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2012 Best New Restaurants

Written by Editorial Staff Category: Food Reviews Issue: September 2012

The groovy, retro-mod ’70s space exudes a leisurely vibe, thanks to counter service and easy-going servers who deliver breakfast, lunch and evening small plates. The laughably low-priced fare won’t set foodie hearts afire, but select dishes show real staying-power. Dash in at breakfast for a great cup of joe percolated from Roastery of Cave Creek beans and order a couple of scrumptious Portuguese doughnuts, or linger on the backyard-style patio with a rich plate of spicy beef gravy ladled over a buttermilk biscuit. Tuck into a Cuban sandwich or a mouthwatering muffaletta stuffed with salami, cheese, and olive salad on rosemary focaccia at lunch. In the evening, meet friends for a snack of truffle-scented grilled cheese, or share a plate of salumi, cheese, and nuts. Drinks include a short selection of wines by the glass or bottle, bottled craft beer, and mix-and-match cocktails, including a clever, daily cocktail special for a modest six bucks.

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Photos - From left: Red flannel hash, inside Astor House

Photos by Richard Maack


Baratin - Top 5
7125 E. Fifth Ave.,
Scottsdale, 480-284-4777, baratinrestaurant.com

Opened: February 2012
Cuisine: French/Contemporary American
Price: $
Hours: Starting in
September: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Tu-Su, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. F-Sa
Stock-up market: Stop in the next-door market for farm-fresh local veg, local grains, exotic spice blends, artisanal cheeses, personalized preserved lemons, and fill-it-yourself bulk oil from Queen Creek Olive Mill.

Bucking the American mantra of “more is more,” Pavle Milic and Charleen Badman’s button-sized Baratin opts for a French philosophy of “few but phenomenal.” Instead of wading through a litany of mediocrity, diners choose from just one snack, salad, pâté, vegetarian plate, sandwich and dessert on a daily-changing, handwritten menu. But worry not – every dish served in this plate-decked, paprika-painted cafe is a hit. Milic and Badman also own FnB around the corner, and Baratin is like a mini-me-FnB, reimagining the same farm-fresh ingredients as quicker bites or take-out. Here, “locavore” and “artisan” aren’t just buzz words; they’re the basis of plates like a peppery-sweet salad of Maya’s Farm arugula, blood oranges, oil-cured olives and parmigiano, and a sandwich of roasted Jidori chicken, manchego cheese, fennel, tomato, grilled onion and arugula set prettily atop a wooden cutting board. The spirits menu includes Arizona beers and wines (just two of each), plus a daily cocktail, like a crisp, orange-whispered Vesper of gin, vodka and Lillet.

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Photos - From left: Chef Charleen Badman, Grilled summer squash

Photos by David Zickl

Barrio Queen
7114 E. Stetson Dr., Scottsdale
480-656-4197, barrioqueen.com

Opened: December 2011
Cuisine: Mexican
Price: $-$$$
Hours: Summer hours through September: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tu-Th and Su, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. F-Sa; happy hour 2-5 p.m. daily. Fall hours: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. M-Th, 10 a.m.-midnight F-Sa, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Su; happy hour 3-6 p.m. daily.
Tequila Tip: Skip the snoozy casa margarita and custom build one from a choice of 275 tequilas, priced by the shot.

With Barrio Cafe in Phoenix, Silvana Salcido Esparza coronated herself the Valley’s queen of gourmet Mexican food – with a side of street smarts. Now she’s aiming to conquer Old Town Scottsdale with her colorful, Mexi-deco Barrio Queen. Faithful followers will find some Barrio Cafe stalwarts, like slow roasted cochinita pibil, a dish Esparza does better than anyone, and her signature fresh guacamole sprinkled with pomegranate seeds (in season). Exclusive to Barrio Queen is a sushi-style index card featuring more than 30 street tacos and fabulous, seasoned plank fries topped with various Mexican goodies, including lusty green chile pork. Rounding out the menu are gourmet burritos, chile rellenos, enchiladas, and a smattering of masa-based snacks, like tlacoyos (corn fritters) and blue corn huarache, a thick, oval-shaped disk sporting black beans. And don’t miss the elote vasito, lime-tinged sweet corn swathed in spicy mayo. Weekends bring siesta-prompting breakfast plates, like chile verde con huevos and chilaquiles. Wash it all down with Mexican beer, sangria, or a custom margarita. Save room for dessert – the flan is fantastic, but the cinnamon-y rice pudding is even better.

