Written by Thomas Ingersoll, Mirelle Inglefield, Mello Jello & Carl Schultz
Photography Assistant, Khoa Duong
Models provided by Ford Robert Black Agency
Wardrobe provided by Rare Scarf Glam Vintage
Styling by Mitch Phillips
Cheers! Salute! Sláinte! Prost! L’chaim!
No matter how you say it, we’re toasting to the Valley’s buzzing and ever-growing bar scene. Herein: a watering hole for every taste, from the stickiest dive bar dance floors to the craftiest mixology dens. Plus: Bar Etiquette 101, what the deal is with mocktails and the bars where everybody knows your name.
A Brief History of Boozing in the Valley
Shortly after inventing the world’s first alcoholic beverage – a sweet, mead-like rice wine linked to 9,000-year-old pottery in Jiahu, China – mankind stumbled onto something just as critical: a place to drink it. According to historians, the earliest taverns in the Western world date to 400 BCE, when industrious Grecians of modest means turned their homes into pubs and brothels to make an extra drachma.
It wasn’t so different in territorial Arizona after the 1864 Howell Code first assessed liquor taxes on spirits vendors in the state. Saloons in those days were mainly for men, unless you happened to be a prostitute, says Phoenix historian and frequent PHOENIX contributor Douglas C. Towne: “The saloons were crude and unsanitary places filled with spittoons where folks just got hammered.” It wasn’t until Prohibition in the 1920s that the sexes started commingling over cocktails in illicit speakeasies around the state, later moving their decriminalized liquor out of the basements and bathtubs to enjoy as a martini at Durant’s or a nightcap at the terrifying-sounding Clown’s Den at the now defunct Arizona Manor Hotel.
Following a slow period in the late 20th century and a slog through the Great Recession, Phoenix is enjoying a drinking-establishment renaissance. Chilled magazine declared the Valley’s bar scene “booming” in 2015, with more career bartenders and mixologists staying put rather than fleeing for the more established bar tops of San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York. But the best bars – new and old – are classified as such because they do the thing that made booze so appealing to our ancestors in the first place: provide a welcoming community.
Valley Bar Etiquette
Longtime local bartender Robert Port, head mixologist at J&G Steakhouse at The Phoenician, offers these common-sense bar rules.
What To Tip?
Tip at least 20 percent on crafted specialty cocktails, higher if the bartender adds a little something extra, like flare bartending or an interesting story or history about the spirit. Tip $1 for something simple, like a draft beer.
The easiest way to get a bartender’s attention in a busy bar without upsetting him/her is to sit or stand tall, make eye contact and slightly raise your hand and pointer finger. If you shout, you will be ignored.
Bartender, Psy D.
You can start a conversation with a bartender if he or she isn’t too busy working. Conversation creates a more relaxed atmosphere, and most bartenders love to talk.
So, What’s Your Sign?
It’s OK to flirt with the bartender, but understand that they are there to work. They may be flirting back to get a bigger tip – and they don’t owe you anything.
Where Art Thou, Purse?
If the underside of the bar has no hooks, and the stool has no back, some women put the purse strap over their knee and let it hang, or use the seat next to them if it’s open. As a last resort, store it on the bar top, but keep it close, and check for spills!
The Original Arizona Cocktail
This summer, award-winning barman Joshua James (Clever Koi) was approached by The Feast podcast to re-create the oldest known Arizona-themed cocktail, The Arizona Statehood. Ironically, first mention of The Statehood in 1909 predates Arizona’s own statehood by three years – it was created by a bartender at the old Ford Hotel (near modern-day City Hall) to celebrate Arizona’s congressional go-ahead to draft its own constitution. “It was a rye-based cocktail,” James says. “The original recipe calls for Dubonnet [a wine-based aperitif] and ginger ale and tonic. I re-created it to be less dry [and made] with modern ingredients.” Celebrate our state at home with his recipe.
1/2 oz. Lillet Rouge
1 oz. Rittenhouse Rye whiskey
5 oz. Iconic Cocktail Co. Ginga Syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1/4 oz. Small Hand Foods gum syrup
Tonic water (James prefers Canada Dry)
Mix together Lillet whiskey, Ginga and gum syrups and bitters in a Collins glass. Fill the rest of the glass with tonic water and stir. Serve garnished with a brandy-soaked cherry and a dried orange slice.
Before we embark on our fantastic Valley bar voyage, a few quick anecdotes about how your favorite bars came to be.
Gracie’s Tax Bar
Charismatic former heavy metal frontwoman Grace Perry was such an ace employee for Crescent Ballroom kingpin Charlie Levy that he helped bankroll her Grace-fronted dive-bar concept (see page 94).
Believed to be the oldest bar in the Valley, the iconic tiki lounge was opened in 1947 by a WWII vet inspired by Trader Vic’s.
Legend has it that the original owner’s father was a judge, so he had to fabricate a name, at the risk of implicating his esteemed family in the founding of a first-rate dive bar.
Hula’s Modern tiki
Then running security for New Kids on the Block (true story), Dana Mule was having a drink with his wife at the original Hula’s in California and pining for a career change. He met the owner on a whim and hammered out a deal to expand into Arizona.
“A great bartender like Travis Nass or Timothy LaFever have made mocktail magic. Just tell ’em you’re the DD and trust them to make you forget you’re not drinkin’.”
— Mirelle Inglefield, Art Director, PHOENIX magazine
Top 5 Karaoke Experiences
If you’re one of the breed of bargoers who breaks into song after the first sip, check out these hot-mic winners.
