. Jefferson) is a must-try for excellent fried catfish, fried chicken, cornbread, and other soul-satisfying dishes. And on the westbound side of the line, try Los Dos Molinos (1010 E. Washington, losdosmolinosaz.com), where the wait is never as bad as this New Mexican restaurant's south Central Ave. sister location.
Heading toward Tempe from there, the rail line passes through some long stretches of industrial and office parks, and the better options, such as the time-honored Stockyards (5009 E. Washington, stockyardsrestaurant.com), aren't in very pedestrian-friendly locations, despite their proximity to the rail. You'll have to stay onboard until you get to downtown Tempe for a treasure trove of restaurants, but it's worth the wait. From the Mill Avenue/Third Street stop, you can wander up Mill Avenue for the usual faves.
Some of the best ethnic cuisine in the Valley crops in along the eastern stretch of the light rail. The intersection of University and Rural offers scrumptious Ethiopian eats at Blue Nile (933 E. University), but if Middle Eastern food is what you're craving, ride to the next stop, at Dorsey and Apache Boulevard. Haji Baba (1513 E. Apache) is a cafe/market where you can gobble up cheap falafel before stocking up on Middle Eastern staples, while Tasty Kabob (1250 E. Apache, tastykabobaz.com) is a nicer sit-down place known for its appealing Persian menu. Khai Hoan's Vietnamese menu clearly doesn't fit in with the Middle Eastern mix, but it's a great stop for cheap pho in this part of town (1537 E. Apache).
The Dhaba (1876 E. Apache, the-dhaba.com) is the only reason to get off at McClintock/Apache Boulevard, although it's no ordinary Indian restaurant. Here, they serve casual chaat dishes (Indian truckstop snacks) that you won't find anywhere else in town.
Tough it out through the shabby stretch of rail heading into Mesa, and your reward will come at the very end of the line. Here, at the Sycamore/Main Street station, you can choose from excellent, authentic Chinese food (Asian Café Express, 1911 W. Main) or tasty Guatemalan cuisine (Grill El Quetzal, 1933 W. Main) on the east side of Dobson, or a plethora of Chinese and Vietnamese spots at the brand-new Mekong Plaza (66 S. Dobson, mekongplaza.com) right across the street.
Is the light rail more about the destination, or the journey? Considering all the fun restaurants to check out — all within a short walking distance of the stations — I'd say it's a little bit of both.