Foodie Vibe Infuses Scottsdale

Apart from the cacti -- and what seems like perpetually perfect weather -- chic AZ88 would fit comfortably into any upscale entertainment district.

Two decades in Manhattan hardly turned me into a New York City chauvinist generally, but I’ve long thought the place is the epicenter of food and restaurants, certainly in the U.S. So Zach, our food-tour guide, is pushing the right buttons in postulating that Scottsdale’s 600-plus restaurants constitutes “more per capita than Manhattan.”


The cousin of “most golf courses per capita,” of course, this argument is unlikely to be closely analyzed. But Scottsdale does seem to have the foodie instinct, especially in the Old Town Scottsdale district frequented by Arizona Food Tours, of which Zach is a principal.


Judging by the comments of my colleagues more experienced in things Scottsdale, Old Town Scottsdale is a kind of hidden gem of dining, art galleries, and retail. And notwithstanding its three-areas-in-one function, it’s a tastefully low-scale, compact urban feature, worth the visit. Perhaps it’s different during the annual cowboy reunion Zach mentions, but Old Town Scottsdale was placid for our visit, which included stops at:


Patrons at the funky Rusty Spur autograph and leave dollar bills among the other paraphernalia on the walls. Proceeds go to charity around Christmastime.

The Rusty Spur is to Scottsdale what the Temple Bar is to Dublin, a pub whose reputation is part of the town’s, in part by being the oldest such establishment therein.  Our late-morning visit includes live entertainment. We even indulge in a beer from the converted-safe refrigerator – the bar occupies the retrofitted Farmers State Bank Building – and slam down some excellent sliders, miniature offerings of the bar’s renowned burgers. Other favorites are Buzzard Wings and Cowboy Chili.


AZ88. Founded in the eponymous year by a restaurateur from Milwaukee, AZ88 has been an upscale contemporary standard-bearer with a hip art collection ever since. The high-ceilinged interior is separated from an exterior terrace by floor-to-ceiling glass. Although it was a bit early to put it to the test, the stylish bar is billed as a bastion of martini making. Specialties include Bonfire Chicken and a Tuna Nicoise with seared Ahi.


• Every self-respecting gentrified neighborhood needs a specialty shop like Outrageous Olive Oils, which radiates a sense of well-being commensurate with its favorite product. No connoisseurship is required to enjoy the samples and boost your appreciation of the finer points of production and variety of the stuff.


• It’s easy to envision 5th and Wine becoming one of those places that locals patronize like clockwork. There is, for example, the daily happy hour special where every glass of wine is five bucks, every bottle 20. Sangria and multifarious bruschettas are house favorites here. Celebrating its three-year anniversary this month, 5th and Wine’s website is bulging with specials.


• As might be supposed from the cheeky name, Cowboy Ciao takes a playful approach to some progressive modern American cuisine, guided by Lester Gonzalez, executive chef. The menu has a Southwestern accent, but there’s really a little bit of everything. Signature dishes include an Exotic Mushroom Pan Fry and the excellent Stetson Chopped Salad, a deceptively simple amalgam of ingredients.


Lee’s Cream Liqueur is that rare ice cream parlor where you might need ID: Although Lee’s serves very good, non-alcohol-infused flavors of ice cream, the Scottsdale institution is best known for spiking its product with about five percent alcohol. You could get really whacked, not to mention bloated, sampling the ever-expanding list of flavors. I can only vouch for the Jack Daniels-influenced chocolate swirl.


More adventures in Scottsdale dining to follow.


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