The pride of the NoSco blotto scene offers spacious, low-pressure karaoke and great crabcakes (see page 105).
Geisha a Go Go
Introduced the “karaoke box,” or private room, to the Valley. geishaagogo.com
Old Town dive is the likely all-time karaoke mileage-leader in the Valley. grapevineaz.com
Saturday nights brings Sing Your Face Off! karaoke MC-ed by a gong-wielding drag queen. crescentballroom.com
Imported from Los Angeles, this private-room concept in Old Town isn’t just a great place to warble Benatar, but one of the Valley’s most luxe nightclubs. blinddragonscottsdale.com
Saturday Night Fever
Make like Tony Manero – which is to say, shake your thang – at these electric Valley dance hot spots.
The Cash Nightclub & Lounge
Drag queen Felicia “Fefe” Minor says “it’s been a great pleasure” to work as an entertainer and hostess at The Cash over the past year. “Whether you’re coming for our Thursday night Truth or Dare Drag Bingo, Wednesday night karaoke or Saturday dancing, there’s something for everyone,” she fawns. Until new owners took over about two years ago, the CenPho club was strictly regarded as a lesbian bar with a country western twang. According to Minor’s co-star, drag king Freddie Prinze Charming, the bar has evolved in the interim, opening its doors to a more diverse experience. “It’s still technically a lesbian bar, but it’s far more welcoming to everyone else than it used to be.” Less restrictions equal more dancing.
Drink This: Dirty Shirley
The Scene: Queens, kings and in-betweens
2140 E. McDowell Rd., Phoenix, 602-244-9943, facebook.com/thecashnightclub
When Valley Bar opened as the first unmarked, underground “speakeasy” in modern Phoenix proper three years ago, it was as if no other bar existed. Showing off Downtown Phoenix to visitors? Take ’em to Valley Bar. Want to dance to live music but not at Crescent Ballroom – the other music venue owned by Charlie Levy and Tucker Woodbury just a few blocks away? VB, baby. Today, the hullabaloo has abated somewhat, but Valley Bar still remains the place to see great live acts like Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears and Party With A Purpose every Friday, where the suggested $3 donation to dance to funk, R&B and hip-hop goes to a new humanitarian organization each month.
Drink This: The Janet Napolotini. House cocktails are named after notable Arizona politicians. This gin-green Chartreuse-ginger liqueur concoction is named for the state’s first female attorney general and third female governor.
The Scene: Depends on who’s playing that night, but expect to see a lot of Downtown revivers
130 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, 602-368-3121, valleybarphx.com
Waylon Jennings was reportedly a regular of this honky-tonk when it opened in the 1960s, when its surrounding North Scottsdale neighborhood may as well have been the set of WestWorld. Today, real, honest-to-goodness cowboys and Taylor Swift fans alike love two-stepping on the enormous dance floor. The Herndon family has owned the joint since 1975, and the three sons perform in-house as The Herndon Brothers band about four times a week.
Drink This: Budweiser (to chase your baby back ribs)
The Scene: Bull ropers, Arizona old-timers, cougars’ night out
7116 E. Becker Ln., Scottsdale, 480-948-0110, handlebarj.com
Phoenix old-timers wax rhapsodic about Chez Nous, a Soul Train-esque dance floor with the unrelated Franconian name (“our house”) that closed its doors in 2009 after 46 years. In 2016, they were karmically rewarded with The Womack, a Chez Nous reincarnation featuring the same layout, same round booths and same black and gold wallpaper in a Seventh Street building that used to house another lounge from Chez Nous’ owners, Andy and Maureen Womack. Like its predecessor, The Womack bumps groovy tunes of the R&B, Motown and funk persuasions from live bands or DJs most Thursday through Saturday nights. And the dance floor’s always packed.
Drink This: Amaretto sour
The Scene: “The babysitter can stay till midnight!”
5749 N. Seventh St., Phoenix, 602-283-5232, thewomack.us
“FEZ on Central Avenue and West Portland [Street]. One of my regular drinks is a Moscow Mule. I enjoy their take on it, which they call the Donkey Punch, with a little bit of limoncello. The Moroccan-inspired food is excellent, and their full kitchen is open late, so it’s great for after symphony concerts on a Friday or Saturday night.”
— Tito Muñoz, Conductor & Music Director, The Phoenix Symphony
Put yourself in the hands of these alcoholic alchemists, and taste gold in a glass.
The Brickyard Downtown
It’s a well-known cliché of journalism that most reporters are good at drinking. What can we say? There’s something about the pursuit of truth that makes one thirsty for mind-numbing hooch. Fitting, then, that one of the East Valley’s best cocktail bars is in the early 20th-century brick building that once housed the Chandler Arizonan, later consolidated into the East Valley Tribune. Navy veteran and beverage master Bobby Kramer wrote the extensive cocktail menu, called The Library of Libations, with drinks named for popular heroes, villains and legends.
Drink This: Chupacobler – dry Spanish wine, mezcal, orange, raspberry, Más Mole Bitters
The Scene: Cool suburbanites who read graphic novels and play bass in local cover bands
85 W. Boston St., Chandler, 480-963-1373, brickyarddowntown.com
Honor Amongst Thieves
This second-story speakeasy above Stock & Stable on Seventh Street looks like the dark, over-leathered library of a college professor who identifies a little too much with Captain Ahab. In keeping with this Lit 101 theme, the cocktails are named after classic novels. Think: Rum Diaries (Hunter S. Thompson) with rum, ginger liqueur, lemon and honey, and Exile & The Kingdom (Albert Camus) with absinthe, mezcal and allspice – a crazy concoction appropriate for its namesake philosopher of absurdism.
