Downtown Phoenix Culinary Renaissance
You can check Twitter for what’s happening in #DTPHX while munching on your “Eat The Rainbow” vegetable platter with three dipping sauces at Phoenix Public Market Cafe. With simple wooden tables and homemade strawberry-glazed pop tarts, the café’s atmosphere is Small Town, U.S.A. But this is Downtown Phoenix, a bustling cultural and gourmet nook inside the Greater Phoenix area of nearly 4.5 million people.
Whenever you need to know the inside scoop on a town, check with your local bartender. Ross Simon, principal barman and proprietor of Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour, a prominent downtown lounge, moved to Phoenix from London in 2004. In the last five years, says Ross, the area has bloomed.
“Now there is CityScape with bars, restaurants, shopping and entertainment, new hip hotels, the Talking Stick Resort Arena with Bruce Springsteen concerts and more, the Diamondbacks Chase Field, light rail for transportation, and more fun. It’s a happening place,” says Simon.
Whenever you need to know the inside scoop on a town, check with your local bartender.
With over $4 billion dollars invested in downtown during the last decade, it’s no surprise to find Nook Kitchen, a delicious new restaurant opened in the historic, renovated Monroe Building. Co-owner Nick LaRosa launched his second Nook Kitchen in a corner location where folks join in for the drinks and Calabrese sausage pizzas.
Serious about his Southern Italian culinary roots—and pizza—he imported two custom-made Forno Bravo ovens from Italy to create the perfect char for his Neapolitan-style pizzas, served in both red and white varieties. He tops the thin, crusty pizzas with house-pulled mozzarella and homemade sauce.
“The well-known Pizzeria Bianco, owned by my friend Chris Bianco, is good. But we like our style of thin crust with a slight char and fresh ingredients.” Diners regularly debate whether to eat a third slice or more.
LaRosa preserved the original art décor interior, windows and grates to give an upscale yet homey feel to the restaurant which lives up to is moniker as “neighborhood culinary without restrictions.” LaRosa’s other Italian specialties such as the small “polpettine” meatballs star on the menu. But the cowboy ribeye with “fancy sauce” and the scallops with rosemary potato coins, white chocolate vanilla bean cream, fried wontons and Calabrian basil oil are also exceptional.
At Nook Kitchen we tasted our first cocktail made with honey-dill syrup, the refreshing “Not a Big Dill” also boasting El Silencio Mezcal, Cynar, lime and soda. This refreshing drink inspired us to walk a few blocks to Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour to learn about its worldly inspired cocktails.
Proprietor Simon takes his role as bartender and mentor seriously. His mission is to make quality cocktails fun and exciting. To that end, he publishes an annual “Book o’ Cocktails” with “60-plus Amazing Cocktails.” The theme changes yearly. For 2016 the motif for the 24-page booklet is a retro arcade vibe with 8-bit-inspired video game art.
Simon divides the book into categories of cocktails from “Let them Drink Punch” to “The Top Ten Greatest.” Simon sells more Old-Fashioneds than any other drink. Also very popular are his Duck Bath Punch with Hendrick’s gin, Amaro Siborno, house brewed tea and more and the L.I.T. Up, a riff on Long Island Iced Tea, with Averna liqueur, port, several spirits and lemon bitters.
To recover from late Friday night imbibing at Bitter & Twisted, visit the Saturday morning Open Air Farmers Market in the parking lot next to Phoenix Public Market Café. After browsing the stalls, stop by the Café for the Devils’ Mess, a scramble or eggs, locally-made chorizo, tortilla, salsa, chiles and onions and salute to the many Arizona State University Devils mascot and students who live and study nearby, with. Others dine on the AZ burger with green chile and house dressing, the pork chile verde pot pie or rotisserie meats.
A block north of the café is the Desoto Central Market, a gallery of bars, restaurants and food purveyors, and Roosevelt Row (Ro-Ro), a district of funky art galleries, work spaces, boutiques and theaters. A short light rail ride away is the Heard Museum dedicated to the art and artifacts dedicated to Native American culture. A fascinating blend of exhibits and revolving programs, the Heard is an American gem preserving the rich heritage of the Western tribes. In front, Native American veterans are honored in a series of statues and plaques. The gift shop is especially interesting and approachable.
Near Roosevelt Row is another acclaimed Downtown Phoenix culinary destination: Matt’s Big Breakfast. Daily specials at Matt’s range from Tuesday’s biscuits and sausage gravy to Sunday’s steak and eggs.
For over 10 years, the owners have made everything deliciously from scratch from many local purveyors. The classic Five Spot sandwich is stuffed with eggs, peppered bacon, American cheese and grilled onions. The big butter burger and Reuben for lunch are local favorites.
As a bonus, there is another Matt’s Big Breakfast on E. Camelback Road on the way to Scottsdale. The proximity to the Biltmore Fashion Park creates a shopping expedition opportunity to walk off the Hog and Chick platter of eggs with country sausage. The Biltmore Fashion Park offers a picturesque and peaceful garden environment to browse the latest top name brands or the sector dedicated to local vendors and restaurants.
If you are still hungry on your way to the airport or starving when you arrive, take a quick 15 minute detour off the highway to The Farm Kitchen at South Mountain. This cozy café—literally at the farm—offers take out or dine inside or the patio with the freshest ingredients from the farm. Don’t miss the Strawberry Fields Salad, Pecan Turkey Waldorf Salad or farro veggie salad. Save room for the homemade pecan and apple pies.
But you may not be hungry after the tasty options in Downtown Phoenix. In every neighborhood you will find ways to be entertained, eat and drink well.
Photos by Deborah Grossman
FTC Disclaimer: This article was researched with support from VisitPhoenix. Opinions expressed herein belong to the author.