A resurgent downtown alive with fine art, excellent food and craft cocktails should keep the Southwest’s largest city atop your destination list
When was the last time the words downtown Phoenix crossed your vacation-planning mind? There’s a good reason for this, as the skyscraper-filled city core has a reputation as a business district that turns into Snoozeville at the end of the workday.
That’s pretty much the mental picture I had until late October, when I took a last-minute weekend road trip to the Arizona State Fair. When I arrived, I took a quick sightseeing loop through the high-rises and went up Central Avenue to Uptown, another zone of towers to the north. All about, I saw vibrant urban-art installations, gleaming condo towers, sleek light-rail trains coursing along the street, and — most important — plenty of nonchain eateries and drinkeries. Phoenix hasn’t been widely noted as an epicenter of avant-garde local dining, so it was a tantalizing surprise.
What’s going on here, Phoenix? I wondered as I left town the next morning. So I beelined back for another weekend to learn more about what’s developing in the heart of the Southwest’s largest metropolis.
Rolling into downtown on a bright, 70-degree afternoon, my first stop was an eating emporium I’d heard about: DeSoto Central Market (facebook.com/DeSotoCentralMKT). It’s a foodie’s dream — an old automotive dealership building that’s been rehabbed to accommodate multiple independent restaurants under one roof, with original brick walls and décor straight out of Seattle. At the front, wooden tables soak up the sunshine through a wide, windowed façade. The lengthy and beery DMC Bar occupies one side of the lobby, and the smaller Tea & Toast Co. has espresso and baked goods. A stairway leads to a mezzanine above an open food court. Further inside, there’s Larder + The Delta, with Southernish eats; Walrus & The Pearl, with fresh seafood; Adobo Dragon, with Latin-Asian fare; plus a burger joint and a veggie-centric wrap shop. Outside is a large, shaded patio complete with cornhole for drinking gamery. There’s nothing akin to this place in Las Vegas.
Sitting down with a refreshing pint of local pilsner and a bowl of crispy fried pig ears liberally coated with Cheetos dust, I talked to Derek Streeter, a Phoenix resident who was dining at DeSoto with his wife, Ginger. Turns out downtown is a widely unknown backyard vista for many locals, too. “They’ve taken an old building and restored it, instead of mowing it down,” Streeter said. “Phoenix has always mowed. ... We’re really exploring our own home. We want to see it, it’s cool.”
Duly impressed with the DeSoto — I’d end up returning twice, for fresh raw oysters, “paella” ramen and avocado toast — I headed across the street to FOUND:RE (foundrehotels.com), a new, eight-story art hotel that opened in late October. My home base for two nights, it’s surely one of the most striking and singular boutique lodgings in the Southwest. In the lobby, the panoramic Burt Reynolds-Britney Spears mashup painting, titled “Burtney,” is a brazen introduction to the aesthetic playfulness and adventurousness of the lodgings.
I was given a tour of the art installations throughout FOUND:RE by the on-staff curator. Themes vary by medium, from surreal horse paintings to thought-provoking human body-issue photorealism that’s far, far removed from stereotypical, neutrally pleasant “hotel art.” “All the art’s for sale,” says Cultural Curator Michael Oleskow, “from the giclée prints in your room to the originals in the lobby. It is one big gallery.”
My king room was outfitted in industrial chic united with comfortable furnishings. Quality personal sundries — shampoo, mouthwash — are from C.O. Bigelow Apothecaries. The south-facing patio was extraordinary. Wide open with a lounger, it provided a full-air view of downtown’s skyline, punctuated by jets descending to Sky Harbor International Airport nearby and the serrated outline of South Mountain Park in the far distance.
Refreshed after settling in, I went to a chef’s table tasting at the in-house restaurant, MATCH Cuisine & Cocktails (matchphx.com). The small-plate revue still plays in my mind. It began with an umami-rich lobster bisque with mascarpone gnocchi and fire-roasted mushrooms. A fantastic poké bowl not only featured salmon belly from the Faroe Islands and wild-caught yellowfin tuna, but also sea beans, fronds of saltwater-loving seaside plants that taste of crunchy ocean goodness. Wood-roasted lamb meatballs brought North African aromatics to the table. A saucy, Mexican-style shrimp cocktail was made according to an irresistible recipe from a sous chef’s grandmother, complete with traditional saltines on the side. There was also an avocado-topped South American pupusa and a Korean beef short rib atop Thai-style green papaya salad.
The mixology was advanced, too. One concoction in particular bears verbatim quotation from the menu:
Cà phê sua dá - An Examination of French Imperialism and its Influence on the Globe
chicory | armagnac | chartreuse | local cold brew | sweetened condensed milk | pandan | mint
Sure, it reads like a Portlandia-style parody of cocktailery gone amok, with its geographic, historical and supply-chain oversharing. But it was a delicious apotheosis of the classic Grasshopper, almost glowing in its greenness. And its double fists of Gallic potables punched hard behind the chocolatey sweetness. A boozy dessert, almost. Altogether, an extraordinary culinary jaunt.
Saturday afternoon was for roaming on foot through northern downtown. One surprising fact: These neighborhoods are surprisingly green. This is not sere saguaro-ocotillo territory, as it’s actually an irrigated river plain. It’s why the Hohokam civilization thrived here more than a millennium ago, and post-pioneers built lovely Tudor-themed mini-manses and, later, mid-century mod houses everywhere. Leafy parks and greenbelts abound. And two of Phoenix’s oldest cultural treasures and their grassy grounds wait to be explored: the Phoenix Art Museum and the Heard Museum of Native Cultures and Art.
Founded in 1959, the Phoenix Art Museum (phxart.org) is immense and has a stunning collection that encompasses medieval and European Renaissance paintings, Asian antiquities, contemporary works and more in a cool modernist facility. The Heard (heard.org), which dates back to 1929, is a few blocks up Central Avenue in a handsome Spanish mission-revival hacienda compound. It specializes in the history and art of Native-American cultures of the Southwest and is frequently beautiful but often jarringly informative throughout. Both are must-do visits. And the impressive Burton Barr Central Library (phoenixpubliclibrary.org), which towers to the south of the two institutions, contains the compact @Central Gallery for quick perusing.
After the arty goings-on at Central, I was back onto side streets and strolling beneath stately palms. For lunch, I loved the pooch-friendly Short Leash Hotdogs (shortleashhotdogs.com), where upscale frankfurters are wrapped in naan flatbread for a bun. My choice was a chicken link with grilled pear, prosciutto, arugula and goat cheese. Roll over, gourmet dog! Hours later on my safari, I rounded a quiet residential corner to find the bustling, colorful Cibo Urban Pizzeria (cibophoenix.com) behind a lush hedge. It was one of my favorite random finds. At a small, dark wood bar housed in a 1913 bungalow, I enjoyed a glass of Tuscan red in surroundings that meld a Dean Martin vibe with Pop Art exuberance. Next door, things went patio-style during cocktail hour at the Vig Fillmore (thevig.us), with its open-air roundabout bar and cornhole lane. Phoenix, which even Las Vegans often regard as too hot, is all about the outdoor dining and drinking life. The evening ended shaken and stirred with nocturnal craft creations at Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour, Valley Bar and the Rose Mofford Lounge, an extremely popular trio of boozy establishments in downtown proper.
Sunday morning, before I made my way to Highway 93 — the future Interstate 11 — I stopped by for breakfast at Fàme Caffe (famephx.com), a comfortable breakfast-lunch nook. With rich coffee and scratch chilaquiles before me, I thought about how fine art, tall buildings and good food go together so perfectly. I knew I’d be back soon.