Drink This: Sense and Sensibility – gin, pineapple and rosewater with a baby’s breath garnish. Like its inspiration, author Jane Austen, this pretty pink cocktail looks sweet but packs a (polite) punch.
The Scene: Wannabe beatniks with Hermès scarves
5538 N. Seventh St., Phoenix, 602-313-1001, honoraz.com
Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour
The term mixologist suggests a handlebar-mustachioed bartender who seems to think he’s creating a cure for hemophilia rather than an old-fashioned. But the moniker actually dates back to the late 19th century, in reference to drink makers at high-end establishments. This seems more apt for Ross Simon, who left his native Scotland to toil in Phoenix’s bar scene for a decade before opening his own sexy, brick-walled spot in the historical 1929 Luhrs Building Downtown in 2014. Each year, Simon flips open a new chapter in his career, and we mean that literally – he actually publishes a Book o’ Cocktails, each recipe a sonnet of care and creativity.
Drink This: Jefferson Clarified Milk Punch – a seasonally flavored concoction of liquor, sugar and, yes, milk, that’s strained so it’s sweet, silky and translucent. Served in a china teacup, natch.
The Scene: High-ceiling enthusiasts, those willing to drop $50 on a mini bathtub full of booze for the ’gram
1 W. Jefferson St., Phoenix, 602-340-1924, bitterandtwistedaz.com
The truest lounge on this list, SideBar was created in 2008 to be an “urban respite to soothe the savage tempo of the city,” per its website. “Savage tempo” may be a tad hyperbolic for the surrounding quiet uptown neighborhood just south of Melrose, but we must admit the sleek Mid-Century Modern design – lots of Zen-inducing white and black, dim mood lighting – is soothing. And though live DJs spin on weekends, the place never gets overcrowded with peeps ready to get their grind on. Friendly barkeeps put foxy spins on classic cocktails – try the Whiskeyberry Sour – and make their own sweet and sour mix.
Drink This: The SideBar Collins – with vodka instead of gin – is the perfect accompaniment for ultimate relaxation.
The Scene: After-work types and Downtowners who’ve had a looong day
701 W. McDowell Rd., Phoenix, 602-254-1646, sidebarphoenix.com
Bill & Lill Buitenhuys
AZ Bitters Lab, azbitterslab.com
Bitters has a “murky” history. That was the word used in a 2012 Smithsonian magazine article, which traced the product’s uncertain evolution from a stomach-soothing medicinal tincture used by apothecaries to a ubiquitous cocktail additive. Still, as the “golden age of the cocktail” dawned in the late 1800s, bitters became synonymous with a smooth, well-balanced drink. A century later, Chandler couple Bill and Lill Buitenhuys started making their own bitters as a hobby, selling four varieties of uniquely Arizonan concoctions under the AZ Bitters Lab label throughout the state and country, and as far away as Australia.
How did AZ Bitters Lab morph from a hobby to a full-time job for both of you?
Bill: We started experimenting with bitters and giving them to friends. A lot of our friends are bartenders, from sitting around bars talking to them. They couldn’t sell to customers [since the product wasn’t licensed], but they liked it so much they asked us if we could [start making bitters for real], saying it’d be great for the Phoenix cocktail scene.
So you got licensed.
Bill: Yes. If you’re limited to sales within the state, you have to go through the Maricopa County Department of Environmental Services, and they had never dealt with something like this – it’s a food-based product, but it’s 45 percent alcohol, so they kind of freaked out. But we got licensed by the Tax and Trade Bureau, the federal government and they deemed it be nonpotable alcohol, non-beverage, that you wouldn’t want to drink it on its own, like vanilla extract.
Take us through the production of a typical batch of Orange Sunshine bitters.
Bill: We’ll zest 175 oranges… mainly from Mesa [farm] Arizona Sweets. Then we measure out all the other ingredients, mortar and pestle the herbs by hand: cinnamon, black pepper, saffron, fennel – it’s based on an Italian Sicilian salad of blood orange and fennel – and our bittering roots. Then we dump a bunch of booze in the [5-gallon] vessel. In this case, we use Everclear and vodka [and] put in some Flagstaff orange blossom honey to give a little roundness to the product, or else it’s really linearly bitter.
Why keep your bitters specifically Arizonan?
Bill: That’s where our passion is… working with the local industry and being supportive.
Lill: When we started, we wanted to stay part of that community. Plus, I’m an Arizona native… and we want to do our part to support the local community.
“Flanny’s Bar & Grill in South Tempe is walking distance from my house, which means we’re there about once a week. It has a stellar, seasonal tap list with a ton of craft brews, friendly bartenders and bar food that’s actually palatable. I usually get the Cobb salad, but sometimes go for the macaroni and cheese special with green chiles and bacon.”
— Lauren Loftus, Associate Editor, PHOENIX magazine
Booze with a View
Pour a glass of romance at these picturesque, transportive and otherwise evocative drinking spots.
The Canal Club
The Canal Club bar in the lobby of The Scott resort in Old Town Scottsdale looks like a pre-Castro dignatario’s courtyard in Havana, Cuba. Or, at least, an Instagrammer’s fever dream of what Old Havana looked like circa 1950 – rose accents, rattan and leather chairs, indoor palms and dangling pothos thriving under bright skylights, and the best damn pink and palm leaf wallpapered powder rooms we’ve ever seen. Before enjoying Cubanos and plantains in the restaurant, order a drink to enjoy in the lobby over a game of checkers or on the patio alongside a cigar.
