Top Ten Phoenix Restaurants
The Phoenix area has what may to newbies and outsiders be a surprising number of restaurants. The main explosion of new places on the scene has been within the last 20 years or so; not as many local eateries qualify as true Phoenix institutions. Here are the rock solid culinary institutions. If you miss these on your visit, you're missing the heart of our city.
A classic steakhouse and lounge, Durant's has been in business on Central Avenue for more than 60 years. You park in back of the place and enter through the kitchen, just like in Goodfellas. Whether you're after a swanky steak dinner or a low-key, plush spot for a drink after work, Durant's never disappoints. This is the first place that I think of when I consider Phoenix restaurants that are truly institutions.
Growing up here this was the “fancy” restaurant. The one that parents (at least parents like mine) felt kids shouldn't really patronize most of the time. The place that you could do your once yearly splurge, hoping like hell that some of the local “Who's Who” would also choose that night to hit the red rooms. As a young woman I worked as a file clerk in a number of local law firms during summers when I was at college and not too busy waitressing or bartending. Durant's took on another identity for me as I noted lawyers stumbling out of Durant's and up, down and across Central Avenue after long lunches. Years later after I won an important case myself, my co-counsel and I were treated to Durant's by the grateful family.
As far as the food goes, think broiled steaks and chops, oysters on the half shell, wedge salads, prime rib and even liver with bacon and onions. Stuff that makes a lot of dads happy; you know. Lunchtime is also basically what you'd expect, which is not in any way to diminish how delicious it is: really good burgers, a French Dip that's delightful, and the Fat Man's Special which will give you soup or salad, garlic mashed potatoes and your choice of beefy main dish. Follow up with the “Trey of Creme Brulee” or Strawberry Shortcake for two, and of course some rocket fuel coffee.
Durant's is one of the classic three martini lunch spots in Phoenix and one of the only places here that you get that “been-here-forever” feeling. It's a great feeling.
Los Dos Molinos
By Los Dos Molinos I am of course referring to the South Phoenix location on Central Avenue between Dobbins and Baseline. This is the classic Mexican food haunt of our town and it is exactly like a no-nonsense Mexican food joint should be.
I've seen all sorts of negative reviews of this place over the years, and I'll tell you why you should ignore all of them. These people generally complain about a) food being too spicy, b) lacking certain big box chain amenities of questionable value to an authentic experience like kids menus, c) and customer service nit-pickery concerning servers who don't care to kiss your anything and won't split your corporate lunch check into thirty tabs. Allow me to convince you: you don't need anything bland, chicken fingers or a math tutor more than you need some of the very best Mexican food in town.
This is a family business that has been in Phoenix for years, and family members still do the cooking here. Zagat's has published a gushing review of Los Dos, and they have made the Phoenix New Times “Best Of” nearly every year for one thing or another since 2001. Everyone, including their own website and menu, will tell you that if you are not accustomed to spicy food, don't try to order something hot, and don't try and have it modified. Just order something else. They don't do “mild” here, and it's their place serving the food they grew up with as it should be, so suck it up!
If you go at a busy time, you're going to wait. I hope you like margaritas. There are no crayons for your kids. And if you think Qdoba or Chipotle are muy auténtico, you have so much to learn, Padawan. Keep an open mind, though. Any old as dirt Arizonan, I am thinking of my late grandmother here, or any dusty native like me (fourth generation, pal) will tell you this is the real deal for solid Mexican standards and robust spices.
http://www.losdosmolinosaz.com (this was disabled at the time of this writing)
Barrio Cafe has not been around as long as most of these other choices. This baby (established in 2002) has grown so quickly, however, and become so integral to our local scene that I'm including it in this list. Named Best Mexican Restaurant by the Arizona Republic since opening in 2002, Barrio Cafe has a steady throng of customers who wait as long as it takes for this unique yet traditional take on Mexican food.
