50 Best AZ Restaurants

Written by Niki DAndrea, Erika Ayn Finch, Marilyn Hawkes, Wynter Holden, Edie Jarolim, Justin Lee, Craig Outhier, Brian Pedersen, Gwen Ashley Walters Category: Food Reviews Issue: January 2014
Group Mid-Level
Character count 2500

We ate. Then we drove. Then we ate some more. On and on, until we felt qualified to hand you this hand-picked platter of the Grand Canyon State's finest culinary outposts, from Winslow to Sonoita and many points between.

Valley food fanatics do not nosh on foie gras-stuffed quail alone. Nor do they exclusively dine in the prime culinary corridors of Scottsdale and Phoenix. We tried to keep these facts in mind while compiling our list of Arizona's 50 best – or, if you prefer, most essential – restaurants.

Our editors and food writers were instructed to consider not only their fine-dining fantasy spots, but also the comfort-food classics and down-home ethnic eateries that help define Arizona's culinary scene – not just in the Valley, but all over our vast state, staggering their lists to include lonesome gems in remote parts of Northern and Southern Arizona. You'll find the cumulative product of their expertise here: 50 restaurants you should try, no matter how far the drive. And just to make sure we've covered every base, we asked Valley food experts to rank their favorites, too, in a range of styles and categories. Let the noshing begin.

Northern Arizona

PHM0114 BR3a

Cottage Place
Flagstaff
Awards: Award of Excellence, Wine Spectator (1996-2010); Top 100 Restaurants, Open Table (2012)
Talk about rarified company. In 2012, this longtime Flagstaff fine-dining favorite was recognized by OpenTable.com as one of the nation's 100 best restaurants, joining fellow Arizona honorees Kai, Binkley's and ShinBay. Not too shabby, right? Chef Frank Branham excels at continental cuisine with subtle Southwestern influences, charming diners with dreamy concoctions like house-made ravioli filled with forest mushrooms, onions and goat cheese, served in a sweet marsala cream sauce.

PHM0114 BR4aCozy and crowded, Cottage Place is exactly what it sounds like – a homey, unapologetic ode to refined indulgence, where you can lay waste to a slice of hazelnut-graham-cracker-crust-topped French silk pie with chocolate-and-cinnamon Chantilly cream and not feel the slightest bit bad about it. 126 W. Cottage Ave., Flagstaff, 928-774-8431, cottageplace.com

 

 

Brix Restaurant & Wine Bar
Flagstaff
Awards: Top 95 New Restaurants in the World, Condé Nast Traveler (2007); Flag's Best Restaurant, Sunset Magazine (2007)
Located inside a historic carriage house, Brix has the casual-chic feel of a European bistro and a seasonal, farm-focused menu that favors growers in the Four Corners region. The antipasti starter gives diners the chance to taste cheeses and charcuterie from around the world; the delicacies are paired with house lavosh and Queen Creek olives. Owners Paul and Laura Moir continue the global food tour with a wild mushroom risotto showcasing tender, earthy Italian black truffles, toothsome asparagus, Parmigiano-Reggiano and arugula. The steak frites has a Southwest twist: It's topped with chimichurri and chili butter. Now in its eighth year, Brix is arguably the most decorated restaurant in Flagstaff – the grande dame of fine dining in the high country. Side note: If tables are scarce, try nearby Criollo Latin Kitchen, conceived by the Moirs as a sassier Latin companion piece to the Brix flagship. 413 N. San Francisco St., Flagstaff, 928-213-1021, brixflagstaff.com

Pasta alla Carbonara

Coppa Café
Flagstaff
Awards: Best of Flagstaff, Arizona Daily Sun (2012)
After meeting in Costigliole d'Asti, Italy, and cooking from the Adriatic coast to Barcelona – braving Swiss superstar Daniel Humm's kitchens along the way – adventurous husband-and-wife team Brian Konefal and Paola Fioravanti brought their European sensibilities to Konefal's hometown. Coppa's entrées are as rustic and charming as the eatery's mismatched chairs and "farmhouse glam" accessories. Local mushrooms foraged from Flagstaff forests accent crustless quiche or seasonal dishes like juniper-scented wild boar with ricotta and acorn squash puree.

PHM0114 BR2Konefal has an excellent handle on the classics, skillfully adulterating shepherd's pie with creamy polenta and jazzing up butternut squash with coffee. Meanwhile, pastry chef Fioravanti's desserts are exceptional – rich and decadent without the twitch-inducing sweetness of American recreations. Her lavender-peach macarons melt like sugary clouds on the tongue. 1300 S. Milton Rd., 928-637-6813, coppacafe.net

 

 

 

Tinderbox Kitchen
Flagstaff
Awards: Best Restaurants, Arizona Highways (2010); Award of Excellence, Wine Spectator (1996-2012)
Chef and co-owner Scott Heinonen's CV includes a stint as personal chef to Paul McCartney. If his cuisine is good enough for a Beatle, you better believe it's a hit with Flagstaff foodies. The menu at Tinderbox Kitchen changes seasonally but maintains a focus on "redefined" American comfort food. The oh-so-tender New York strip steak masters that divine ratio of blackened char to juicy interior rareness, and is served with pungent horseradish mashers and broccolini. Still, the jalapeño macaroni and cheese might be the most unique item on the menu. The indulgent dish is topped with duck leg confit, mustard crumbs and truffle oil. Pop into the adjacent Tinderbox Annex for a cocktail and house-made charcuterie before dinner, and know you're dining at one of the high country's great gastropubs. 34 S. San Francisco St., 928-226-8400, tinderboxkitchen.com

Pizzicletta in FlagstaffPizzicletta
Flagstaff
Awards: Best New Restaurant, Arizona Daily Sun (2011); Best Restaurants, Arizona Highways (2013)
What started as one man's hobby of making pizzas in a wood-fired oven in his backyard became Pizzicletta, a 650-square-foot, 15-seat, open-kitchen restaurant south of the train tracks in Flagstaff. Though his degree is in geology, owner and chef Caleb Schiff developed a passion for pizza when he first visited Europe.