Drink This: Cubano Viejo, served dry and up with rum, fizzy Prosecco, lime, mint and demerara sugar
The Scene: Camila Cabello fanatics, influencers
4925 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale, 480-424-6095, thecanalclubaz.com
LON’s Last Drop at The Hermosa Inn
Cowboy and ladies’ man Lon Megar-gee built Casa Hermosa as a home, art studio and guesthouse in 1937 before yet another messy divorce forced him to sell the secluded Paradise Valley estate in 1941. But nearly 80 years later, drinking at The Hermosa Inn still feels like you’ve been invited in to your old pal Lon’s living room – or, when the desert air has finally cooled, his palo verde-shaded patio with five fireplaces. Though LON’s Last Drop alludes to Megargee’s painting of a man giving his last drop of water to his horse, which graces the inside of every authentic Stetson cowboy hat, you’ll find no dry bottles at this bar.
Drink This: The Stetson – mezcal,
curacao, fresh lime, prickly pear. Or ask any of the very talented bartenders to shake you up a surprise.
The Scene: Stetson-wearing wannabes, visiting relatives
5532 N. Palo Cristi Rd., Paradise Valley, 602-955-7878, hermosainn.com/lons-last-drop
The Perch Brewery
Ornithophobes, beware: The Perch delivers on its name, surrounding patrons with a menagerie of birds. Enthusiasts, however, will delight in the tree-shaded, bougainvillea-lined courtyard enclosed by cages of blue and green lovebirds, friendly cockatiels and chatty parrots – all rescues. And those just looking for a nice place to imbibe in the East Valley will appreciate the rooftop bar overlooking downtown Chandler, the extensive list of house-brewed craft beer and nifty food menu of elevated pub grub.
Drink This: The Perch’s Two In Your Bush IPA
The Scene: Ultra casual beer bros, families
232 S. Wall St., Chandler, 480-773-7688, perchpubbrewery.com
The maxim “good taste never goes out of style” may have been coined for Jade Bar. Named for its backlit, jade-onyx drink rail, the indoor/outdoor cocktail lounge at Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort in Paradise Valley is always a classic, like a Chanel suit or a Burberry trench. Flashier bars may dominate the scene for a spell, but, like the view of Camelback Mountain spectacularly framed by the lounge’s immense picture windows, Jade Bar will remain steadfast: effortlessly chic, devastatingly pretty, understated and cool. Your mom would approve.
Drink This: A martini, of course. Extra dry, gin, two olives.
The Scene: Rich resort-goers and Maxxinistas hoping to blend in.
5700 E. McDonald Dr., Paradise Valley, 855-245-2051, sanctuaryaz.com
“Tarbell’s is a Phoenix institution, and The Tavern has only made things better. It has a casual atmosphere, but the same great food that has made Mark Tarbell famous. And, you can buy a bottle of wine from the adjacent fine wine shop and drink it with your delicious meal.”
— Grant Woods, Former Arizona Attorney General
Not too chic, not too grungy – therein, friends, resides the essence of “hip.”
Gracie’s Tax Bar
It’s like a Disneyland version of a dive bar, without floors made sticky by decades of spilled whiskey or leering inebriants. With the help of angel investors Charlie Levy and Tucker Woodbury (Crescent Ballroom), owner and former librarian/death metal singer Grace Perry opened the joint in an old tax preparation firm Downtown last summer. Inside, Gracie’s mimics bars enshrined in pop culture consciousness with dim, neon-lit booths, a solidly stocked jukebox and the tongue-in-cheek circa 1995 HTML 2.0 website to match. No $15 craft cocktails or curated charcuterie boards here, either, just cheap well drinks and something called a chopped cheese – a cross between a hamburger and cheesesteak that is disgustingly delicious.
Drink This: $3.99 well whiskey and ginger ale
The Scene: American Spirit smokers, lots of plaid
711 N. Seventh Ave., Phoenix, 602-366-0111, graciesphx.com
Yucca Tap Room
Every Arizona State University student worth the salt rim on their tequila shot has had a hell of a night at Yucca. Open since 6 o’clock this morning (and since 1974), Yucca presents live music from its tiny stage every day of the week, from poor punk rock karaoke to eardrum-shattering metal. Though not much to look at from the outside, situated as it is in a grungy Tempe strip mall nestled between a rockabilly resale store and requisite headshop, Yucca is a gem among the rough, with more than two dozen craft beers on tap, billiards tables and a menu of Asian street food from Bao Chow.
Drink This: Blue Balls – a shot of Fireball and a PBR shortie ($6 all day, every day)
The Scene: Moshing, black T-shirts, heavy tattoos
29 W. Southern Ave., Tempe, 480-967-4777, yuccatap.com
“This aggression will not stand, man.” Live by His Dudeness’ motto at this Arcadia Lite joint with a light Big Lebowski theme… if “The Dude” were less L.A. slacker and more wholesome Midwest neighbor. Michigander and owner Michael Withey reportedly wanted to open a place that would make fellow Midwestern transplants feel at home. So he put some Motown on the speakers, got fried cheese curds on the menu and stocked the bar with friendly ’tenders. Fittingly, when we went, Parks and Recreation – television’s zenith of Midwestern earnestness – was playing on the big screen.
