This loop around the sun was a grand one for Phoenix restaurants. The number of great eateries in our city and its environs didn't spike dramatically. Rather, the cream of this year's crop broadened the top echelons of eating in the Valley, texturing what we had with thrilling concepts that we didn't. Here are 2018's best.
Roland’s Cafe Market Bar
1505 East Van Buren Street
Roland’s Cafe Market Bar, a collaboration between pizza icon Chris Bianco and Tacos Chiwas’ Nadia Holguin and Armando Hernandez, is a modern outpost for unpretentious and elegant Mexican cooking with a soft Italian accent. Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the restaurant is situated in the lovingly restored Roland's Market building on Van Buren Street. The menu marries Bianco’s signature craftsmanship with Holguin and Hernandez’s soulful norteño cooking. It’s a winning formula that celebrates simple home-style dishes like entomatadas, corn tortillas folded over melted asadero cheese and smothered in a bright, sweet tomato sauce. Quesadillas, served open-faced and topped with ingredients like Schreiner’s chorizo and mortadella, evoke both wood-fired pizza and the classic Arizona cheese crisp. – Patricia Escárcega
36889 North Tom Darlington Drive, Carefree
Just a few months into his first solo gig, Brandon Gauthier's cooking was already at a level that few restaurants north of Old Town reach. Gauthier spent more than a decade cooking under Kevin Binkley, including helping to open Cafe Bink, which he recently bought from his sensei and molded into Confluence. Like Binkley, Gauthier steps across borders and continents with ease. Iberico shoulder with ginger. Cold watermelon soup with star anise. As with any creative work of true originality, experiencing Gauthier's food feels, at once, like something novel and yet like something that has always been there. "Confluence" denotes the intersection of various culinary influences: Spanish, French, Japanese, and many more. It could just as easily refer to unlikely dishes coming together from disparate concepts and ingredients: venison au poivre, guinea hen with kumquat and burdock root. Prices are heady. So is the experience. – Chris Malloy
2221 North Seventh Street
This new small plates restaurant from chef Vince Mellody is a gem. Located in the dark, cool Seventh Street bungalow that formerly housed Rice Paper, Bri delivers creative small plates that evince a fondness for pungent, spicy Asian-inspired flavors and roasted duck. The best way to experience Bri is to come with a small group and order indiscriminately from the menu of shareable plates. Frico caldo, pan-fried cheese dovetailed against an herb-spackled potato pancake, is crispy and savory. Don’t skip the drooling duck, a succulent duck breast slicked in a lovely chile sauce and topped with crispy garlic and onions. – PE
Larder + Delta
200 West Portland Street, #101
Stephen Jones with vegetables is like Braque with paint. You never really know what you're going to get, other than something interesting. With some of Jones' early menus, you got parsley root roasted in hay, cornmeal tamales fragrant with mushrooms, vegetable moles and celery salsa verdes. Jones is cooking in the nascent national tradition of progressive southern food. His fried pork skin, ultra heavy and puffy, and wildly redolent of lavender, is like chicharrones wandered into a southern tea shop. A Korean fried chicken sandwich madly crackles, yet bursts with so much juice it soaks the bottom bun. Unlike most southern eateries in our Southwestern city, Jones sources heady ingredients, many heirlooms predating industrial agriculture. This is a restaurant that, like a good friend, will always be worth visiting as time brings changes. – CM
4025 East Chandler Boulevard
In a city overflowing with strip mall sushi restaurants, Sushi Nakano stands out for its exceptionally strong sushi, nigiri, and sashimi game. It's not surprising, considering head sushi chef Leo Nakano trained under his father, Hirofumi Nakano of north Scottsdale’s venerable Hiro Sushi. Great starters include the monkfish liver pate, which is touched with a vibrant and sweet miso sauce. Sushi options include traditional, simple rolls with ingredients like fermented soybeans and Japanese cucumber, along with creative flash-fried rolls like the Rising Sun, made with creamy tuna and burdock root. If you can swing it, the omakase chef’s choice tasting menu is the way to go. – PE
Cotton & Copper
1006 East Warner Road, #113, Tempe
Chef Tamara Stanger is fiercely creative and uniquely talented, has no "off" button, and is one of a brave few charting new waters for food in Arizona. Evidenced by venison medallions in cheddar jus or a chicken sandwich with cool heat and a wickedly beautiful homemade English muffin bun, her flavors are uniquely harsh but polished and comforting. Sean Traynor, owner and head man behind the bar, shakes and stirs some mean drinks. Combining ingredients like Zucca and fruit jam, Averna and sherry, he achieves easy balance while keeping drinks approachable and not too pedantic. This self-styled "public house" has a nice buzz. Its winter menu can't come soon enough. – CM
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5609 East McKellips Road, Mesa
Situated amid the chain restaurants and retirement villages of northeast Mesa, Osteria brings some culinary firepower to the emerging Alta Mesa neighborhood. Chef Tony Snyder, a veteran of some of the Valley's top resort kitchens, uses local ingredients to craft classic Italian dishes, with an emphasis on wood-fired fare. The menu treads familiar territory, including pizza, salads, pasta,and antipasti. You’ll want to zero in on the pasta menu, where dishes like fresh-made spinach ricotta ravioli and tagliatelle Bolognese remind you that some of the best things in life are simple. – PE
1006 East Warner Road, Tempe
Aaron Chamberlin's third restaurant this year was his best. Chefs Rene Andrade and Roberto Centeno captain the open kitchen and its formidable wood-burning stove. Though both from Nogales, Mexico, the pair turns out Ghost Ranch's exciting brand of food: modern Southwestern. Here in metro Phoenix, we see so many cuisines elevated: Italian, Mexican, barbecue, and so on. But Southwestern nudged in a fresh direction the way these chefs are nudging it every day, with Sonoran wheat berries to go with trout and heirloom polenta under pollo asado? That's something rare. Chile Colorado has refreshing lightness and an almost fruity heat. Flank steak absorbs the spirit of the grill. The notion of altering staples from in and around the Sonoran may seem odd at first, you'll be happy this trio had the idea and guts to pull the trigger. – CM