Photos by Laura Segall

Less than three years after opening the flatiron-shaped eatery, he now has pizza lovers lined up around the block for Neapolitan-style pies, homemade gelato, naturally leavened hearth bread and a thoughtful beer and wine menu. The simple margherita pizza – topped with tomato, mozzarella, pecorino, basil and extra virgin olive oil – is divine. Add sopressata or prosciutto di parma to any pie for a small cost. Gelato flavors change daily, and it might just be some of the tastiest cream this side of Rome. 203 W. Phoenix Ave., Flagstaff, 928-774-3242, pizzicletta.com

Photos by Laura Segall; Elote Café chef Jeff Smedstad

The Turquoise Room
Winslow
Awards: Best Restaurants, Arizona Highways (2008); Gold List Award, Condé Nast Traveler (2009); James Beard Foundation, Best Chef Southwest nominee (2012)
Exploring the lonely stretch of Interstate 40 between Flagstaff and Holbrook, travelers may not realize quiet downtown Winslow lays claim to one of Arizona's most isolated, but no less regarded, dining destinations. Anchoring the historic La Posada Inn – originally built by famous railroad tycoon Fred Harvey in 1930 – The Turquoise Room serves food that would impress fressers in a city of any size.

Elote Café's Relleno de Pollo, a fire-roasted poblano chile stuffed with smoked chicken, vegetables and Tillamook cheddar, and topped with pipian rojoHighlighting a seasonal, largely Arizona-sourced menu of contemporary Southwestern dishes, James Beard Award-nominated chef John Sharpe holds true to his convictions with rustic concoctions like lean, pan-seared elk medallions, served with a sharp black currant brandy sauce over mushroom corn flan; and crispy red chile pork carnitas, with a fruit salsa and creamy polenta. For a proven winner, try the chef's now-signature spicy black bean and sweet corn soup. Think of the Turquoise Room as the Northern Arizona answer to Greg LePrad's newly-opened Overland Trout in Sonoita: frontier dining of the highest order. 305 E. Second St., 928-289-2888, theturquoiseroom.net

Elote Café
Sedona
Awards:Guest Chef, Your Life A to Z (Channel 3 TV)
We loved Jeff Smedstad's lamb adobo when he made it at Los Sombreros in Scottsdale, and we love it just as much now that the chef has relocated to Sedona. Perched above the Kings Ransom Sedona Hotel, Elote Café has quickly assumed regal status in Northern Arizona's gourmet food scene, with delicacies inspired by Smedstad's 15-year culinary expedition in Mexico during his pre-Sombreros years. Spectacular small plates like seafood tacos filled with ancho-glazed cod and shrimp are tempting, but we always go back to the lamb adobo, a braised Colorado lamb shank topped with a sweet-and-spicy ancho-chile sauce. It's simply the best Mexican grub north of the Carefree Highway. 771 SR 179, 928-203-0105, elotecafe.com

Che-Ah-Chi
Sedona
Awards: Top 25 Resorts in the Southwest, Reader's Choice Awards, Condé Nast Traveler (2013); Best Hotels in the USA, U.S. News & World Report (2012, 2013)
When the Enchantment Resort sprang for a face-lift in 2012, it also got Che-Ah-Chi, its new flagship restaurant and one of the most picturesque dining experiences in Arizona. Sit outside for up-close views of Boynton Canyon, or get cozy indoors with floor-to-ceiling windows and suspended lighting that makes it feel like you're dining among the stars. The food is pretty stellar, too. Chef David Schmidt takes a resort staple – lobster bisque – and turns it into culinary high art with beech mushrooms and a drizzle of lemon oil. Are you game for game? Schmidt serves his buffalo tenderloin with a poached pear, Marcona almonds, gorgonzola and pearl onion agrodolce. It's hearty and elegant all at once. 525 Boynton Canyon Rd., Sedona, 928-282-2900, enchantmentresort.com

Photos by Laura Segall; Braised veal cheek

L'Auberge Restaurant on Oak Creek
Sedona
Awards: Top 10 Southwest, Condé Nast Traveler (2013)
It makes perfect sense that Chef Rochelle Daniel – having honed her French-fusion cooking skills under Matt Carter at Zinc Bistro in Scottsdale – should take over the top toque at L'Auberge, where the seasonal menu is likely to feature apple-butter-slathered foie gras with gingerbread or some other glorious twisting of Gallic culinary convention.

Photos by Laura Segall; Outdoor dining at L'Auberge Restaurant in Sedona

Admirably, Daniel prefers to do her twisting with Arizona-sourced ingredients, meaning the wisps of apple in your pumpkin bisque, poured over a huddle of fresh crab right in front of your eyes, were farmed down the road. Vive la regionàle. Yet no matter how personally addictive we find the pine-smoked venison, it's the splendid creekside setting that makes L'Auberge the epitome of Arizona destination dining. That is how you wash down a meal. 301 Little Ln., 928-282-1661, lauberge.com

SchoolHouse Restaurant
Cottonwood
Awards: People's Choice Award, The Great Sedona Chili Cook-off (2013)
Nestled inside an antique schoolhouse, this New American diner opened its doors in 2013 under the helm of Chef Christopher Dobrowolski and his wife, Laura Fayette-Dobrowolski. Check out creative appetizers like the Dr Pepper-baked wings, or pierogi featuring red kraut and white truffle pesto. The buttermilk fried chicken is a guaranteed diet-buster, served with a side of corn-and-cotija-cheese waffles, sherry-braised purple kale and chorizo gravy; and a fine selection of microbrews from the Four Corners region won't do your calorie panels any favors, either. Take note: Chris is renowned for his out-of-this-world peach cobbler. 202 N. Main St., 928-634-0700, vvschoolhouse.com

Photo by Richard Maack

Pizzeria Bocce
Cottonwood
Think of this indoor-outdoor restaurant in Old Town Cottonwood as the "Pizzeria Bianco of Yavapai County." Owners Eric and Michelle Jurisin opened Bocce – their sixth Arizona restaurant – last July, focusing on creative salads, Napoli-style wood-fired pizza and signature cocktails. You can't go wrong with the Americano: a 12-inch pie topped with sweet tomato sauce, spicy pepperoni, chunks of hand-stretched mozzarella and fresh basil.