Drink This: The Caucasian, a play on The Dude’s omnipresent White Russian
The Scene: Former English majors who unironically love Hunter S. Thompson, Michigan Wolverine lifers, the pajama bottoms-as-pants set
3174 E. Indian School Rd., Phoenix, 602-957-3686, thebarphx.com
The Little Woody
In 2016, Thrillist called this Arcadia haunt from The Vig brain trust “a speakeasy and upscale dive.” Oxymoronic labeling aside, The Little Woody is a favorite of low-key hipsters. Featuring walls of cut juniper trunks and exposed wooden beams, the Woody resides in the boarded-up bones of former dive bar The Great Escape. All that alerts passersby to its log cabin ambiance is the red face of its owl mascot painted in a window along Indian School Road. So hush-hush, so cool.
Drink This: Pimm’s Slap – Jameson, cherry brandy, herby Pimm’s, ginger ale
The Scene: Lumbersexuals, moody drinkers, Skee-Ball competitors
4228 E. Indian School Rd., Phoenix, 602-955-0339, littlewoodyaz.com
“When it comes to a local watering hole with reliable pours, decent food and good bartenders, the first thing that comes to mind for me is the historic district. Gallo Blanco [in the Garfield neighborhood] would be my all around go-to… Solid happy hour, which complements the day drinker like myself. They also have a bike drop-off for people who are renting bicycles to ride around town.”
— Timothy Lafever Jr., Lead Barman, Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour
Anatomy of a Bar
Located downstairs from Sip Coffee & Beer Garage in Arcadia, UnderTow is a category unto itself: subterranean tiki lounge. We talked to visionary Valley barman and mixologist Jason Asher to see how he transformed a 500-square-foot Jiffy Lube pit into the Valley’s hottest “escapist bar.”
1. Asher and business partner Rich FuRnari – who collectively run food-and-bev firm Barter & Shake – started by hiring LINE LAB architect Wesley James, best known for his iconic shipping container apartments on Grand Avenue. Hoping to tell the “story of tiki” through his design, James envisioned a 19th-century clipper ship full of Western sailors “sailing the South Pacific picking up some sort of illicit cargo, and they loved the culture so much, they carved it into the [cargo area of the] ship.”
2. When the ship was sailing, according to James’ story, it “was right at the edge of Industrial Revolution… There were gas lamps, but still a lot of people using candles.” To make the space more evocative of that time period, James used digital candles that can mimic flickering.
3. For storage and utility, James designed 1-foot crawl spaces between the pit’s original concrete walls and the bar’s curved, hull-like wooden façade – just wide enough for a skinny barback to squeeze through, without sacrificing precious floor space. Max capacity: 28 customers.
4. “On a clipper ship, it would’ve been a whitewashed wood… hard wood like oak,” James says of his hull façade. “We faked that – I used cedar. I whitewashed it and then aged the whitewash with saltwater stains and drips.”
5. “The hatch is a glass floor,” James says. “You can see [the shadows of] people above [in the coffeehouse] like they’re walking on the deck. You definitely feel like you’re below human activity, that you’re below deck.”
6. Danny Gallardo, a well-known tiki carver whose art can be found in restaurants and hotels from Palm Springs to Barcelona, carved the bar columns that shroud the garage’s old oil fuel lines.
7. Jeremy Spears, a woodcarver who works with Walt Disney Animation Studios, carved designs into the barrels and cargo shoved into the corners to make room for the bar. “He carved the octopus with a mug on the barrel… and carved my wife’s and my initials as a little inside joke,” James says.
8. The Piéce de Résistance: portholes. “[They] were my homage to the original tiki bar window… it’s a staple of tiki bars where you look out of the window and see paradise,” James says. The video that plays on a loop through each porthole changes over time depending on the ship’s new theme. This fall, the UnderTow ship is sailing through Asia.
9. Most critical to the bar’s transportive charm: the drinks themselves. Baroque, playful, complicated cocktails that carry Asher’s tiki fantasy to port. “When I sit down to have a drink and be communal and converse, I want to disengage from reality for a little bit. And, for me, [this bar] is a great place to do that.”
Catching a Draft
Which pubs have the best craft beer selection? We attempt to make sense of the Valley’s great, growing, ungainly taproom scene.
Best Overall Beer Selection
Angels Trumpet Ale House
Number of Handles: 37
Reformed real estate guy Mat Englehorn jump-started the Valley’s taproom revolution in 2012 with the original Downtown location of his food-forward beer hall, and he still programs the best taps – usually featuring a smattering of Arizona brews, a few hard-to-find European offerings, and a bold selection of high-gravity ales and artfully subdued sessions. Side note: The new Arcadia Lite location also has a cocktail room.
Two locations, 602-252-2630, angelstrumpetalehouse.com
Best Arizona Beer Selection
Number of Handles: 33
Co-owner James Swann electrified the local beer community when he unveiled the tap-programming scheme at his new pizza pub in 2014 – 33 handles, all of them Arizona beer. In the interim, other taprooms have embraced the local-first philosophy, but none with the aplomb of Craft 64. It’s still the best one-stop destination to educate yourself on local brews, including Swann’s ever-growing cohort of house beers, brewed in concert with SunUp Brewing Co. in Phoenix.