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Photos - From left: Chilaquiles, outside Barrio Queen

Photos by David B. Moore

Blue Hound Kitchen & Cocktails
2 E. Jefferson St., Phoenix (Hotel Palomar)
602-258-0231, bluehoundkitchen.com
 
Opened: June 2012
Cuisine: Contemporary American
Price: $$-$$$$
Hours: Breakfast 6:30 a.m.-11 a.m. M-F; brunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sa-Su; lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. M-F; happy hour 3-6 p.m. M-F; dinner 5-10 p.m. Su-Th, 5-11 p.m. F-Sa
Order this: It’s not yet on the menu, but ask the bartender to concoct the unnamed cocktail with Amaro Italian bitters and artichoke liqueur Cynar; you’ll be instantly beamed to a bohemian European bar.

Call off the dogs; the hunt is over. Phoenix finally has a meta-metropolitan Downtown eatery. The hotel-restaurant stigma melts away in this glassy, Guinness-tinted gastro-lounge carbonated with a cool, convivial clientele. Savor the second-story views of skyscrapers as you read through the drinks list – a novella of inspired combinations of rarefied liqueurs – then go simple with the Brown Derby, which catapults bourbon into a realm of refreshment. The cuisine is – déjà vu – comfort food given an upscale makeover, but with flashes of tongue-in-cheek brilliance like glee-worthy baby zucchini corn dogs dipped in green goddess dressing; Kentucky-fried quail (the spice recipe allegedly pilfered from the Colonel himself) over foie gras cornbread doused with sausagy, beany gravy; and tater tots matured into sublime distillations of twice-baked potatoes, dunked in fresh French onion dip with a fillip of chives. Staving off hotel-genericness, the chef splashes locavorism throughout the menu, like the citrus in a chunky ceviche and Four Peaks Hop Knot IPA-soused mussels worthy of a sea shanty. As of press time, the spanking-new kitchen was still working out kinks, but assuming they do, Blue Hound may become the dining destination that lures Phoenicians Downtown in droves.

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Photos - From left: Chef Stephen Jones, Barbecued Kobe short ribs

Photos by David Zickl; Bluetick Coonhound provided by All American Advance Construction, LLC

Campfire Bistro
9393 E. Bell Rd., Scottsdale
(Tom’s Thumb Fresh Market)
480-513-8186, tomsthumbfreshmarket.com

Opened: May 2012
Cuisine: American/Barbecue
Price: $
Hours: 7 a.m.-7 p.m. M-W, 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Th-Sa, 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Su
Support local: Shop the on-site market for local brands like Tracy Dempsey’s Originals, Crow’s Dairy, Desert Smoke BBQ, North Scottsdale Organics, Queen Creek Olive Mill and Pickled Perfection.

Are we above giving a Best New Restaurant nod to a gas station? It would seem not. In this Hollywood-emulating year of the restaurant remake/sequel/spinoff, this eatery in Tom’s Thumb gas station/car wash/gourmet market is the equivalent of The Artist, an out-of-left-field entry notable for its sheer ballsiness. It’s not pushing epicurean envelopes, but its well-executed menu items are as merit-worthy as its moxie. Tudie Frank-Johnson, formerly of D’licious Dishes, is an award-winning whiz with barbecue, and nothing pairs better with her pulled pork sandwich than the Barbecue Sauce Bar, featuring five finger-licking selections. (The star of the bunch is Low Country, which has the sunny tang of a Southern summer.) The barbecue taco trio (beef, pork, chicken) flavorally combines the husky, smoky twang of Texas with a zingy Mexican accent. The Caprese sandwich is generously mozzarella’d, tomatoed and arugula’d. Sit at the chess board-topped table in the locavore market or in the windowed dining area, which has slightly more atmosphere than the typical car wash waiting room, thanks to a delightfully ironic centerpiece chandelier.

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Photos - From left: Chef Tudie Frank-Johnson, St. Louis ribs

Photos by David Zickl; Chalkboard Art By Ali ZIgerelli

Chick Rotisserie & Wine Bar
3943 E. Camelback Rd., Phoenix
602-396-4690, chickrotisseriebar.com

Opened: March 2012
Cuisine: American
Price: $$$
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily
Saucy Secret: Meats include one sauce, and extras cost $1 each. But ask your server for free tasting spoons to select your favorite from options like garlic cream, jalapeño cheese and peach barbecue.

Two decorative styles walk into a restaurant. One says, “Think wooden fence-paneled farmhouse.” The other says, “Imagine a New York bar with glittery chandeliers.” But after getting a whiff of the classy comfort food roasting on spits, they both decide they belong. In keeping with the aesthetic, Chick’s chefs mix a little vogue into traditional vittles, like mesquite-brined, rosemary-kissed roast chicken silky with truffle butter, or homemade cinnamon rolls gussied up with Grand Marnier glaze and hazelnuts. Deceptively simple dishes are made memorable thanks to top-notch ingredients, free-range organic birds, all-natural beef, and sustainable fish. To wit: chicken and dumplings bobbing in rosemary-rich velouté; a savory pot pie with root vegetables and homemade pastry; creamed corn composed of char-grilled kernels, sweet cream and mint; and a whipped potato “bar” with choice of distinctive toppings like roasted jalapeño cheese and mesquite sour cream. At the bar, tip back a food-friendly cocktail like a mojito crafted with Appleton Jamaica Rum, Canton Ginger Liqueur, muddled mint, sugar cane syrup and fresh lime.