The brainchild of local chef Silvana Salcido Esparza and her partner, Wendy Gruber, Barrio Cafe is a perfect fusion of modern, fresh culinary art and traditional Mexican family favorites. This chef has all of the classical training chops of any top-rated chef and she also grew up learning to cook family recipes. This means a wonderful fusion cuisine for us.
At Barrio Cafe you can get traditional choices like pozole, queso fundido and enchiladas suizas or more unusual fare with a definite gourmet flare. The homemade horchata, served in a big, glass Coke bottle, is thick and spice-laden—and delicious. And the flan is basically very traditional but still a notable standout. I miss it when it's been awhile since I've had it.
This isn't a beans and rice, chips and salsa place. Here even the more traditional recipes are made special with the close attention to detail each dish displays, along with the fruits of the well-known efforts of the chef to bring fresh ingredients to the restaurant from Mexico. One thing most of us understand here in Phoenix is that Mexican-American culture is dynamic and has impacted Phoenix culture in many ways. We also know that there is more than one way to enjoy the very best food that Mexican-American culture has to offer.
Barrio Cafe isn't the same as the all night burrito joints (and we LOVE those here, too—good for us!) and it doesn't need to be. It has a “nice restaurant” feel without pretense and still passes for a neighborhood spot. And at this point, Barrio Cafe is one of our local institutions. Thankfully, it's not going anywhere.
Mrs. White's Golden Rule
Welcome to Larry's. I call it that because Larry White, the owner of the restaurant and the son of the Mrs. White, is usually there and a really great guy. Don't be surprised if he's right there at the lunch counter when you visit. My daughter owes her life to Larry because his food was basically all I wanted on the worst days of my pregnancy. My daughter's body is a scientific miracle, being made up of at least 70% fried catfish, yams and greens at birth.
There is these days a printed menu at Larry's, but it used to be that you just glanced at the wall for the menu. In different spots in magic marker is a short and delectable list that you can choose from. Every main dish is the same price and comes with two sides and cornbread. Simple. Perfect.
As you have gathered, my favorite is the fried catfish with yams and greens. Larry gets his catfish through a family connection who owns a catfish farm. Let me tell you, whether this is the secret, the cooking is, or both, no one, but no one, in town can compete with the catfish, plain and simple. The same thing is true of the greens. My good pal's favorite dish is the pork chop: fried like the catfish and smothered in gravy, that is. Don't talk to me about points or dying young with clogged arteries because when it comes to food this amazing, I just don't care.
This is a family business, a small local business. If it's a busy day or something just isn't readily available, what you want may be off the menu. This is exactly why the place is so wonderful: it's only on if it's right.
Larry's place is keeping up with the times in its own way. Back when your drink choices were only lemonade or sweet tea and it was cash or nothing, but today you can also have coffee or Kool-Aid and pay with a debit card. And they've opened up for late night diners recently, serving a limited menu of munchies including fish and chips and burgers.
This is Phoenix comfort.
It's not like the moon landing or anything, but most Phoenix people remember where they were when they discovered that Richardson's had burned down. It was that awful.
Thankfully, Richardson's is back, across the street from it's former location with much more space, most of it in the form of an amazing patio. The inside portion looks eerily similar to the old place, and thus far I am disoriented each time I leave as a result. As we all know, though, there's no need and no call to fix things that aren't broken!
Richardson's is the perfect place to curl your feet up in a booth filled with pillows. It is the home “champagne lunch” for a small but dedicated cadre of locals. And it has some of the best food in town, and has since 1988. You will find a wide variety of traditional New Mexican dishes as well as one of the most generous arrays of daily specials featuring seafood and grilled meats alongside fresh vegetable side dishes prepared simply and flavorfully.
My personal favorite on the Richardson's menu, which I have never yet been able to pass up, is the Roasted Garlic Plate. Classic New Mexican cuisine, this dish features green chiles, roasted red peppers, dipping sauces and broiled cheeses; all of these amazing elements are playing supporting roles to giant cloves of elephant garlic slow-roasted and caramelized. This means they squeeze out of their hulls like softened butter onto the toasted baguette slices they are served with, ready to be topped by the accoutrements. It is heavenly, and all of their food is prepared to the same standards.