6922 E. Main St., Scottsdale, 480-946-0542, craft64.com
Best Special Programming
The Wandering Tortoise
Number of Handles: 22
Biltmore Lite’s upstart taproom doesn’t have quite the selection or geographical breadth as Angels Trumpet, but owners Shay Gau and Justin Evans win with style points. The happy hour pricing is magnificent – $2 off all pints – and the bar sponsors tap takeovers, new-brewery launches, special “holiday” programming (example: National Sour Beer Day) and other fun gewgaws on a near-daily basis. We’ve seen the future of beer advocacy in the Valley, and it’s The Wandering Tortoise.
2417 E. Indian School Rd., Phoenix, 602-441-3490, facebook.com/thewanderingtortoise16/
Best Taproom North of the Canal
Irene’s Tap Room
Number of Handles: 32
Finally, the taproom revolution has crept into North-ish Phoenix. Positioned on the lip of Sunnyslope, this 3-month-old tavern looks to resurrect the beautiful, bygone soul of Papago Brewing Co.’s sorely missed taproom, with aggressive rotations of roughly two dozen local and extra-local releases, several draft wine handles, and a nicely curated fridge full of dandy craft brands.
1227 E. Northern Ave., Phoenix, 602-449-7879, irenestaproom.com
Best Taproom South of the 60
Tipsy Cactus TapRoom & Bottle Shop
Number of Handles: 35
Goldwater, Borderland, Grand Canyon, Cider Corps, Superstition Meadery – the stars of Arizona brewing claim ample real estate on the 2-year-old Mesa’s taproom’s chalkboard menu, cheek to jowl with exquisite national labels like Prairie, Dogfish Head and Left Hand. A taproom any self-respecting craft beer freak would be proud to call home for a night.
2722 S. Alma School Rd., Mesa, 480-268-9887, tipsycactus.com
Best Taproom with No Taps
Whining Pig Phoenix
Number of Handles: Nil
Subsequent versions of the Valley casual-drinking franchise have added tap handles, but we’ll always have a soft spot for the original location’s (not terribly eco-friendly) can-and-bottle-only format. Griddled cheese sandwiches, two-decade-old Trivial Pursuit, fighter-cockpit-cramped seating and 80 brews to choose from, and a mess of wine options. It’s drinking-geek heaven.
1612 E. Bethany Home Rd., Phoenix, 602-633-2134, thewhiningpig.com
“Bitter & Twisted [Cocktail Parlour] will always have my heart. From the interior design to the fun murals to the awesome themed menu and art… It’s all amazing! The staff is always nice, and the bartenders know their stuff! They definitely have put Arizona on the map for cocktails [Top 10 nominee at 2017 Tales of the Cocktail].”
— Angelina Aragon, Associate Art Director, PHOENIX magazine
Kelly Lattig, co-owner of Adventurous Stills in Tempe and a longtime homebrewer, laughs when we ask whether buying a personal still is akin to buying a bong at a headshop. Sort of, he explains. Unlike with marijuana, the materials required to make bourbon, vodka or rum are perfectly legal (grains, corn, molasses, water, etc.) – it’s the process itself that’s not quite lawful. “Which is funny, because thousands of stills are sold in the states,” Lattig says. The avid mountain biker and his adventure-loving business partners – mountain biker Chase Estrin and scuba enthusiast Jeff Reisinger – won’t confirm they learned distilling at home on a 2.5-liter rig before building their own equipment to launch AS, but everything is perfectly legal now.
You guys all work in engineering and/or around heavy equipment, but building your own stills seems like an insane gambit, even for engineers. What gives?
To purchase something, it would be $30,000. So that was one problem. The other problem was that [commercial] stills are almost universally steam-generated. And we didn’t want steam here. [It would have to be put in an] explosion-proof room that you’d have to build around your steam still. And we didn’t want to do that – it’s a huge amount of money and risk. So our choice was electric, but you just can’t buy a still that size that’s electric. So we had to build it. The downside is we’re winging it, and sometimes it doesn’t work.
What didn’t work?
Our biggest oopsie was trying to filter corn whiskey through a lotter screen [essentially a strainer] like we did with homebrewing. When you put a lot of corn in [a] masher, it doesn’t [strain] well at all. We fought that battle for a year before we realized, “Dummy, that’s not how you do it! You don’t use a lotter screen, you do it on grain.”
What else makes you guys adventurous?
[Whiskey is] the fun part for us. The category is broad enough you can do interesting things to produce a spirit that’s different… In our case, we put 2 percent of a different, unique grain in it: chocolate malt. So we’ve got a good, solid bourbon, but with an outlier taste at the end, a bit of a chocolatey note to it.
A bottle of red, a bottle of white – we’ll meet you anytime you want at these Valley vino haunts.
Sorso Wine Room
We’re no stranger to the charms of Mark and Lauren Teahen’s Scottsdale Quarter wine lounge – namely, their 32 self-pour wines that are the stuff of wino dreams and their “wine map” that clues you in to where bottles fall on the taste spectrum: earthy, fruity, bold, light. But they have a lot more going for them in their bright, industrial nook, from mouthwatering bruschetta to 18 craft beers. Best of all is the jaw-dropping daily happy hour offering: two glasses for the price of one from 3-6 p.m. (and all day on Wednesdays).
Drink This: Cavicchioli 1928 Rosé, a sweet (but not overly so) sparkler with notes of strawberry and watermelon
The Scene: Ladies who lunch (while getting tipsy on buttery Chard), career folk unwinding at happy hour
15323 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale, 480-951-4344, sorsowineroom.com
My Wine Cellar
Perhaps the most traditional wine bar on our list, My Wine Cellar is a haven for true cork dorks, with regular wine classes, an established wine club, blind tastings and a build-your-own Flight Night. Dark wood, plush leather seats and world art amplify the wine-snob vibe, but the wine list (30-plus bottles strong) is approachable for newbies, as are tapas like tempura pickled cauliflower, Indonesian beef rendang, fried chicken with jalapeño jelly and create-your-own cheese and charcuterie plates (many glasses and dishes are $2 off during happy hour).