Photo by Richard Maack; Pizzeria Bocce in Cottonwood

Whatever pizza you choose, don't skip the Fork & Knife Caesar salad – possibly the best Caesar in Northern Arizona. The romaine lettuce, crostini and parmigiano are topped with a creamy lemon dressing and anchovies by request. 1060 N. Main St., 928-202-3597, boccecottonwood.com

 

 

Photo by Richard Maack; Gardeners Sandwich

The Asylum
Jerome
Awards: Award of Excellence, Wine Spectator (2001-2003); Award of Excellence, North American Restaurant Associations
Perched on Cleopatra Hill inside the legendary "haunted" Jerome Grand Hotel, The Asylum sports creaky floors and other gothic details that seem part of a theme-park ride – but the food is no gimmick. Chef/owner Richard Paisch elevates standard, must-please-everyone hotel fare with delightful sparks of Southwestern flavors, and curates an award-winning wine cellar stocked with 200 labels, including several varietals from nearby vineyards. The best seats are on the patio overlooking Jerome, with sweeping views all the way to the San Francisco Peaks. Dine on grilled, achiote-rubbed pork tenderloin with an apricot-chipotle glaze, sip a floral Arizona Stronghold Tazi, and tell those ghastly ghosts to haunt someone else. 200 Hill St., Jerome, 928-639-3197, asylumrestaurant.com

 

The Valley

Amuse Bouche
Surprise
Awards: Best New Restaurants, PHOENIX magazine (2009)
This tiny BYOB bistro hidden in a strip center in the town of Surprise is just that – a delightful, delicious surprise. Even the New York Times took notice, penning a glowing story about the westside gem in 2010. Surrounded by corporate restaurant chains, husband and wife chef/owners Snir and Kierstin Mor turn out exquisite French-influenced food, including the best quiche in town, and on Sundays, a royal breakfast that puts four-star resorts to shame. Dinner changes frequently, often getting a mid-week tweak depending upon the whim of the chef, but some menu items never change. Award-winning meatloaf shares menu space with seasonal seared scallops finished with celery root over truffle risotto. 17058 W. Bell Rd., Surprise, 623-322-8881, amusebouche.biz

Photo by Mark Lipczynski

Barrio Café
Phoenix
Awards: James Beard Foundation, Best Chef Southwest semifinalist (2010, 2011); Top Ten Mexican Restaurant, PHOENIX magazine (2011)
Vibrant fusion cuisine put Barrio Café on the culinary map in 2002, introducing Phoenicians to a whole piñata of flavors they never imagined while chomping on Sonoran burritos and refried beans. Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza's signature dishes (including chiles en nogada, a roasted poblano stuffed with chicken, fruit and nuts, gilded with an almond cream sauce), groundbreaking pomegranate-seed-spiked guacamole and adventurous new additions (try pipián verde, a green mole made from pumpkin seeds) place this colorful neighborhood restaurant at the top of the Valley's Mod-Mex food chain. Pair the food with tequila or mezcal, choosing from Barrio's extensive collection, one of the Valley's largest. 2814 N. 16th St., 602-636-0240, barriocafe.com

Beckett's Table
Phoenix
Awards: Award of Excellence, Wine Spectator (2012); Best New Restaurants, PHOENIX magazine (2011
Look up "neighborhood restaurant" in the dictionary and you may well find Beckett's Table. Of the Valley's many well-executed, middle-brow American eateries – think St. Francis, Tuck Shop and Rusconi's – this is our favorite. The cozy, living-room-esque décor coupled with an open kitchen and a well-stocked bar set the tone for Chef Justin Beckett's modern comfort food, which includes old favorites like gooey grilled cheese with pancetta and a side of roasted red pepper soup, and smoky shrimp and andouille sausage on top of creamy grits. Chef Beckett also tweaks the menu frequently for the never-the-same-dish-twice crowd. 3717 E. Indian School Rd., 602-954-1700, beckettstable.com

Binkley's
Cave Creek
Awards: Best New Restaurants, PHOENIX magazine (2004); Hot 50 Restaurant Guide, Bon Appetit (2005); James Beard Foundation, Best Chef Southwest finalist (2012, 2013)
Chef Kevin Binkley opened his small Cave Creek laboratory of modernist American cooking in 2004, and a decade later helms arguably Arizona's most revered restaurant. Offering a dining experience full of edible fireworks and his now trademark sense of humor, Binkley – a one-time protégé of East Coast culinary legend Patrick O'Connell – traps you in a funhouse cylinder of gourmet inspiration. One moment, it's a miniature sloppy Joe amuse bouche, and the next, a trio of kurobuta pork lard morsels so pure they taste like butter. Unabashedly embracing the foams, freezings and assorted culinary gizmos of the molecular gastronomy school, Binkley has netted countless accolades for his multi-course menus, using techniques and ingredients that can be found nowhere else in Arizona. From spherified gazpacho to foie gras-stuffed quail, his is a dining playground nonpareil. 6920 E. Cave Creek Rd., 480-437-1072, binkleysrestaurant.com

Bink's Midtown
Phoenix
Awards: 2013 New Restaurant of the Year, PHOENIX magazine
Binkley again? Well, yeah. Parked in a quaint 1940s bungalow with original hardwood floors and beam ceilings, Bink's Midtown gives the Arcadia crowd a taste of Chef Binkley's gastronomic brilliance in an environment friendlier to the Valley's shorts-and-polos crowd. The food here is beauteous, with buttery Pacific sand dab and tangy five-spice duck breast presented as edible works of art. Seasonal produce offerings – all of them sourced from Arizona – are afforded celebrity status at Bink's; indeed, where else in the Valley can you find a humble bowl of jicama dressed up with chickpeas, dried tomatoes, several intriguing herbs and a dab of spicy yogurt? It's like My Fair Lady for vegetable-lovers. And lest you dismiss Bink's as a haven for veg-heads, consider its award-winning bacon cheeseburger, with oinker ground directly into the meat. 2320 E. Osborn Rd., 602-388-4874, binksmidtown.com