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Photos - From left: Mesquite-brined roast chicken, inside Chick Rotisserie & Wine Bar

Photos by David B. Moore

Crudo - #1
3603 E. Indian School Rd.,
Phoenix
602-358-8666, crudoaz.com

Opened: April 2012 (reopened)
Cuisine: Italian-inspired Contemporary American
Price: $$-$$$
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tu-Sa; Bar Crudo 5 p.m.-midnight Tu-Sa; happy hour 5-7 p.m. Tu-F
On the side: The dark, cozy Bar Crudo off to the side of the restaurant serves powerful cocktails and a killer meatloaf burger.

Many a food geek shed a tear when the original Crudo, tucked into an Old Town Scottsdale hair salon, closed in June 2011. Ten months later, Crudo  2.0 opened in another semi-secretive place: the backside of a strip mall on 36th Street and Indian School Road, in the former Backstreet Wine Salon. With more spacious, spartan digs, Chef Cullen Campbell expanded his madly imaginative, Italian-flecked, frequently-changing menu. The crudo (raw) section still sports the beautiful butterfish slices that put Crudo on the map, but now there’s a mozza section, featuring sublime cheese compositions like romesco-daubed mozzarella with grilled bread that wafts smoky flavor; a cotto (cooked) section that may include squid ink risotto; and a griglia section showcasing meats grilled over Arizona pecan wood, like pork belly glazed with a sweet-and-sour smoked tomato agrodolce. All display Campbell’s culinary chops for mouth-popping flavor combos composed of ingredients both prime (pork from Niman Ranch, fish from Santa Barbara) and arcane (black garlic, i’itoi, bottarga). Crispy pig ears – insanely addictive strips of crunch, porky-chew and chile heat – provide a delicious dinner impetus, as do smoked olives. You can order not-too-small plates individually, or choose multiple courses, starting at three for $35.

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Photos - From left: Chef Cullen Campbell, Tuna crudo

Photos by David Zickl

Distrito 
4000 N. Drinkwater Blvd., Scottsdale (The Saguaro)
480-970-4444, jdvhotels.com/dining/arizona/distrito

Opened: December 2011
Cuisine: Mexican
Price: $$-$$$
Hours: Through September 2: dinner 5-10 p.m. Th-Su; brunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sa-Su; happy hour 5-7 p.m. Th-Su. From September 3: lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. M-F; dinner 5-10 p.m. Su-Th, 5 -11 p.m. F-Sa; brunch 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sa-Su.; happy hour 5-7 p.m. daily, except Tu (5-10 p.m.) 
Take flight: Explore the many tequilas and mezcals through creative flights priced from $14 to $37 – all the more fun in the beach-themed bar.

If any cuisine has been exhaustively explored in the Valley, it’s Mexican. Still, there’s room for more if somebody puts a novel spin on the fare. Iron Chef Jose Garces raised skeptical eyebrows when he opened his Philadelphia-import, Distrito, at the Saguaro Hotel, but then we tasted his gussied-up Mexico City street food and exclaimed, “¡Bienvenido!” A feast for the eyes, plates are as flashy as the flamboyant dining room, and the payoff is on the palate. Terrific, traditional guacamole sets the tone for a handful of star starters, including a mountain of nachos encarnacion with juicy marinated steak and refried beans, capped with a sizzling chile de arbol sauce. Huarache de hongos – masa flatbread topped with roasted mushrooms, corn, and earthy huitlacoche – could be the signature dish. Another winner: a trio of crunchy mahi-mahi tacos crowned with neon pink pickled cabbage. The sugary notes in the barbacoa (barbecue) section of the menu fail to make it sing, but we’ve no complaints about the creative sides, especially velvety corn esquites, and smoky pintos with tomato and bacon.

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Photos - From left: Huarache de hongos, inside Distrito

Photos by Richard Maack

Michael Dominick’s Lincoln Avenue Prime Steakhouse
15169 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale
480-272-7271, dominickssteakhouse.com

Opened: October 2011
Cuisine: Steak
Price: $$$$
Hours: 5-11 p.m. Su-Th, 5 p.m.-midnight F-Sa; bar 4 p.m.-2 a.m. daily.
Hot seat: Dine under the stars in the rooftop dining room fitted with a retractable roof and cozy fireplace, not to mention a massive reflection pool.