Drink This: Azienda Santa Barbara Verdicchio, an Italian white bursting with lemon, grapefruit, apple and pear, with lovely minerality and refreshing acidity
The Scene: Sophisticated date night/girls’ night out, plenty of Frasier Crane types discussing lees
5030 E. Warner Rd., Phoenix, 480-598-9463, mywinecellarphx.com
GWIN Wine + Beer
Dark, secluded and laid-back, GWIN is a hangout for people who take wine and beer seriously, but not too seriously. Low armchairs and couches and a long, wooden bar encourage lingering over flights ($18 for four pours, available in red and white), charcuterie boards loaded with local goodies including Schreiner’s chorizo, and pasties from Cornish Pasty Co. (an apt pairing, since “gwin” is a Cornish word for “wine”). Weekly live music, local wine and beer, and tastings from Superstition Meadery round out the chill fun.
Drink This: Chacewater Petite Sirah, a bold, dense, dark glass with pleasant spice
The Scene: Bearded guys (hipster and legit lumberjack), live-music lovers, low-key appreciators of craft beer and wine
7342 E. Shea Blvd., Scottsdale, 480-247-9915, gwinaz.com
Is Timo one of the Valley’s most romantic restaurants, or is it a wine bar? Like a wine flight, it thankfully doesn’t make you choose. Pair a roasted veggie pizza or lamb chops fresh from Timo’s wood-fired oven with a “strong white” or “easy red” from its more than 35 wines and toast to la dolce vita with your amore. Come on Monday for Date Night, where you can get a wood-fired pizza and bottle of wine for $25, or on Sunday for Italian Night – baked lasagna and a bottle of Italian wine for $29.
Drink This: Boekenhoutskloof The Wolftrap, an unusual but delish Rhône blend from South Africa that deftly marries Syrah, Mourvèdre and Viognier
The Scene: Romance – lots of first dates and longtime couples rekindling the fire near the fire pit
8801 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, 602-354-3846, timocentral.com/phoenix
We Olive & Wine Bar
Artisanal olive oils and vinegars are the bailiwick of this cozy little cove in an otherwise unappealing strip mall, but you can also belly up to the bar to sample from 17 wines (largely sourced from California and Washington state) and order from a menu of light bites (Castelvetrano olives, stuffed peppadews, charcuterie), dips (hummus, albacore with basil and cream cheese), flatbreads and sandwiches. This is your mom’s wine bar – no snobbery, lots of kitschy merchandise.
Drink This: Maryhill Winery Riesling, a sweet sipper redolent with orange blossom, pink grapefruit and pear
The Scene: Moms, aunts and grandmas enjoying a nice ladies’ day with wine and food the hubbies won’t eat
1721 N. Dysart Rd., Avondale, 623-207-1216, weolive.com/avondale
“My go-to is Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour. It’s such an obvious choice, I know – it’s like saying you love The Beatles – but it’s just always wonderful, and I appreciate that consistency. The drinks, food and service are all incredible. Give me a ramen burger, a Jungle Bird and a High Spirited Cupcake and I’m a happy gal.”
— Leah LeMoine, Managing Editor, PHOENIX magazine
Best Happy Hours
PHOENIX food critic Nikki Buchanan names her faves by region.
Gets Buchanan’s vote for the Valley’s overall best HH, with $5 bar bites (crispy pig ears!) and classic cocktails.
EV: House of Tricks
Tempe’s top fine dining haunt (“hours of tranquility”) yields seabass street tacos ($12) and polenta tots ($5), plus playful cocktails. Not the cheapest, but the finest.
The iconic Mexican restaurant plies bargain hunters with drippy, succulent $5.25 carnitas tacos and $5.75 margies. Más, por favor.
Scottsdale: Bourbon & Bones
Complimentary cured pork belly at the bar, plus $5 draft wine and $8 prime rib sliders. Hells to the yeah.
Fab Food Bars
Today’s entitled pub patron needn’t settle for greasy, deep-friend zucchini spears and flaccid hot wings – some of the Valley’s best cuisine is served at upscale bars.
Cotton & Copper
The marketing manager of the new restaurant in south Tempe was adamant that they be known as a craft cocktail bar with “an amazing food program,” not the other way around (see Eat Beat review, page 133). However they want to frame themselves is fine by us, because they do both very well. Chef Tamara Stanger, formerly of Helio Basin Brewing Co., brings her signature Arizona cooking style (using native ingredients like O’odham tepary beans and local corn ash) to play off veteran barman Sean Traynor’s drink program. The menu – modeled after an old-timey newspaper – dedicates most of its inches to drinks, featuring cocktails named after old mining towns, hyperlocal beer and Arizona wine.
Drink This: Jerome – Mission vodka, Merkin Vineyards Chupacabra wine, elderflower, lemon, orange bitters, tonic
The Scene: Well-groomed beards, man buns, people who ride motorcycles
1006 E. Warner Rd., Tempe, 480-629-4270, cottonandcopperaz.com
Soon-to-be-Renamed Bar Crudo
PHOENIX broke the news in early September that chef Cullen Campbell plans to change up the menu of his beloved Arcadia fine dining establishment, swapping the Italian-inflected menu for a stronger seafood showing. As of press time, there’s no word on the new name, but we’ve been assured happy hour won’t change much in Crudo’s bar. Thank goodness, because for those of us unwilling to drop $100 on a Wednesday night dinner, there are $7 gimlets and Rob Roys until close, along with $6 truffled bacon popcorn and addictive Grana Padano spread on Noble bread.