Bourbon Steak
Scottsdale
Awards: AAA Four Diamond Award; Forbes Four-Star Award; Best of Award of Excellence, Wine Spectator
San Francisco celebrity chef Michael Mina's 6-year-old shrine to surf and turf is not your father's steakhouse. It's a subliminally sexy food palace with clean lines, floor-to-ceiling glass and soft, black leather banquettes. Appetizers are innovative: Think "bacon & egg" with succulent pork belly, deep-fried egg and kimchi. Steaks are decadently poached in clarified butter and finished on a wood-burning grill. And Mina was smart to give the top toque to local superhero chef Chris Curtiss, a master at handmade pasta, whose otherworldly gnocchi melts on the tongue. Curtiss has a way with seafood, too, whether skate wing or golden tilefish, creating stunning flavors that rival the steaks. 7575 E. Princess Dr., 480-585-4848, scottsdaleprincess.com/dining/bourbon-steak

Photos by Mark Lipczynski; Flatbread pizza

Christopher's & Crush Lounge
Phoenix
Awards: James Beard Best Chef Southwest (1995); Best New Chef, Food & Wine (1989) Christopher Gross, the iconic chef whose original Christopher's jump-started the Valley's modern cuisine movement in 1990, keeps things exciting at the third incarnation of his eponymous restaurant by focusing on what he does best – modernized classic French bistro fare with occasional flashes of haute cuisine on one end and bourgeois people-pleasers on the other. Standbys include Côte de boeuf for two, Alsatian onion tart, escargot en croute, fried frog legs, and if desired, a $140 serving of exquisite Russian caviar. Stylishly and energetically appointed, with the adjoining Crush Lounge adding a touch of sex appeal to the Gallic gestalt, Christopher's is still the roi of French dining in the Valley. 2502 E. Camelback Rd.,602-522-2344, christophersaz.com

Citizen Public House
Scottsdale
Awards: Best New Restaurants, PHOENIX magazine (2011), Best New Restaurant, Phoenix New Times (2011), Best New Restaurants in America, Esquire magazine (2011)
When Chef Bernie Kantak unveiled this upscale gastropub in 2011, he had a lot to live up to: namely, a solid reputation earned during his decade at Cowboy Ciao, and the fact that CPH occupies the building that housed the original Trader Vic's. Kantak's refined spin on comfort classics combines with mixmaster Richie Moe's innovative cocktails and a friendly, energetic vibe to make Citizen the hottest late-night nosh on the block. Juicy spiced lamb pairs with tzatziki and pickled veggies for an exotic burger, while pungent gorgonzola and Emmental make Kantak's mac and cheese a grown-up crowd pleaser. Other highlights include a chopped salad so well-balanced it has a dedicated Facebook following, and the addictive jolt of dessert diva Tracy Dempsey's espresso-laced sticky bun bread pudding. 7111 E. Fifth Ave., 480-398-4208, citizenpublichouse.com

Cork
Chandler
Awards: Best New Restaurants, PHOENIX magazine (2008)
Cornered in an otherwise ordinary suburban shopping plaza in Chandler's distant southern fringe, the award-winning Cork crafts food that is anything but routine. Since opening in 2008, Cork has generated destination-worthy buzz for its small-plates-driven menu of globally-hued New American cuisine and acclaimed wine program. Chef Brian Peterson, along with husband and wife duo Robert and Danielle Morris, showcase the very best of each season, and region, with inspired takes on classics, like the rich foie gras pound cake, cut with a citrus and date sauce; the buttery mahi mahi, served with shishito peppers and lobster fried rice; or the duck breast, with okra, duck bacon and Brussels sprouts. Culinarily speaking, it's the savior of San Tan. 4991 S. Alma School Rd., 480-883-3773, corkrestaurant.net

Crudo
Phoenix
Awards: Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame; Best New Restaurant, PHOENIX magazine (2012)
Based on the name, you'd think this hard-to-find gem would be a raw seafood restaurant. You'd be one-third right. Chef Cullen Campbell creates pristine plates of crudo, such as silky butterfish garnished with roasted tomato, lardo and arugula. The other two-thirds of the menu feature an eclectic collection of modern, Italian-inspired plates, which can be ordered a la carte or in money-saving multi-courses. The menu changes seasonally, but the phenomenal squid ink risotto is a mainstay. First, prime your palate with an imaginative cocktail in Bar Crudo next door before surrendering to the gracious service and wine knowledge of Campbell's wife, Maureen. 3603 E. Indian School Rd., 602-358-8666, crudoaz.com

FnB
Scottsdale
Awards: 10 Best Restaurant Dishes, Food & Wine (2010); Best New Restaurants, PHOENIX magazine (2010)
For four glorious years, Chef Charleen Badman and front-of-the-house charmer Pavle Milic have beautified Old Town Scottsdale with their incomparable farm-to-table fare. Using locally-sourced ingredients, Badman crafts an ever-changing seasonal menu of small and large plates for lunch and dinner. If the stars align and you catch the "off-Stetson" chopped salad loaded with sweet persimmons, tart pomegranate seeds, thinly-sliced Brussels sprouts, chunks of jicama, crunchy walnuts and mild goat feta dressed in a delicate wash of sherry vinaigrette, consider yourself fortunate. Grab a seat on the adjoining patio, order a glass of Arizona wine and revel in a plate of Badman's impeccable roasted chicken tinged with scallion-ginger sauce or lamb riblets with sherry vinegar and honey. 7125 E. Fifth Ave., 480-284-4777, fnbrestaurant.com