Where can you spend a hundred bucks and feel like a million? Right here. There’s no shortage of steakhouses in this town, but none is more luxurious than Michael Dominick’s Lincoln Avenue Prime Steakhouse, where everything is as over-the-top as the restaurant’s name. The Mastro family, who created Mastro’s steakhouses and Mastro’s Ocean Club before selling the collection in 2007, spent millions constructing this lavish, multi-level luxury temple to beef at Scottsdale Quarter. The steaks are prime, cut in-house and dry aged for a month. Sprinkled with a proprietary rub (we detect lashings of salt, garlic and paprika), the steaks are cut to order, broiled at a sizzling 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit, and slicked with clarified butter. Still, the best meat option isn’t an aged steak – it’s a 14-ounce, bone-in veal chop, exquisitely tender and staggeringly flavorful. Seafood selections don’t quite live up to the meaty offerings, but some colossal sides do. Opulent au gratin potatoes smothered in smoked gouda and sharp provolone, and oversized, crunchy tater tots are worthy accompaniments. Desserts are lily-gilding marvels, from oozy caramel cake to bubbling bananas Foster.

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Photos - From left: Bone-in ribeye, inside Dominick's rooftop dning area

Photos by Richard Maack

Italian Restaurant
4743 N. 20th St., Phoenix
602-368-3273, pizzeriabianco.com

Opened: February 2012
Cuisine: Italian-American
Price: $$-$$$
Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. M-Sa; dinner 5-9 p.m. M-Th, 5-10 p.m. F-Sa
Day Drinking: While there isn’t a happy hour per se, during lunch, seven wines by the glass, normally $8-$12, drop to just $5.

After some early missteps – frosty service, tiny portions and a shocking up-charge for bread – Chris Bianco’s generically named restaurant has finally found its groove. There was nothing wrong with the refined Italian fare from original chef Claudio Urciuoli (who parted ways with Bianco just a few months after launch), but Bianco had other ideas for his modest storefront in the Town & Country shopping center – mainly less finesse and more home-style cooking. To understand the transformation, think Italian-American moms cooking at the stove (Bianco’s mother, Francesca, does help out occasionally, and her meatballs and homey desserts are divine). Today, pleasant servers deliver terrific bread (gratis), locally sourced farm-fresh salads, and plates of saucy, handmade pastas that are more reasonably priced and larger portioned than their earlier incarnations. For heartier appetites, a couple of larger plates like grass-fed beef or braised chicken from a Tucson farmer deliciously fill the bill. Bianco’s penchant for the simple shines through the rustic, oft-changing menu, and through a small, well-crafted list of libations, including a couple of unpretentious, Italian-inspired cocktails. If you haven’t been there since its early days – or ever – add this casual-but-chic neighborhood spot to your to-do list.

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Photos - From left: Pappardelle beef Bolognese, inside Italian Restaurant

Photos by David B. Moore

Lux Central - Best remake
4400 N. Central Ave., Phoenix
602-696-9976, luxcoffee.com

Opened: August 2011
Cuisine: New American
Price: $-$$
Hours: 6 a.m.-midnight Su-Th; 6 a.m.-2 a.m. F-Sa.
Tapped-out: Lux doesn’t have a beer tap, but that doesn’t stop Fisher from deploying one of the Valley’s best beer menus, with hard-to-find bottles like Green Flash Belgian pale ale ($6) and a passel of awesomely-priced $5 craft favorites.

Less a full-blown remake than a bulked-up director’s cut – now with never-before-tasted cocktails! – Lux Central is recognizably the same uptown coffee house that packed ’em in before owner Jeff Fisher moved the operation to more spacious digs next door. Same addictive java and pastry spread. Same bohemian-royalty bustle. So what’s new? Well, a kitchen, for one. At the made-over Lux, Fisher’s merry staff of food preparers will set you up with a breakfast sandwich – egg, bacon and cheddar on sourdough, with a slice of roma tomato to lend a sweet-tart zing – that’s delicious and socialist-cheap at $5. The same could be said of chef Katie Calahan’s divine Dutch pancakes ($6) – an eye-pleasing basin of crisp, eggy pancake filled with a sweet berry medley or a savory roasted-vegetable chorus, depending on which flavor center you like to stimulate for breakfast. Lunch and dinner are more jazz-like, with “inspired daily creations” like the Yorkshire Pudding Burger ($12), a ticklish marriage of American and British soul standards, topped with a pat of rich Camembert cheese; and day-in-day-out winners like the twice-cooked mac and cheese ($5). Fisher – a former bartender – has also concocted one of the Valley’s coolest bar concepts, a deceptively motley-looking laboratory of juice-filled beakers, exotic tinctures and high-end spirits that looks a little like Dr. Frankenstein’s man-cave. One sip of a reinterpreted Prohibition-era Thirsty Crow, and you’ll agree: It’s alive!