Drink This: French 75 – nothing’ll bump you out of hump day grumpies like a little sweet and sour sparkling elixir in a Champagne flute.
The Scene: Date nighters
3603 E. Indian School Rd., Phoenix, 602-358-8666, crudoaz.com
The mollusks at this oyster bar meets laid-back Australian beach cottage in the middle of East Phoenix “are fresh as [expletive],” as eloquently put by a rep for parent brand LGO Hospitality. Indeed, the bivalves – including a signature oyster bred just for B&R in Washington state – are flown in fresh every day, along with shrimp, scallops, lobsters and fresh, whole fish. Buck &Rider (the name is a visual representation of mating blue crabs – think about it) offers an amazing happy hour at the raw bar with deals on big-as-your-face bowls of ceviche, roasted Brussels sprouts and a respectable cocktail list.
Drink This: LGO Proprietary Chardonnay – a generous pour of LGO’s monikered, buttery-as-hell white wine from the Dunnigan Hills wine region in California.
The Scene: Tentative East Coasters still not sold on desert sushi, PV Liters, flirty podiatrists
4225 E. Camelback Rd., Phoenix, 602-346-0110, buckandrider.com
Second Story Liquor Bar
The burger at Tommy Plato’s literally named Old Town whiskey lounge is so darn delicious, it boot-strapped the place into the best food bar division. There’s something about putting so-called “government cheese” (a non-PC reference to American cheese singles) on top of the freshest beef patty and fancy black plum barbecue sauce that makes one feel like they’re eating five-star food in the cozy confines of an all-night diner. Reverse happy hour from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays will save you from greasy burritos after da club. Instead, soak up heavy drinking with fluffy, glossy-topped WTF biscuits with fermented honey and crème fraîche butter.
Drink This: Old-fashioned
The Scene: $30,000 millionaires, side-eye squares from NoSco, aspiring models
4166 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale, 480-945-5555, secondstoryaz.com
When the owners of Clever Koi opened their first location on Central Avenue in 2013, they knew developing complementary food and drink menus was paramount. To wit: The Thai basil and chile honey in the Sloe Burn cocktail are specifically designed to play off the duck fat sriracha, cilantro and pickled chiles that glaze the chicken wings. Along with daily happy hour, both the CenPho and Gilbert locations offer the It Takes Two deal two nights a week: choice of two rice or noodle dishes plus four draft beers for $45, or any bottle of wine or four classic cocktails for $55.
Drink This: Lemongrass Swizzle – bright, floral and crisp, with vodka, cucumber water and lemongrass syrup served in a tall glass
The Scene: Depends on which location you’re at: the one with all the lefty Downtowners, or the EV one with all the mommy bloggers?
2 Valley Locations, thecleverkoi.com
“It’s not exactly a bar, but Forno 301 is definitely our favorite… Roberto, the owner, is a genuine four-star character, boisterous, irreverent and thoroughly hospitable. The staff will even try to teach you Italian, if you are so inclined. The drinks are generous and occasionally free, if Roberto is so inclined, and the pasta and pizzas are magnificent.”
— Terry Goddard, Former Mayor of Phoenix
The Mixology Maven
Alyxandra McMillan Restaurant Progress
“I’m just a bartender,” Alyxandra McMillan shrugs when asked what her title is, agreeing the term “mixologist” connotes a man in ironically hip-again suspenders muddling Balinese worms into a highball glass. But the 29-year-old – who recently took over the bar at the hip Restaurant Progress after authoring the much-admired, mezcal-centric cocktail menu at Roland’s Cafe Market Bar – concedes there is a difference between what she does and “cracking open a Corona” at your neighborhood dive.
The ethos at Restaurant Progress is fresh, seasonal and local. How do you incorporate that dictum into the cocktail menu?
It’s really fun for me to see what ingredients [the chefs are] using and do that in my cocktails, too… We got in these really incredible strawberries from Blue Sky Organic Farms [in Litchfield Park]. The last of them were destroyed by bad weather, but I could still use them in a cocktail. I used them three different ways: fresh strawberries infused in spirit; I made them into a syrup; and we’re preserving some in salt right now that we can use in a few months.
You crave more diversity in the Phoenix bar scene. How do you propose that happen?
I want to see more female bartenders running programs, developing cocktail programs… I think education is huge. Just start reading, start learning about spirits… And, most importantly, learn the classics.
If you were designing a Cocktail 101 final, which three drinks would you ask students to make?
1. A Manhattan. I would make sure they were using rye whiskey [and] sweet vermouth, that it was stirred, [grade] how long they stir it and [require] they have good ice for proper dilution.
2. Maybe a sazerac or an Old-Fashioned. An Old-Fashioned for me is always a work in progress, though. It’s such a simple cocktail, but it’s surprisingly hard to find a good one.
3. Probably some kind of tiki cocktail, like a shaken daiquiri. You’re balancing sweet, tart, umami, acid. It’s a lot of balance, which sets the tone for a lot of cocktails because you’re always trying to achieve that balance.
The great thing about dive bars: There’s invariably one near you.
(Except if you live in Chandler and Gilbert. Dive-bar-deprived, they are.)