The Spot: St. Francis, 111 E. Camelback Road, Phoenix, 602-200-8111, www.stfrancisaz.com.
The Hours: Happy Hour is offered from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. every day. The Interior: Wendell Burnette Architects transformed what was once a Mid-Century Harold Ekman office building into a contemporary, loft-like space so hip it looks more suited to New York or San Francisco than Phoenix.
Original brick walls, a stunning cabled and beam ceiling and modern art create that edgy, urban aesthetic, while garage doors at the indoor-outdoor bar and pivot doors leading out to the tree-shaded patio remind us that good old Phoenix and months of near-perfect weather also have their charms.
Come happy hour, the place is usually packed, which makes for interesting (if ear-splitting) people watching. If you can't take the noise, head for the patio when the weather cools or ask for a table on the second-floor dining mezzanine.
The Food: A hallway blackboard listing fruits and vegetables according to their growing seasons goes largely unnoticed, but it says a lot about chef-owner Aaron Chamberlin's approach to cooking. He buys loads of pristine seasonal produce from local growers, preparing dishes that look and taste simple, wholesome and under-manipulated.
Case in point -- corn soup so sweet and intense it's corn's Platonic ideal, jazzed up with chile and smoked tomato oil ($6). I've only just discovered the fingerling potatoes -- a great big heap of them, sprinkled with Parmesan, rosemary and fried sage leaves -- and I wonder how I've lived without them so long. Roasted in the wood-burning oven, then smashed and deep-fried, these fluffy, crunchy spuds -- served with lemon aioli and ketchup are just crazy, crazy-good ($6).
Yes, the French Onion Burger -- topped with smoked bacon, Gruyere and crispy onions -- costs $8, and it's a steal at that price. Served on a shiny brioche bun with ultra-crispy fries or a side salad, the burger's Gruyere and onion combo makes a delicious riff on French Onion soup, while the bacon adds a wonderfully smoky dimension. This just may be the best eight-dollar supper in town.
Pork Chile Verde, served bubbling hot in a cast iron skillet and garnished with cilantro, jalapeño and sour cream, can't quite measure up to the burger, but the pork is so tender, the dish so hearty and warming I can imagine loving it on a cold, rainy day ($8). Triangles of moist, dense cornbread make sweet mops for the chile verde.
For me, baked goat cheese, served with crostini and amped up with bright tomato sauce and herb pesto, pales in comparison to all the really yummy stuff that's come before ($5). And since I've never had a salad here I didn't absolutely love, I'm kicking myself for not going with Romaine hearts, corn, green beans and smoked bacon, served with buttermilk-cheddar dressing ($5.50). But hey, now there's reason to go back.
The Drink: Given that all wines, all beers and all well drinks are half off, and that specialty cocktails -- made with fresh-squeezed juices and house-made syrups -- are just $5, St. Francis kicks butt on the alcoholic beverage front as well.
The Conclusion: Let's see -- fresh, approachable food, a comprehensive selection of right-priced beverages and a big city vibe, offered three hours a day, seven days a week: does anybody top that? Haven't found it yet. Looking back, I'd say St. Francis makes a lot of those B grades I've scattered about like fairy dust look more like C's. Just sayin . . . .
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