It’s been a surprisingly active six months in the Valley dining scene. We’ve lost several beloved mainstays but gained a few keepers, as well. Here are five stone-cold specimens you’d be remiss to miss.
Photo by David B. Moore
Character Distinctive Dining
Opened: January 2021
Admittedly jumping the gun a bit, PHOENIX dining critic Nikki Buchanan deemed this Roosevelt arts district restaurant from Valley dining dean Peter Kasperski (Cowboy Ciao, Sea Saw) her likely Restaurant of the Year. Partnering with former employee and inventive master barman Richie Moe, Kasperski recruited Justin “Red” Hauska (late of Binkley’s and Kai) to engineer the globally-inspired menu, and and his elegant, labor-intensive touches elevate every dish. You won’t believe your good fortune at getting preternaturally fluffy smoked black cod rilletes, smeared over grilled country bread, for just $11 or an unctuous duck confit ragout, served on a cloud of cauliflower mash that exudes an ethereal Binkley’s vibe for $21. Whether you splurge on veggie-laden mesquite venison loin (the best I’ve had in ages, $55) or frugally graze on inexpensive sides such as crisp-tender Romanesco and rapini, bathed in briny bagna cauda ($8), you’re going to come away from this singular dining experience knowing you’ve met one memorable Character.
218 E. Portland St., Phoenix, 602-675-4069, characterphx.com
Photo by Nikki Buchanan
Opened: November 2020
Chadwick Price and mixology ninja Blaise Faber (best loved for his brilliant cocktails at Tratto) have teamed up to open this sweetheart of an all-day restaurant parked at the front end of Modern Manor, Ryan Durkin’s mid-century modern furniture store in the Melrose District. Chef Donald Hawk (the guy who started The Gladly’s popular raw bar program) oversees the menu and kitchen, which turns out exceptional baked goods, breakfast dishes, snacks, burgers, small plates, coffee and cocktails. Hiramasa crudo seems destined to be a signature dish, the naturally buttery yellowtail set in a puddle of brown butter and fish sauce-enhanced tomatillo vinaigrette, then sprinkled with charred golden raisins and diced iitoi onion for a salty, tangy, faintly sweet umami dance that still feels light on the palate. It was the best thing we tried on the menu, which is not to cast aspersions on gloriously dense, ridiculously crunchy hushpuppies, jacked up with fermented cabbage and glazed with blackstrap molasses, or a breakfast sandwich (think house-made sausage, egg and fancy pimiento cheese) built on orange-y, brioche-like butternut squash bread.
4130 N. Seventh Ave., Phoenix, 602-277-5561, valentinephx.com
Photo courtesy Belly Kitchen & Bar
Belly Kitchen & Bar
Opened: November 2020
Remember Wayne Coats and Michael Babcock, the hipster hospitality pros who lifted Welcome Diner to mythic foodie status before parting ways with the restaurant in 2019? Well, here they are again, slinging banh mi and upscale Vietnamese eats in a ginchy Melrose gastropub. Aromatic claypot rice plates (i.e. meats braised in a clay pot, $13-$15) are the marquee items on the tidy 14-item menu, and the pork belly is the best of them, relaxed in a simmering elixir of coconut juice, garlic and fish sauce until it achieves spoon-tender lissomness. Less amazing was the jackfruit claypot: just a little too starchy with its surfeit of Japanese sweet potatoes. Hit with a splash of spicy vinegar and more of that ubiquitous fish sauce, the pork fried rice ($12) is legit, and the curry-doused crispy white fish ($20) sourced from Nelson’s Meat + Fish is something we want to try on future visits. One might also hope that Babcock adds a version of his famous shellacked Vietnamese fried chicken in the coming months, when Belly opens its mothballed upstairs bar and converts to an eat-in model. It’s currently takeout-only. Side-note: The adult beverage menu is quite the little player, with a quartet of craft cocktails ($8-$10), four by-the-bottle natural wines ($24-$28), and hard-to-find Tiger beer from Southeast Asia ($3). All available to go.
4971 N. Seventh Ave., 602-296-4452, bellyphx.com
Photo by Angelina Aragon
Opened: October 2020
When one reaches the stature of Citizen Public House dean Bernie Kantak, sometimes it’s preferable to just let the kids play in the sandbox. So it goes at this speakeasy-ish micro-lounge set in CPH’s storied attic space (where a former PHOENIX editor once had her going-away party… story for a different time). The eponymous creative force in this 20-seat food-and-drink lab is CPH chef de cuisine Benjamin Graham, given free rein to explore his tripartite passions of fried chicken ($26), served with mashed potatoes, collard greens and bourbon honey; fussily sourced oysters (MKT); and new-look “natural” wines, made without additives or cheats of any kind, yielding an often-fizzy, vegetal character. His eight-item menu also includes a must-get seasonal vegetable crudo (winter edition: beets, radish, asparagus and more, with fennel and pea purée to make it snap, $15) and a dreamy yellowfin sashimi with jalapeño ginger aioli ($18). Great food, refined food, but it’s the Manhattan supper-club mystique that really sells the place, and you will get laid if you bring a date here.
7111 E. Fifth Ave., Scottsdale, 480-398-4208, benjaminsaz.com
Photo by Shelby Moore
Opened: November 2020
We were utterly intoxicated by this Garfield-adjacent restaurant – or is that just the 12-taste mead flight ($25) talking? Landing in Phoenix with a steamer trunk full of international accolades, this Downtown imprint of the Prescott mead legend offers a dizzying and delicious selection of fermented honey beverages. That’s the expected part. The unexpected: a vast, expressive, beauteous menu of tapas and Spanish-influenced large-format dishes, including the most exciting, generous charcuterie board you’re likely to behold in this lifetime (half $20; full $40), full of interesting jamón, pâté-like terrines and cheeses, and something I’ve never seen before: bacon jam. The Ukrainian roll, from the tapas menu, is Old World comfort personified ($9). What could’ve been slightly more awesome: braised and grilled Spanish octopus with crispy pancetta, just a wee bit salty.
1110 E. Washington St., Phoenix, 602-368-3257, superstitionmeadery.com