Celebrating is easy in the Valley of the Sun, where lots of views and outdoor dining often bump a meal up a notch the minute you sit down. Toast another year around the sun while guacamole gets whipped up tableside at a downtown favorite. Treat the happy couple to tremendous views at an elegant resort restaurant serving up a seasonal menu. Savor classic Italian seafood and pasta in supreme al fresco fashion to celebrate pretty much anything at all.
Phoenix and its surrounding cities are rich in places suited to mark every range of special occasions. Book one of these for your next celebratory meal.
elements at Sanctuary Camelback Mountain (Paradise Valley)
Overlooking a big hunk of Paradise Valley and with stunning red-rock views of Camelback Mountain, this resort restaurant offers three squares by local favorite and Food Network star chef Beau MacMillan. Farm-fresh American cuisine with Asian influences is the order of the day. Oysters Rockefeller with lap cheong, melon salad with za’atar, and salmon with green harissa define a seasonal menu featuring local, organic produce, sustainable seafood, and hormone-free meat in all of its entrees and appetizers. Weekly “two-buck shuck” oyster specials make every Tuesday seem like a holiday.
There are two things to know about this family-owned favorite in the center of town: patio dining with views of the tree-lined Phoenix Mountain Preserve is difficult to snare without a reservation, and the linguine with clams is the best in the valley. Diners are greeted at the entrance as if they’re long-lost relatives and then served veal piccata, capellini pomodoro, and more classic Italian favorites.
Virtu Honest Craft (Downtown Scottsdale)
Some restaurants offer pretty views of flora or fauna, but locals know to ask for a table with a view of Virtu’s open kitchen, where they can watch octopus grilled, spaghetti hand-cranked, and rib eyes seared. The extensive wine list and creative shared-plate menu, including an excellent burrata-and-toasted-garlic appetizer, set the stage for entrees that include squid-ink pasta and a house specialty of smoked duck breast and black plums, all served by a hyper-courteous wait staff who are happy to share how menu items are prepared.
El Chorro (Paradise Valley)
A longtime special occasion spot, this former schoolhouse has been serving steaks and comfort food classics since 1937. The chateaubriand, carved tableside, is a house specialty, as are the many mesquite-fired steaks and hamburgers. The menu changes seasonally, though the signature flash-fried lobster tails and the shrimp pepper pot are usually available. Note: dining at El Chorro without trying the restaurant’s famous sticky buns is like visiting Paris without a stop at the Eiffel Tower.
The Stockyards Restaurant & 1889 Saloon (Central Phoenix)
Generations of Arizonans have marked everything from weddings to funerals at this traditional American steakhouse, which has been seating parties large and small since 1947. Restored in 2004, the building is included in the City of Phoenix Historic Register, hopefully ensuring it will continue to serve locals and tourists for generations to come. Its menu was recently revamped, and the New West cuisine features classic steakhouse offerings, including its signature corn-fed steaks and prime rib, with a nod to Southwestern flavors with grilled elk medallions and chorizo-enriched cowboy beans.
T. Cook’s at Royal Palms Resort and Spa (Central Scottsdale)
There is no lobster bisque like the lobster bisque served at this elegant resort dining room, though when that rich, sweet soup isn’t available on T. Cook’s seasonal menu, one can find delight in the hoisin-glazed octopus or the short rib with caramelized onion risotto. Dining indoors means cozy club chairs and a palm tree growing in the room and up through an opening in the roof; outside on the wide patio means outdoor fireplaces, views of the lush Royal Palms desert landscaping, and glimpses of Camelback Mountain.
Christopher’s at the Wrigley Mansion (Central Phoenix)
The menu at this sleek Wendell Burnette-designed restaurant, grafted onto the side of one of the city’s most notable landmarks, is an homage to chef Christopher Gross’s storied career. Many of Gross’s greatest culinary hits are on offer—foie gras mousse on an edible spoon, roasted red bell pepper soup, and pan-seared scallops among them. Because the staff here works all positions, moving from busser to server to cook, they know the hows and whys of Gross’s eclectic take on French-American cuisine. A retractable roof allows for grand views of the mansion’s lush cactus garden and the splendid Phoenix skyline, giving any visit a special feel.
Barrio Café (Downtown Phoenix)
Locals make a lot of noise about this 20-year-old institution’s collection by Arizona artists, its commitment to authentic Mexican cuisine, and its long list of unusual south-of-the-border wines. Established in 2002 by Wendy Gruber and chef Silvana Salcido Esparza, Barrio Café is best known for its tableside guacamole prep (which also gives a celebratory group something to rally around). Continue the delicious fun with the mole calabacitas, the chiles en nogada, and the churro rellenos, which some say are the best in town. No reservations, but a wait means an excuse to hit one of the many bars on Calle 16.
The Gladly (Biltmore)
Chef Bernie Kantak has nudged New American comfort food to a new level with his roasted corn salad crab cakes and bacon-fat-and-miso Caesar salad. Before lunch or dinner, stop at the stylish bar, stocked with more than 200 whiskies and offering craft beverages created with locally grown herbs. And then there’s the Commander burger, made from ground brisket and topped with a secret sauce you’ll want to drizzle on everything.
Toca Madera (Old Town Scottsdale)
This contemporary Mexican steakhouse helped popularize the farm-to-table concept in Scottsdale. Locally sourced ingredients with bold flavors are the rule here. Brunch starters include a truffle quesadilla and a snappy queso fundido. Dinner specialties such as Japanese wagyu and an oven-baked branzino can be paired with an impressive raw bar featuring oyster shooters and ceviche blanco. Signature sides include rice spiked with cilantro and lime and a truffle-infused mac-and-cheese that’s big enough to share.
Chef Shinji Kurita offers only two six-person seatings per night, making a visit to his omakase room special by definition. Each seven-course meal features 15 dishes served over two hours in a sleek, quiet room. The menu changes every night and combines Japanese cuisine with flavors from Spain, New Zealand, and Tasmania. “Omakase” means “trust the chef,” and Kurita has earned enough to create a distinctive, menu-free dining experience. (Note: vegetarian, vegan, shellfish-free, and gluten-free meals aren’t an option here.)
the larder + the delta (Downtown)
Fans of Southern food looking to celebrate an occasion love this downtown reboot of chef Stephen Jones’s popular DeSoto Market spot. The casual, neighborhood ambiance matches the downhome vibe of the menu that reaches across the South (and beyond) for inspiration: Mississippi Delta spicy tamales, South Carolina ribs with benne seeds and sorghum glaze, shrimp and grits with paprika sausage, harissa-marinated chicken. Crispy pig ears are a mainstay, but the rest of the menu changes frequently.
Robrt Pela is an NPR affiliate correspondent whose writing has appeared in Psychology Today, The Advocate, and for 30 years in Phoenix New Times.
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