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Photos - From left: Mac and cheese, inside Lux Central

Photos by Richard Maack

Nocawich - Best Spinoff
3118 E. Camelback Rd., Phoenix
602-956-6622, restaurantnoca.com

Opened: April 2011
Cuisine: Sandwiches
Price: $
Hours: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tu-Sa
Get the skinny: Check the Nocawich Facebook page (facebook.com/nocawich) for the daily “Insider” menu featuring a special sandwich, soup and cookie. You’ll find fancy creations among them, like a duck confit panino adorned with strawberry mostarda, walnuts, greens and duck cracklings; parsnip soup; and gooey hot chocolate chip cookies.

Eliot Wexler, the man who brought us aioli-gilded lobster rolls and Kobe cheese steaks, once again proves that fine dining can be found between two slices of bread. The Noca owner’s new panini station – set up in the bar – paper bags opulent, artisanal sandwiches so symmetrically perfect and pretty you almost want to take a picture before taking a bite. Selections change according to the chefs’ whims, but one reliable wonder is the Sir Charles, stacked with house-roasted beef, horseradish havarti and pickled i’itoi onions on a kaiser roll coated with marrow aioli. The Cisco Kid sammie sees primo goods like house-roasted turkey, bacon, roasted garlic aioli, cheddar, arugula and cranberry jam layered atop griddled whole grain bread. And the Gwyneth is a pitch-perfect composition of grilled yellow squash, zucchini and eggplant, goat cheese, pesto and romesco sauce on flat bread. For an even lighter repast, we love the Alice Waters salad of wild arugula, champagne vinaigrette, poached citrus, fennel and crunchy Marcona almonds with optional turkey or bacon. For a side of decadence, dig into the delectable “baked” potato salad, rich yet fresh with sour cream, scallions, bacon and aioli.

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Photos - From left: The Sal D, The Too $hort

Photos by Scott Farence

North Fattoria Italiana - Top 5
4925 N. 40th St., Phoenix
602-324-5600, foxrc.com
   
Opened: November 2011
Cuisine: Italian
Price: $$$
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. M-Th; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. F; 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Sa; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Su; happy hour, 3-6 p.m. M-F, all day Su
Tubthumping: The unisex bathroom repurposes a galvanized tin washtub for the sink – a clever and practical touch.

Sam Fox has turned the Italian-American genre upside-down with this effervescent, stylish eatery. North Fattoria Italiana (not to be confused with its very different sibling, North, at Kierland Commons) is a hip neighborhood gathering place where foodies sip boutique cocktails and scope out local celeb sightings like shock-rock codger Alice Cooper. The decor deftly blends Old World charm and metropolitan sophistication, with a colorful front patio, a convivial indoor-outdoor bar, and a communal table under striking lamps – reminiscent of the Florentine glass carafes used to cook fagioli (beans). Fox-perky servers deliver outstanding food like gnocchi with short ribs in a horseradish-spiked cream sauce, and bacon-and-egg pizza. But consider composing a meal of palate-pleasing starters such as crunchy arancini; grilled cauliflower in a sweet-sour lemon dressing; well-browned pork belly chunks; and an Italian salad of salami, roasted peppers, olives and provolone served on a wooden board. Save room for the Budino – while this buttery, burnt sugar-and-salt-flavored dessert isn’t especially Italian, it is molto bene.

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Photos - From left: Arancini, inside North Fattoria Italiana

Photos by Richard Maack

O.H.S.O. Eatery + Nanobrewery
4900 E. Indian School Rd., Phoenix
602-955-0358, ohsobrewery.com

Opened: November 2011
Cuisine: American/Eclectic
Price: $$
Hours: 11 a.m.-midnight M-Th, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. F, 9 a.m.-2 a.m. Sa, 9 a.m.-midnight Su; happy hour 11 a.m.-6 p.m. M-F and
10 p.m. to close daily
Hot seat: Follow the dog prints on the floor to the happening back patio, where views of Camelback Mountain await.

With 36 microbrews on tap, two Fido-friendly patios, and a casual, open indoor dining area, it’s easy to see why this Arcadia nanobrewery is hopping. Gearheads (there’s a cruiser bike theme), tattooed hipsters, pre-club revelers, dog lovers, families, and happy-hour habitués converge for shareable small plates and no-guesswork ales, thanks to a beer menu that includes flavor profiles. Comfort food with a passport is the theme of the American-Mexican-Italian-Venezuelan-influenced menu. We love the addictive green chili dip; the meat-topped, guacamole-bedded O.H.S.O. salad; skirt steak tacos; the burger + cheese with applewood-smoked bacon and gouda; gnocchi Bolognese; and unorthodox flatbread pizzas. Never had ale with your eggs? Hit their popular beer brunch from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays for a choice of breakfast entrées and a brew for 10 bucks. Oh – and don’t get hung up on the name; it started out as “Our Homebrew Society,” but the owners decided it needed an extra “O” so it wouldn’t be confused with an abbreviation for a high school. Now, servers tell diners it stands for “Oh So Good.”

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Photos - From left: Pisa flatbread,  O.H.S.O.