PHM0114 BR17a

Richardson's/ The Rokerij
Phoenix
Awards: Best Of Phoenix, Phoenix New Times (2007, 2008, 2013), Best Bars in America, Esquire magazine (2010)
After career waiter and sometimes hippie Richardson Browne rode his bicycle from Florida to Phoenix in the late 1980s, he purchased an old tack shop on a whim and converted it into a dark, cavernous eatery. Though the original Richardson's burned down in 2009, the newly rebuilt restaurant and its Siamese twin, Dutch-Southwestern grill The Rokerij, continue to attract local bigwigs with a speakeasy vibe and hotter-than-Hades New Mexican fare. Moist carne adovada warms the stomach better than whiskey, and the mild poblano flavor of smoked turkey rellenos complements the earthy tang of green chile. Can't handle the heat? The Rokerij's pecan wood grill adds nutty sweetness to any meat, making for flavorful yet mild burgers and bacon-wrapped steak. 6335 N. 16th St., 602-265-5886, richardsonsnm.com

Fry Bread House
Phoenix
Awards: America's Classic, James Beard Foundation (2012)
This soulful, fuss-free temple to the heavenly virtues of fry bread – that blistered, chewy, deep-fried dough we all know and crave – is no longer the best-kept culinary secret in Arizona, thanks to its official branding as an "American Classic" by the James Beard Foundation in 2012. From the savory fry bread tacos pressed to the edge with slow-cooked red or green chile beef and lard-loaded refried beans, to the sentimentally sweet, easy-kill combo of powdered sugar and honey, Fry Bread House continues to serve its namesake specialty with no remorse for overindulgence or regard for the calorie-concerned. Along with Tuscon's El Güero Canelo, it gets indigenous-AZ brownie points. 1003 E. Indian School Rd., 602-351-2345

Kai
Chandler
Awards: AAA Five Diamond Award (2006-2014); Forbes Five-Star Award; Award of Excellence, Wine Spectator
Arizona's most decorated restaurant experienced a high-profile executive chef change in late 2012, yet it didn't skip a beat. If anything, Kai is even better, with an updated, modern menu reflecting its Native American roots while embracing the future with global accents. Kai is king because of the understated elegance of the earth-toned dining room, stunning sunset views from the patio, sophisticated service that melts into the background, and dishes so artfully arranged it seems a shame to devour them – until the first bite. Elk loin wrapped in jamón Ibérico de Bellota with truffle risotto, and cinnamon-dusted lamb loin over butternut squash and wattleseed spaetzle celebrate ancient ingredients with a contemporary spin. 5594 Wild Horse Pass Blvd., 602-385-5726, wildhorsepassresort.com

Photo by Brian Goddard; Shrimp and grits and fried green tomatoes at Lo-Lo's Chicken and Waffles

Lo-Lo's Chicken and Waffles
Phoenix and Scottsdale
Awards: Best of the Valley – Best Sandwich, PHOENIX magazine (2013)
Well before bacon cupcakes and salted caramel ice cream went mainstream, Larry "Lo-Lo" White perfected his salty-sweet technique under his granny's wing at Mrs. White's Golden Rule Café. Launched in 2002, with a Scottsdale outpost added in 2008, Lo-Lo's dishes up stick-to-your-ribs soul food with Southern attitude. Waffles are light and fluffy, topped with a heaping scoop of booty-building butter. Lo-Lo's bird is crisp and succulent, its natural juices jacketed in buttermilk breading studded with a proprietary spice blend White won't even divulge to his own wife. Beyond the crispy cluckers, Lo-Lo's piquant PHAT AZZ catfish "samich" and red velvet cake with finger-lickin' cream cheese frosting are worthy supporting players. It's serious soul food in a soul-food-deprived town. 1220 S. Central Ave., Phoenix, 602-340-1304; 2765 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale, 480-945-1920, loloschickenandwaffles.com

Los Dos Molinos
Phoenix
Awards: Best Carne Adovada, Phoenix New Times (2011)
In the church of chile heat, Los Dos is pope. Several convenient Valley locations of this beloved New Mexico-style restaurant have opened since family matriarch Victoria Chavez debuted the original Los Dos nearly 40 years ago in the town of Springerville, but we'll gladly burn a little extra gas to dine at the iconic, out-of-the-way South Phoenix outpost, set in the former home of silent film star Tom Mix. Known for its searing application of the infamous New Mexican chile in all its blistering glory, Los Dos beckons diners far and wide to dine on slow-cooked, chile-lacquered carne adovada ribs, marinated for days in the restaurant's trademark, sweltering red sauce. It's endorphin-rush dining at its finest. 8646 S. Central Ave., 602-243-9113, losdosmolinosphoenix.com

Nobuo at the Teeter House
Phoenix
Awards: Best Chef Southwest, James Beard Foundation (2007); Best New Chef, Food and Wine magazine (2002)
Once upon a time, Nobuo Fukuda was a 20-year-old line chef at Benihana, making onion ring volcanos and the like. It's a pretty funny thought, considering the James Beard Award winner's towering artistry – like Picasso inking cartoon panels for South Park. Perfecting the small plates technique that first won him acclaim at Sea Saw in Old Town, Fukuda does things with raw fish that feel vaguely supernatural – for instance, draping spoonfuls of hamachi in grapefruit and trufflized ponzu oil in such a way that each bite seems directly piped into your umami pleasure zones. Similarly un-Benihana-like: a soft-shell crab salad married with peanuts and sweetened fish sauce for an unexpected Southeast Asian shwing. Of course, everything at this Downtown izakaya is splendid: the hot plates, the cold plates, the Japanese tea room lunch menu. If you love sushi, and want to take your love of Japanese cuisine to the next level, this is your graduate program. 622 E. Adams St., 602-254-0600, nobuofukuda.com

Posh
Scottsdale
Awards: Award of Excellence, Wine Spectator (2013); Best Late Night Ramen, PHOENIX magazine (2013)
In the mood for some spicy kangaroo or a meaty bison oxtail? Both have been known to star in the "improvisational" cuisine of Chef Joshua Hebert. Here's how it works: Diners are presented with a menu that includes the aforementioned protein choices plus more mainstream selections such as soft-shell crab, white bass and New York strip steak. Cross out the proteins you dislike, write down any other food aversions, allergies and dietary restrictions, and Hebert and staff will create a minimum five-course seasonal tasting menu based on your answers. Like disciplined jazz musicians, they experiment freely, but always manage to hit the right notes. Frog legs with gnocchi? Shrimp cocktail with a miso gelée? Groovy, baby. 7167 E. Rancho Vista Dr., 480-663-7674, poshscottsdale.com