If you haven't been back here since the fire, what are you waiting for? Actually, that also goes for anyone who hasn't yet been there. And me, because it's been more than a month. Richardson's is not a place you can afford to miss.
La Grande Orange
Located in the Arcadia area of Phoenix, this grocery, cafe and pizzeria has been around for about ten years. It is, however, a direct tribute to old Phoenix culture and carries on some of the best local Phoenix flavor.
La Grande Orange is chef and owner Bob Lynn's living homage to the Phoenix of the 1930s. Back then, young adult Arizonans would meet to dance to big band tunes in the center of their circle of cars. This social scene sprung up in the waves of sweet orange groves in what would become modern Arcadia.
Like a typical spot from those days, you can enter LGO through the kitchen or from the front of the restaurant. Parking is easier now that there is a free valet service, but back before there was, you never knew where you'd be parking, so your ingress to the cafe was anyone's guess. Lines can still swell out the door during busy times, so be prepared.
LGO seems to be most famous for its gourmet pizza and its breakfasts, although their gourmet salads are also delicious. There is also a juice bar and gelato shop, both within or attached to the basic structure. My favorite pizza is the Roasted Corn which also sports goat cheese, roasted tomatoes and basil. I also love the Avocado and the Mushroom Party which are just like they sound. The Orange Fennel and Shredded Kale and Quinoa salads are really unique and completely yummy.
As far as breakfast goes, LGO is best-known for their Commuter Sandwich, which is scrambled eggs, tomato and mayo along with your choice of bacon, ham, turkey, smoked salmon or avocado. All of this is served on a giant, house-made English muffin, and this the most amazing part of the sandwich, to be sure. I used to drive across town to buy a pack of them even while pregnant and constantly ill through what was the hottest Phoenix on record up to that point. That's love.
Tom's Tavern & 1929 Grill
For more than 80 years, Tom's Tavern & 1929 Grill has been an Old Phoenix standby downtown. Located on Washington at First Avenue on the site of the former Phoenix City Morgue, this restaurant has long been a stop for local bigwigs and visitors alike. In its early days in the Adams Street location, Tom's was known not as much for its restaurant as it was for its pool tables. This informal setting was the locus for many legal negotiations, and I was always surprised that it wasn't mentioned in local Judge Pendleton Gaines's now-famous Order compelling two civil attorneys and their clients to attend lunch together (link below).
Maybe he didn't want to ruin the cool vibe. The inside looks like it could be used to film a movie set in the 1930s, all black and white tile, rich, dark wood and brass trim. And I am really looking forward to taking my daughter to get a black and white malt at the long, shiny counter now that she's big enough to sit there. Somehow malts taste better while consumed at lunch counters with stools.
The menu has standard diner fare taken to a more upscale level. You can still order brisket chili there and you'll get it made the exact same way it always was because Tom's is still using the same recipe. You can also order spaghetti red and the hamburger off the original menu, but there are also lots of modern additions like the ahi steak I favor and my daughter's preferred black bean hummus.
Tom's in its current location at Washington and 1st Avenue is still a blast from the past. I don't care how big a honcho you are, either; you'll benefit from trying that black and white at the counter.
I know, I know. It sounds like something out of a serial killer's playbook. The Salt Cellar in reality is one of Phoenix's very best destinations for seafood and a local landmark established in 1971. (And yes, it's really downstairs, three flights made of antique wood to be exact, in a cellar.)
The mainstay of the Salt Cellar menu is seafood, but that's not saying nearly enough. The restaurant has received at least one “Best Seafood” award in each year of the past dozen or so years. The Salt Cellar receives fresh fish from various locales daily and you are guaranteed the widest selection of the freshest fish in town here. Whole Maine lobster crowns the menu each and every day.