Photos by David B. Moore

Pane Bianco - Best Spinoff
4404 N. Central Ave., Phoenix
602-234-2100, pizzeriabianco.com

Opened: Originally in 2003. Started dinner service in February 2011. Expanded the space and started table service in December 2011.
Cuisine: Italian
Price: $-$$
Hours: Starting in September: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Tu-Su, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. F-Sa
Office space: Bianco’s office is in the back of the restaurant and can be rented for small private parties since his desk is actually a dining table.

For years, standing in line for one of Chris Bianco’s famous pies at Pizzeria Bianco felt like sitting on the Beijing-Tibet Expressway during its infamous 12-day traffic jam in 2010, with people craning their necks and asking “Are we there yet?” When Bianco opened order-at-the-counter lunchtime hotspot Pane Bianco in 2003, foodies were smitten with the sandwiches and salads (and shorter waits) but yearned for more. Last year, Pane Bianco moved to a larger space with table service, a vintage bar, and fresh local ingredients displayed in open bins, and began offering dinner fall through spring. The new menu features full rustic Italian meals like homemade gnocchi, or market-fresh salads such as a glorious tumble of balsamic-dressed heirloom tomatoes, lacy shaved prosciutto, red onions, basil and kalamata olives. Daily chalkboard specials fit the seasons – fall might bring lamb shank or Schreiner’s sausage with Anson Mills polenta and garbanzo beans, as well as savory soups like the magnificent simplicity of controne beans and escarole in broth. Plus, the new Pane serves Bianco’s world-famous pizza, without the wait. Yes, diners, we have arrived.

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Photos - From left: Pasta fagioli, Arizona rolled porchetta

Photos by David B. Moore

Pink Pony - Best Remake
3831 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale
480-945-6697, pinkponyrestaurant.com
  
Opened: Originally 1949, closed 2009. Under new owners in February 2011, reinvented in September 2011, and reinvented again in May 2012.
Cuisine: Steak/American
Price: $$$-$$$$
Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. M-Sa; happy hour 3-7 p.m. M-Sa
Pony up at night: Order a generous, lovingly retro-crafted Manhattan and check out the action in the bar, which stays open until midnight or later, and serves a bar food menu until 11 p.m.

This beloved landmark has had almost as many facelifts as Cher. It opened in 1949, trotting out an all-American menu centered on steaks served with soup or salad and a baked potato. But even its most dedicated fans finally became bored with the Cold War-era menu, and the restaurant closed in 2009. Since reopening in 2011, it’s gotten more nips and tucks – debuting as a carbon-copy steakhouse, then switching a few months later to a high-stepping showcase of innovative dishes from legendary chef Reed Groban, like a potpie of brined turkey and five-spiced duck confit with “garden bites” in butternut squash crust. Now, Pink Pony is aiming again for its core clientele of steak lovers and spring training crowds, and the menu’s a mixture of signature dishes such as first-rate spice-rubbed prime rib, bone-in ribeye, and bacon-wrapped scallops juxtaposed with modern touches like Kobe-jalapeño burgers and ancho-citrus pork tenderloin. The interior remains nostalgic with dark woods and curved booths, but the up-to-date steaks shine, grilled over mesquite charcoal and spilling juices into a side of piquant, pan-seared mushrooms. Pink Pony’s new menu not only looks younger but tastes better.

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Photos - From left: Steak with loaded baked potato, inside Pink Pony

Photos by David B. Moore

Rice Paper
2221 N. Seventh St., Phoenix
602-252-3326, ricepapereatery.com

Opened: August 2011
Cuisine: Vietnamese
Price: $$
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Su-Th; 11 a.m.-midnight F-Sa; daily happy hour 11 a.m. -6:30 p.m. (alcohol only), 3-6:30 p.m. (food)
Order This: Custardy, sugar-crunch ginger crème brûlée, the only dessert offered at Rice Paper.

Tucked into a cozy converted home composed of brick, blond wood and cushy white seating, friendly Rice Paper makes exotic Vietnamese food fun and approachable. This is interactive, DIY cuisine: You can rev up veggie-intensive, subtly-seasoned spring rolls with nuoc nam (fish sauce), peanut-hoisin sauces and spicy Sriracha, or brighten meaty dishes such as pho with a springy sprinkling of the accompanying sprouts, Thai basil, green onions, jalapeños and lime. Among the rolls, the reigning champs are the soft-shell crab with mango and avocado, and the Spicy Asian, with sausage, imitation crab, jalapeño and Sriracha. The seared ahi salad with sprightly ginger dressing makes a palate-tingling prelude, while the pork- and rice vermicelli-filled Saigon salad is hearty enough to serve as an entrée. Classic dishes are done well – the pho filled with a tangle of toothsome noodles and your choice of meat, and the bánh mì sandwich cradling tender pork and crisp veggies. But don’t miss the juicy lemongrass chicken bursting with citrusy, garlicky flavor.