Roka Akor
Scottsdale
Awards: Best Sushi
Restaurant in the U.S., Travel & Leisure magazine (2008)
Pity the poor soul who dismisses this London-based dining brand as "corporate sushi." From the showpiece robata grill to the obsessively fine-tuned food and service, Roka is anything but generic. Don't miss the butterfish tataki, a delicate but palate-empowering raw fish served with dainty white asparagus and yuzu; the crispy Brussels sprouts with a house-made Japanese mustard, flecked with bonito flakes; or one of Roka Akor's "steak collection," which includes dry-aged and bone-in cuts of Niman Ranch and Australian wagyu beef. Roka Akor is not for the faint of wallet, but worth every delectable dollar. And if you want to cost-effectively join the party, it offers one of the Valley's best happy hour values. 7299 N. Scottsdale Rd., 480-306-8800, rokaakor.com

ShinBay
Scottsdale
Awards: James Beard Award
semifinalist (2012); Best New Restaurants, PHOENIX magazine (2011)
Chef Shinji Kurita is all about subtlety. Everything at ShinBay is elegantly understated, from the soothing elemental décor to Kurita's quiet demeanor and clean, flavorful fare. Dedicated fans of his defunct Ahwatukee restaurant rejoiced when Kurita left a temporary gig at a national teppanyaki chop-shop to open ShinBay in 2011. Here, chef-driven menus change like the tides, ebbing and flowing through nigiri, toubanyaki (tabletop grilled meats) and flavorful, brothy mushroom soup with tender, earthy mussels. There's a reason we dubbed Kurita "The Fish Whisperer." Despite Phoenix's lack of coastline, ShinBay's entrées taste ocean-fresh – leaving us to wonder if Kurita discovered a mythical portal that instantly transports him to the sea and back. 7001 N. Scottsdale Rd., 480-664-0180, shinbay.com

Photo by Terri Lea Smith

Pizzeria Bianco
Phoenix
Awards: Best Chef Southwest, James Beard Foundation (2003); Best Pizza in the U.S., Bon Appétit
Without question, this is bucket-list pizza. More than simply a local destination for superior pies, Pizzeria Bianco has shaped the national food ethos on what truly constitutes the perfect pizza, seizing countless golden accolades along the way. Since opening in 1996, Bianco's Downtown Phoenix outpost goes through blank waiting lists like boxes of Kleenex – claiming a table for dinner on a routine Friday night continues to be one of life's back-patting benchmarks. Celebrated for its signature wood-fired artisanal pizzas constructed meticulously with ingredients handcrafted or personally curated by founder and James Beard Award-winning pizza master Chris Bianco, food-driven tourists continue to make hungry pilgrimages to Phoenix for menu favorites like the classic margherita and the Wiseguy, made with house-smoked mozzarella, local fennel sausage and wood-roasted onions. 623 E. Adams St., 602-258-8300, pizzeriabianco.com

Photo by Jamie Peachey; Farmer's Market Salad at Tarbell's

Tarbell's
Phoenix
Awards: Food Network's Iron Chef America (2007)
When you walk into Tarbell's, two divergent thoughts come to mind: 1) Wow, what a classy joint, with its white tablecloths and nattily-attired clientele; and 2) It's so damn comfortable and inviting, you could belly up to the bar and linger all night. Since 1994, oenophile chef Mark Tarbell has courageously manned the front lines of the Valley's fine-dining revolution. Perennial favorites include grilled Scottish salmon glazed with molasses, lime and McClendon's honey atop crispy russet potato cakes; and Mark's "famous" ground veal and pork sausage meatballs smothered in house-made marinara served over spaghetti.

Photo by Jamie Peachey; Chef Mark Tarbell of Tarbell's

The chef publishes many of his recipes on the restaurant's website, but why cook at home when you can be wined and dined by a living legend? 3213 E. Camelback Rd., 602-955-8100, tarbells.com

Tacos Atoyac
Phoenix
Awards: Best New Restaurants, PHOENIX magazine (2012); Best Fish Taco, PHOENIX magazine (2011); Best Fish Taco, Epicurious.com
If it wasn't so neat and tidy, this bare-bones Central Phoenix taco shop might be considered a dive. The intriguing menu of Mexican street food at candy bar prices draws diners from all corners of the Valley. Tacos are tops, especially the Baja-style fish taco and the pork- and- pineapple al pastor, but owners Dan Maldonado and Pablo Lopez also sling two humble Oaxacan snacks you won't find anywhere else: memelitas (thick, chewy corn tortillas) and molote (masa fritters stuffed with potatoes and chorizo). It's peasant fare fit for a prince. 1830 W. Glendale Ave., 602-864-2746

Photos by Mark Lipczynski; Smoked salmon quesadilla with horseradish cream at Vincent on Camelback

Vincent on
Camelback

Phoenix
Awards: Best Chef Southwest, James Beard Foundation (1993)
Vincent Guerithault was practicing "chef-driven," "seasonal" and "local" decades before they were boilerplate buzzwords. With the opening of his eponymous Phoenix restaurant in 1986, Guerithault almost single-handedly elevated Southwestern cuisine into the realm of fine dining with his signature, often playful layering of the regional style with classic French sensibilities. Authoring daily menus highlighted by then-scandalous dishes like duck confit tamales with raisins and mild Anaheim chile, and his equally infamous lobster chimichanga, filled with a silky basil beurre blanc, Guerithault permanently cemented himself in the Valley's culinary consciousness. The James Beard Award-winner also exhibits an uncanny knack for adaptation, rolling out a much-admired small-plates menu in the restaurant's Bleu Lounge. 3930 E. Camelback Rd., 602-224-0225, vincentsoncamelback.com

