Is there a more played-out cocktail-bar trope than the “speakeasy”? I use quotation marks because so few of these purported speakeasies possess any of the qualities of their historical namesake. Even pre-COVID claustrophobia, the whole cramped, underground bar scene wasn’t my vibe. Give me an open-air space with a fresh breeze and elbow room any day – or night.
Finally, a trend seems to be aligning with my selectively social soul: Rooftop bars are having a moment. The Clarendon Hotel and Spa’s open-sky hangout used to be the best game in town. Perhaps emboldened by the gorgeous Phoenix winter weather, rooftop bars are out in full force: Skysill Rooftop Lounge, Floor 13 Rooftop Bar, Alibi, From the Rooftop and Upstairs at FLINT by Baltaire, a California transplant with stunning views of the Biltmore area.
I may have found a new favorite, though, in Don Woods’ Say When at Rise Uptown Hotel. The design of the penthouse-level bar and terrace has a retro coolness to it, in a late ’60s, early ’70s kind of way – like the midpoint between Mad Menand The Brady Bunch. There are fire pits for when it gets chilly, sunscreens for the bright burst of light before the sun sets and string lights for after. My partner and I settled into a deep bench lined with dark teal paisley cushions and admired the nearly 360-degree views of Camelback Mountain and the Phoenix skyline. What a beautiful city we live in! It’s nice to remember that.
The focus here is on the drinks, dreamed up by proprietor Ross Simon (Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour, Little Rituals). When we had Simon on our Desert Digest podcast last summer (listen here) and talked about the then-in-the-works Say When, he told us he envisioned a menu of snacky items, nothing too substantial – just light, savory little noshes to complement the cocktails.
Mission accomplished! Nothing here will weigh you down, and every “Bite” (generously half off during HH) has at least one element embodying the two most desirable qualities for bar snacks: salty and crunchy. Take the chips and dip ($5.50), a chic little spin on the Americana party classic of onion dip and potato chips. Here, the chips are house-made, fried to a deep umber. They have a fragile, airy crispness, barely staying intact under a heaping scoop of creamy dip made with crème fraîche, roasted garlic, dill and chives. I think Say When could start a brisk side hustle selling that dip as a shmear for bagels. I’d buy it.
The cheese platter ($10.50) looks simple, but offers sensorial surprises. A daily selection of cheeses might include, as ours did, a nutty Manchego, a sharp aged Cheddar flecked with salt crystals, a bloomy Brie and a mildly funky blue, alongside a pile of grapes. Use the slices of toasted country levain bread as a canvas for experimental flavor combos. Tangy, umami-rich tomato marmalade and sticky honeycomb are perfect spreadables, while chile almonds (peanuts on our visit) provide punchy spice, gentle crunch and, surprisingly, a little moisture. These aren’t dry, dusty old bar nuts. Their almost dewy spice rub leaves them feeling fresh, even tender.
We didn’t have room for the other dishes, but gin-soaked Castelvetrano olives ($4), marinated boquerones (white anchovies, $7) and bread pudding ($5.50) warrant a revisit.
Happy hour brings $2 off all well and domestic beers and wines. But we’re all here for the cocktails, right? Classics, ordinarily $12, are discounted to $9 during happy hour. My partner enjoyed his bright and citrusy Sidecar (Cognac, Torres Magada orange liqueur, fresh lemon juice and cane syrup) and Daiquiri Natural (rum, lime, cane syrup). Other classic cocktails on HH include the Old-Fashioned, Manhattan, Negroni, Americano, Vesper, Vieux Carre and more.
I decided to try a specialty highball (regularly $13, discounted to $10 for HH). The Bohemian (Fords Gin, dry vermouth blend, Tio Pepe Fino Sherry, caperberry juice, elderflower tonic, soda) was brinier than I’d imagined from its tasting note of “floral with a touch of savory.” The culprits, no doubt: the caper juice and olive garnish. This would be the perfect sip for my olive-obsessed sister and friends who love slurping pickle juice from the jar. It’s unabashedly briny, and I respect that, even if I realize it’s not my personal cup o’ tea. Next time, I’ll try the more botanical-sounding Lime Leaf (Fords Gin infused with lime leaf, lime cordial, lime juice, salt solution, soda) and something from the exciting menu of reimagined spritzes like the Asti (Ramazzotti Rosato, Cocchi Rosa, martini bitters, salt drops, watermelon juice and prosecco), not on the HH menu. With such gorgeous views, spending a few extra dollars on a drink is hardly a splurge.
Happy hour runs daily from 4-6 p.m. Reservations for five or more are required. Book here.
400 W. Camelback Rd., 480-536-8998, riseuptownhotel.com/phoenix_restaurants/say-when