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Photos - From left: Goi cuon spring rolls, inside Rice Paper

Photos by Richard Maack

Saigon Kitchen
14071 W. Bell Rd., Surprise
623-544-6400, saigon-kitchen.com

Opened: April 2011
Cuisine: Vietnamese
Price: $$
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. M-Th, 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. F-Sa; 11:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Su; happy hour 11 a.m.-6 p.m. (cocktails) and 3-6 p.m. (appetizers) M-F
Beer me: Nothing goes with hot food like cold beer, and the bar offers several brands on draft, including Sapporo, Four Peaks Kilt Lifter and Blue Moon.

With the debuts of Rice Paper and Saigon Kitchen, the Tran siblings – Dennis, Hue and Lan –  have infused the Valley foodie scene with their killer combo of cool flavors and cooler decor. The restaurateurs have a slew of time-honored Vietnamese family recipes in their arsenal, which they serve in settings as contemporary and fresh as their spring rolls. Take the sleek, mahogany-floored Saigon Kitchen in Surprise. Here, staples are a cut above the usual, like a bánh mì baguette sandwich with tender barbecue-glazed pork; calamari expertly sheathed in tempura batter and paired with delicate basil aioli for dipping; and broiled pork chop that sings with a chorus of aromatic scallion broth, jasmine rice, and house-made fish vinaigrette sauce. But the Trans truly dazzle with showy dishes like shaken beef, featuring richly sauced filet mignon theatrically sizzling on a steel and wood plank; salmon caramelized in a mouthwatering molasses-fish sauce reduction and baked in a clay pot; and soy garlic Cornish hen, baked then flash-fried to a juicy, golden crackle.

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Photos - From left: Pho Tom (shrimp, vegetable and noodle soup), inside Saigon Kitchen

Photos by Richard Maack

Sekong by Night
1312 E. Indian School Rd., Phoenix
480-238-0238, sekongbynight.com

Opened: February 2011
Cuisine: Cambodian
Price: $-$$
Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-9 p.m. M-Sa
Name Changer: The signs don’t reflect it, but the restaurant’s name has been changed to Reathrey Sekong, which means the same thing as Sekong by Night but sounds less like a made-for-TV movie about an expat Englishman’s romantic awakening in post-war Indochina.

The series of sensations that accompany a visit to Sekong by Night – the sight of the divey exterior, the lovingly selected Buddhist-Hindu decor, the tabletop guidebooks, exotic music, and distant scent of shrimp paste – serve to shuffle off the familiarity of Phoenix and catapult one to a café in Cambodia. The cuisine, which references Vietnamese and Thai without the latter’s tongue-searing spice, strikes the right balance between recognizable and radical. Get past the basil seed drink’s resemblance to a scoop of tadpoles, and you’ll savor its refreshing bubble-gum-lychee flavor and audibly popping tapioca texture. The spring roll freshly and tastily combines shrimp, chicken and crispy veggies with the bracing saltiness of Khmer fish sauce. The chicken curry’s spice-haunted, lemongrass- and kaffir lime-brightened coconut broth bobs with huge hunks of vegetables. And Cambodia’s national dish, Amok fish, is presented steamed in a banana leaf package and smeared with kaffir lime-flecked coconut cream. Judging by the conversations, most customers at this family-owned eatery are regulars, and with the friendly service, fresh food and wallet-happy prices, it’s easy to see why diners make return trips to Sekong.

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Photos - From left: Lok lak beef, Phnom Penh noodle soup

Photos by Richard Maack

Tacos Atoyac
1830 W. Glendale Ave., Phoenix
602-864-2746

Opened: January 2011
Cuisine: Mexican
Price: $
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tu-Sa
Insider’s Tip: Parking is at a premium, and Tacos Atoyac can get crazy-busy.
At peak hours, call your order in for pick up.

All the energy expended at this little eatery goes into the food. The bare-bones environs – a spare white room devoid of decor – shun artsy ambiance. Food is ordered and delivered through a window, and patrons bus their own tables. But the flavors are blinding. Affable owner Dan Maldonado dishes out Oaxacan cuisine, lighter and more veggie-centric than heavier Sonoran fare. Smoky grilled onions and jalapeños accompany every order, along with a trio of simple salsas and sauces. All the meats – beef or chicken asada, pork al pastor, lengua (tongue), chorizo, cabeza (head) and tripas (stomach) – can be stuffed into street tacos (diminutive, but a deal at a dollar each), burros or memelitas (fried masa discs). Fish tacos are superlative, and molotes, a potato and chorizo fritter sauced with black beans and topped with lettuce, resembles a Oaxacan knish. The Oaxacan hot dog is a deliciously simplified Sonoran dog. Every day, Maldonado offers some version of mole, each seemingly better than the last. The daily-rotating dessert menu features dreamy fruit paletas and cream-filled churros.