Virtù Honest Craft
Scottsdale
Awards: Best New Restaurants in America, Esquire magazine (2013); Top 5 Best New Restaurants, PHOENIX magazine (2013)
Named after the Machiavellian term for "achieving excellence," this 35-seat modern Italian bistro should be loved, not feared – that is, unless you fear deliciousness. Chef/owner Gio Osso dazzles with offerings that range from a simple salad of baby lettuces, red beets, squash and crunchy candied pecans; to mind-scrambling symphonies like a trio of hazelnut-crusted scallops atop a bed of butternut squash studded with bacon and finished with white chocolate beurre blanc. Not yet a year old, Virtù is a tyro eatery with an old soul – and a grilled octopus appetizer that haunts our fantasies. Along with Crudo, it's the star of the Valley's emerging Italian scene. 3701 N. Marshall Way, 480-946-3477, virtuscottsdale.com

 

Southern Arizona

Photo by David Venezia; Cast iron rib eye with carrot gratin and bacon hollandaise, topped with a salad of arugula, pears, bleu cheese and bacon, at The Abbey Eat + Drink

The Abbey Eat + Drink
Tucson
Awards: Best New Restaurant, Tucson Lifestyle (2011)
Artichoke dip with fresh dill and house-made crostini. Pot roast with black truffle pan gravy. Burgers with bacon jam. Comfort food is surely raised to an art form at this retro-chic gastropub, which conjures a friendly neighborhood vibe despite its upscale-shopping-compound address. Owned by the same folks behind Tucson's popular Jax Kitchen, the Abbey is especially popular with locals on Tuesdays, when bottles of wine are half-price, and on Wednesday, which is fabled fried chicken night. The daily changing Breakfast for Dinner entrée is also a real crowd-pleaser. French toast and bacon somehow taste better after dark. 6960 E. Sunrise Dr., 520-299-3132, theabbeytucson.com

Photo by David Venezia; Plato Poca Cosa at Cafe Poca Cosa in Tucson

Café Poca Cosa
Tucson
Awards: Best Upscale Cuisine (2013) and Best Mexican (2011, 2012), Tucson Weekly
A staple of downtown Tucson dining since 1987, this one-time hole-in-the-wall traded up for more upscale digs, but its status as ground zero for authentic Mexico City soul food in Arizona endures. Chef/owner Suzana Davila elevates the food of her native land, turning out elegant renditions of classics – mole, tacos, enchiladas – as well as funky takeoffs on traditional flavors, like ancho chile-infused chocolate cake, plum-chipotle carne and tamale pie with rotating flavors and sauces. Try the scrumptious cauliflower, if it's available. Davila keeps palates on edge with her twice-daily-changing menu, informed by her daily farmers' market harvest, but is careful to mix old favorites with bold experiments. Put your trust in her and order the Plato Poca Cosa (chef's choice) and a fresh fruit-laden margarita, and just say gracias. 110 E. Pennington St., 520-622-6400, cafepocacosatucson.com

Cafe Roka
Bisbee
Awards: #1 Restaurant in Bisbee, Trip Advisor (2009-2013)
The picturesque town of Bisbee has a reputation for being quirky, but usually in an eat-it-out-of-a-can kind of way. So footloose food lovers throughout Southern Arizona were amazed 20 years ago when a New American restaurant offering reasonably priced and beautifully presented four-course meals – including a sorbet palate cleanser – opened on the town's historic main drag. The dinners served in the intimate pressed tin-ceiling dining room continue to impress. Entrées on the weekly changing menu range from portobello mushroom and artichoke lasagna to New Zealand rack of lamb with new potatoes in a rosemary zinfandel sauce. 35 Main St., 520-432-5153, caferoka.com

Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails
Tucson
Awards: Best Chef: Southwest, James Beard Foundation Award (2000); Best Chefs America (2013); Best New Restaurants, Tucson Lifestyle (2011)
Chef Janos Wilder's return to downtown, where he got his start in Tucson some three decades ago, is a globe-trotting departure from the regional Southwestern cuisine that scored him a James Beard Award. His self-described menu for a "new America" throws a block party on every plate with such dishes as a Laotian chicken and green papaya salad, Cuban achiote-rubbed pork loin and black mussels with Spanish chorizo. You can also savor such signature Wilder dishes as his Sonoran hot dog – one of several upscale street food options on the bar menu – and his chocolate jalapeño ice cream sundae. 135 S. Sixth Ave., 520-623-7700, downtownkitchen.com

The Grill at Hacienda del Sol
Tucson
Awards: Top Five Restaurants, Tucson Lifestyle (2011, 2012, 2013); AAA Four Diamond Award (2011)
The ultimate in special-occasion dining, this elegant Southwest-style restaurant is located at the lovely Hacienda del Sol – a 1929 girls' school turned historic guest ranch where Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy once bunked. The menu caters to both traditionalists and more adventurous foodies with dishes like roasted duck breast sided by Spanish chorizo and cranberry bean ragout, and game preparations such as roasted pheasant breast and venison chops. This is also the only restaurant in Arizona to receive Wine Enthusiast's "Award of Ultimate Distinction" not once, but twice. Locals flock to the generous Sunday brunch; book a table on the west patio for drop-dead gorgeous city and mountain vistas. 5501 N. Hacienda Del Sol Rd., 520-529-3500, haciendadelsol.com/dining/

Maynard's Market & Kitchen
Tucson
Awards: Best Chefs America (2013); Award of Excellence, Wine Spectator (2013)
Served in a restored Southern Pacific railroad depot, Chef Addam Buzzalini's innovative bistro fare – think poutine and foie gras with pomme frites, and Niman Ranch organic roasted chicken – channels the classic era of elegant rail travel with an art deco-style room that mimics a Pullman dining car. Everything is made from scratch, from the fresh-baked bread to artisanal ice cream. Browse the shelves of the casual, grab-and-bag market next door for a bottle of wine to accompany dinner. Freight trains still pass by; grab a table on the outdoor patio to experience the sound effects full-force. 400 N. Toole Ave., 520-545-0577, maynardstucson.com