Salt Cellar serves a lovely variety of appetizers which are an especially irresistible deal during both the traditional and post-dinner happy hours, and the later happy hour runs from 10:00pm to 1:00am every night. The crab cakes, skewered calamari and mussels are particularly noteworthy. As for entrees, try the Crispy Florida Black Grouper or, if you go at the right time of year, the soft shell crab. If, for whatever reason, you end up at Salt Cellar and you don't enjoy seafood, you'll enjoy the Beef Wellington or other non-seafood options.
Salt Cellar follows the seasons by necessity and as a result there are occasionally special events. In late summer don't miss the New England-style Clam Bake. For $45 you get one dozen clams and a one and a quarter pound Maine lobster, all steamed, fresh vegetables, rice or potato, salad and a draft beer. You really can't go wrong and it's a lot of fun.
I know it may seem odd that such a desert town would have a seafood haven as one of it's best and oldest culinary institutions, but this town does. Check out the Salt Cellar.
Since 1974 Avanti Restaurant and Caterers of Distinction have been a Phoenix standby. This place was decked out to be absolutely plush in 1974 style and it still retains a lot of that vibe, including big, round booths with zebra patterned upholstery. I first went there at age 18 when some attorneys I worked for as a summer file clerk brought me along for some sort of business lunch. It was great (way) back then and it still is.
One of the best things about Avanti, other than the whole I-just-drove-a-Delorian-back-in-time feel of the place, is the service. Much of the staff is longterm at Avanti and it shows in the quality of service. The owner, Angelo Livi, obviously sets the example of stellar service as he spends much of his time getting to know customers just about every night.
The piano lounge at Avanti is gorgeous. It, like several other rooms including the patio, can be rented for special private events. It's not the cheapest place in town, but between the quality of food and service, it's still one of the best values. If I ever get invited to a rehearsal dinner at Avanti I'll actually go.
None of this is to say that the food isn't amazing. The food is amazing. Truly. Most recently when I went I had gnocchi once again because I can never resist it there. Great gnocchi is light and fluffy, not that gummy mess you get so many places. Avanti does it just right, and their meat dishes are equally tantalizing.
Oh, and hey. Not that I'd ever tell anyone to skip dessert, but definitely do not skip it at Avanti. Even just a cannoli, please. I won't take no for an answer. (And honestly, I'm not sure Angelo will either.)
Phoenix City Grille
Since 1997 Phoenix City Grille has graced the Madison neighborhood of Central Phoenix with a traditional approach to fine dining with a contemporary, local flavor and a casual attitude. I am a longtime fan of PCG and have almost forgiven them for taking away my favorite salad (I said “almost”).
PCG is a great “go to” option for lots of different occasions. I have had holiday and special event meals there, weekend brunch, happy hour, business lunches, and, of course, a family dinner there at different times and the place is perfect for all of those things. The service is usually good, and the management is friendly. They like to work with you if they can.
The menu at PCG is wonderful. That one perfect salad is now gone, of course, but the menu hits all the rest of the important notes. Each day there are specials and I've never gone wrong with any of them. There are amazing happy hour specials, and the day to day menu is great. For appetizers I love the Griddled Corn Cakes; they are served with black beans, grilled chicken, jack cheese and salsa fresca.
The Black Bean Soup is fantastic and it's on the menu every day. These days when it comes to salads I'm going with the Roasted Beet. In addition to the beets t comes with mixed greens, candied Arizona pecans, local goat cheese, apples, fresh basil, oil and a really wonderful balsamic reduction. That thing is delicious.
Where you from there with the entrees is wide open. The 16th Street Beef Pot Roast is a perennial favorite, as is the Black and Bleu Burger and the Phoenix Cheese Steak with it's ribeye mastery. People also come back over and over again for the Cowboy Steak; for me, it's tough to pass up the Cedar Planked Salmon.
Don't eat so much that you skip that Buttermilk Pie. It's almost as good as mine. And while you do, soak in the mellow local vibe. It's been working around here for awhile.