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Photos - From left: Chef Dan Maldonado, Shrimp and meat tacos

Photos by David Zickl

Vintage 95
95 W. Boston St., Chandler
480-855-9463, vintage95.com

Opened: November 2011
Cuisine: American
Price: $$-$$$
Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Su-W, 11 a.m.-midnight Th-Sa; happy hour 4-6 p.m. Th-Tu, 4 p.m.-midnight W
Bargain binge: Sunday Funday features $20 sangria pitchers, $15 mimosa pitchers, $4 Bloody Marys and half-off 20 to 30 bottles of wine.

Downtown Chandler got a little classier with the addition of Vintage 95, a wine bar and restaurant that rounded out the resurgent retail district and firmly ensconced it as a dining destination. Former House of Tricks bartender and manager Gavin Jacobs and investors Craig and Tricia Hills created a warm, handsome ambiance in this historic 1926 space with leather chairs and rich woods. Sink into a plush sofa in front of the focal-point fireplace or head to the cushy, climate-controlled back patio, which attracts a lively crowd nightly. And sneak a peek into the glass-walled wine room, which showcases Jacobs’ fine-tuned palate. On the table, choose from lighter fare such as charcuterie, a cheese board, bruschetta, or lick-the-bowl-clean house-made smoked tomato bisque, one of the best soups in town. Or go for the gusto with seasonal fine-dining entrées that might include juicy pork chops, delicate fish dishes or duck breast. Lunchtime sees a well-considered sandwich list – the zesty green chile pulled pork and hearty chicken panino stand out, and the range of sides such as chipotle pasta or orzo salad elevate them yet another notch above usual deli fare.

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Photos - From left: Italian flatbread, inside Vintage 95

Photos by Richard Maack

Windsor - Top 5
5223 N. Central Ave., Phoenix
602-279-1111, windsoraz.com

Opened: April 2011
Cuisine: American/Eclectic
Price: $$
Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. M-Th, 11 a.m.-midnight F, 9 a.m.-midnight Sa, 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Su; happy hour 11 a.m.-5 p.m. daily
Order this: The No. 9, a creamy libation with locally-made Arroyo vodka and house-made horchata; in March, bartender Matty Helland spanked the competition with this sipper at the third annual Devoured Cocktail Competition.

Started by the same duo behind Postino – Craig DeMarco and Lauren Bailey – this North-Central gem draws folks from all over the Valley thanks to its indoor/outdoor layout, friendly alterno-servers and the kind of casual big-city vibe that makes you feel like you’re too cool for school. Witness: The inventive drinks list forgoes the usual cutesy or obscure names in favor of listing them by random numbers. There’s not a bad one in the bunch, but they had us at No. 1, made with watermelon agua fresca and vanilla-mint syrup. Calling its fare “comfort food” doesn’t do credit to the menu’s quirks and quality, from the creamy cheddar fondue for dunking Schreiner’s sausage, apples and pretzels made by MJ Bread to the honey-soy glazed bánh mì white fish sandwich. It’s easy to fixate solely on their superb classic fries as a side-dish, but branch out to Jo’s church potatoes, which bring back memories of cheesy Midwestern casseroles, or bite into bright, freshly plucked farmers’ market vegetables. Save room for homemade ice cream or retro candy from next-door sister sweet spot Churn.

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Wright’s - Best Remake
2400 E. Missouri Ave., Phoenix (Arizona Biltmore)
602-381-7632, wrightsbiltmore.com

Opened: November 2011
Cuisine: Updated Continental
Price: $$$-$$$$
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tu-Sa; brunch 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Su
Don’t Miss: That Sunday brunch – choose from a buffet of cold offerings and augment it with hot entrées as you please. There’s all-you-can-eat caviar, fine cheeses, fresh fruit and house-made pastries. Wind it up with eggs Benedict or stuffed French toast.

Namesake architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s geometric style is stamped all over this soaring space, which cannily combines vintage and contemporary to fashion the most stunning restaurant in town. The resort’s honchos have created a retro Continental menu to match, updating atavistic dishes with fresh flavors and presentations. Servers garbed in uniforms reminiscent of Czarist army officers have all the tableside moves down. Chefs whip up a revelatory Waldorf salad with yogurt and crème fraiche, and a Caesar that reminds you why the dish became a classic. The Croesus-rich foie gras and Kobe tartar are A-list appetizers, and elevated entrées include dreamy, deconstructed beef Wellington and luxurious lobster Thermidor with buttery puff pastry standing in for the lobster shell. The Biltmore has long been lauded for their ethereal soufflés, so order yours before dinner, then linger in the quiet environs with a cognac and coffee, and toast Frank’s design disciple (and Biltmore architect) Albert Chase McArthur for creating such timeless, tasty elegance.

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Photos - From left: Beef Wellington, Lobster Thermador at Wright’s

Photos by David B. Moore