Proper
Tucson
Awards: Opened 2013
Yes, it's a bit unconventional to rank a restaurant that debuted in May among the state's best, but owner Paul Moir's track record in Flagstaff – he's behind the excellent Criollo Latin Kitchen and Brix Restaurant & Wine Bar – suggests this stylish downtown dining room is no flash in the pan. Dishes like curried lamb stew with dates, and pork belly with butternut squash risotto are complex without being fussy, and the farm-to-table philosophy, including the use of ethically raised animals, guarantees maximum freshness with minimum guilt. Creative cocktails like the Green Thistle, a bracing mix of vodka, artichoke liqueur and citrus, add panache. 300 E. Congress St., 520-396-3357, propertucson.com

PY Steakhouse
Tucson
Awards: Best New Restaurant, Tucson Lifestyle (2013)
Tucson's south side is chockablock with Mexican mom-and-pops, so the recent arrival of this high-end steakhouse in the glitzy Casino del Sol, owned by the Pascua Yaqui tribe, has thoroughly disrupted the neighborhood's culinary grading curve. Touches such as jalapeños in the creamed spinach and chorizo in the shrimp linguine lend Southwest zest to a classic surf-and-turf menu. The swanky dining room, a study in white with touches of black and gray, provides the perfect setting for the retro cocktails created by resort mixologist Aaron de Feo, arguably Southern Arizona's top barkeep. 5655 W. Valencia Rd., 855-765-7829,
casinodelsol.com

Vivace
Tucson
Awards: Top Five Restaurants, Tucson Lifestyle (2011, 2012, 2013); Zagat #1 Tucson restaurant (2009)
Chef/owner Daniel Scordato has dished out consistently fine Northern Italian fare to Tucsonans for so long – since 1993 – that Vivace sometimes gets overlooked in the rush to try the next new thing. But savvy locals and devoted out-of-towners keep the white clothed tables in the pretty Tuscan-style dining rooms booked year-round. The epitome of the good life, Southern Arizona style: sitting out on the patio and sipping Prosecco with a pear and walnut wedge salad, perhaps followed by artichoke-goat cheese cannelloni and pork Sorrentino with prosciutto and Fontina cheese. 4310 N. Campbell Ave., 520-795-7221, vivacetucson.com

Wildflower
Tucson
Awards:Top Five Restaurants, Tucson Lifestyle (2012, 2013)
Celebrating its 15th anniversary, Sam Fox's maiden culinary expedition reminds us why Fox Restaurant Concepts (FRC) has become a national mega-success: excellent food, great service and reasonable prices. Keepers from the original menu, like the smoked salmon and crème fraîche on a crispy potato galette – a clever spin on bagels and lox – never disappoint. Neither do the Bars of Sin, a praline chocolate cookie with cappuccino mousse that distinguishes FRC executive pastry chef Karen "Spike" Ames as a true dessert diva. Wildflower's patio is one of the most appealing in town, with dramatic Santa Catalina vistas during the day, and a romantic, low-lit atmosphere come nightfall. 7037 N. Oracle Rd., 520-219-4230, foxrc.com

Photo by David Venezia

El Güero Canelo
Tucson
Awards: Best Sonoran Hot Dogs, Tucson Weekly (2009-2013)
The Sonoran hot dog is Tucson's most iconic dish, and this former roadside taco stand-turned-restaurant is its most famous advocate. For 20 years, Daniel Contreras and his family have served thousands of their signature pieces of heaven-in-a-sweet-bun: bacon-wrapped dogs grilled to a chewy, crisp perfection and loaded with beans, onions, tomatoes, mayonnaise and mustard, with some customers opting to dogpile with salsa, jalapeños, cheese and crema. But it's more than just hot dogs on the menu; the carne asada is grilled up almost around the clock and stuffed into tacos, burros, tortas and caramelos, a kind of torta/quesadilla hybrid. Everything is made fresh, with a toppings station chock-full of veggies, sauces and salsas. Good luck eating these delights slowly. Odds are you'll spend hours licking between your teeth trying to get one last taste. Three locations, 520-807-9620, elguerocanelo.com

Elvira's
Tubac
Awards: Certificate of Excellence, Trip Advisor (2013)
When this Nogales, Mexico-based institution – dating waaaay back to 1927 – moved north of the border to artsy Tubac a few years ago, it stayed true to its pan-Mexican culinary roots, but spiffed up its digs. Don't miss the superb moles – particularly the hazelnut with ancho chiles, raisins and chocolate – or the tamarind-chipotle shrimp on grilled pineapple. In season, the pomegranate-seed-studded chiles en nogada are a must-order, and the margaritas, from the classic to agave honey, are justly famed. After dark, the dining room gets seriously sexy, with the blown-glass teardrops suspended from the ceiling catching and refracting the light. 2221 E. Frontage Rd., 520-398-9421, elvirasrestaurant.com

Photo by Jim David; Trout Three Ways at Overland TroutOverland Trout
Sonoita
Awards: Opened 2013
Talk about a change of scenery. Last year, Greg LaPrad left his gig at Quiessence, an oasis farmhouse restaurant anchored in the south Phoenix urban sprawl, for Overland Trout, a modest outpost in the wide-open prairie of Southern Arizona's wine country. Making fast friends with local farmers and ranchers, LaPrad crafted a one-page seasonal menu reflecting the terroir of Southern Arizona and its close proximity to Mexico. Winter squash soup with house-made apple chorizo shares the spotlight with grilled quail marinated in local red wine, and hunter's stew is packed with wild venison.

Photo by Jim David; Chef Greg LaPrad of Overland Trout in Sonoita

Although the restaurant has only been open since October, Arizona's food and wine enthusiasts have already christened it "destination dining worth the drive." At least, that's what we're calling it. 3266 State Hwy. 82, 520-455-9316, overlandtrout.com

 

 

Photos by Jim David, Mark Lipczynski, Brian Goddard, Richard Maack, Jamie Peachey, Laura Segall, Terri Lea Smith, David Venezia