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By Andrew Collins
Out of Town
Few cities have grown faster and more dramatically in the past half century than Phoenix (pop. 1.4 million), which currently ranks as the sixth-largest city in America. It’s also larger in area than Los Angeles and the hub of a metro region that includes several other fast-growing metropolises, including the upscale and gallery-filled resort city of Scottsdale, and Mesa, Tempe, and Glendale. But the “Valley of the Sun” is much more than a popular place to live – tourism here has taken off thanks to the bounty of lavish resorts, a cultural renaissance in downtown Phoenix, and some of the best shopping, dining, and recreational opportunities in the West.
A highly contemporary metropolis surrounded by mountains and high desert, Phoenix http://www.visitphoenix.comis in many ways the last stronghold of the western frontier. The region is dogged by certain challenges prevalent in the West, such as rampant sprawl and sometimes oppressive smog. But most of the year, the bone-dry climate is ideal for outdoor recreation, with winter highs in the mid-60s and spring and fall highs in the mid-80s. These are great times for the many drawn to the area’s wealth of hiking, biking, and golfing opportunities. About the only period with blistering heat is summer, when daytime temperatures routinely climb into the low 100s (and many accommodations drop their rates precipitously).
Although many of the area’s resorts are in Scottsdale, Phoenix proper – which is home to most of the region’s GLBT bars – has enjoyed an impressive resurgence, with new restaurants, snazzy hotels, and hip bars opening downtown, joining the city’s already strong cultural and entertainment components, including sports stadiums that host baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks and basketball’s Phoenix Suns. A must for fans of the arts is the Heard Museum, a 1928 Spanish Colonial Revival hacienda containing the nation’s top collection of Native American art and artifacts. Nearby is the similarly esteemed Phoenix Art Museum.
Several peripheral up-and-coming neighborhoods have become quite popular places to live with the GLBT set, including the Willo and Garfield Place historic districts, and Roosevelt Row, a burgeoning mixed-use district that supports excellent galleries, indie boutiques, and fun restaurants, including the wonderful bakery, Tammie Coe Cakes http://www.tammiecoecakes.com; the art-filled Songbird Coffeehouse http://www.songbirdcoffeehouse.com; and the hip, mixed gay/straight Bliss and Rebar http://www.blissonfourth.com, which is both a restaurant with tasty, reasonably priced contemporary American food and a stylish and intimate bar with a very mixed gay/straight following.
Several other restaurants around central Phoenix are earning plenty of kudos these days for lively cocktail scenes and reasonably priced, contemporary food. Fez http://www.fezoncentral.com serves hearty and flavorful Middle Eastern food with contemporary flare, plus a variety of fruity and colorful cocktails. Head for Switch Restaurant http://www.switchofarizona.com to sample good burgers, panini sandwiches, leafy salads, and a good selection of mixed drinks and wines by the glass. Vinophiles appreciate Cheuvront Restaurant http://www.cheuvronts.com, the brainchild of openly gay former state senator, Ken Cheuvront, and a fine spot to sip wine, eat pizza, and nibble on cheese and charcuterie.
It’s a short walk down Central Avenue from here to reach one of the area’s top gay clubs, Amsterdam, an elegant lounge and dance club that adjoins Club Miami. Gay two-steppers and country-western fans gather at Charlie’s http://www.charliesphoenix.com, which becomes more of a high-energy dance club after-hours on weekends. Bar 1 http://www.bar1bar.com is a comfy, handsomely decorated spot with sofas, a fireplace, and pool tables. Other gay night spots within a short drive include high-energy, Latin-flavored Karamba Nightclub http://www.karambanightclub.com; the women’s disco the Zoan http://www.thezoan.com; a friendly spot popular for karaoke and cabaret called Kobalt at Park Central http://www.kobaltbarphoenix.com; the leather-and-Levi’s-favored Bunkhouse http://www.bunkhousesaloon.com; Cash Inn Country http://www.cashinncountry.net, another favorite of the lesbian community, but with a country-western vibe; and Roscoe’s on 7th http://www.roscoeson7th.com, a lively GLBT sports bar.
Connoisseurs of coffee will find a couple of outstanding artisan cafes in central Phoenix, both of them with a sizable gay following and also serving great food, as well as wine, beer and cocktails in the evening. Lux Coffee http://www.luxcoffee.com is on Central Avenue, while Urban Beans http://www.urbanbeans.com is just east on North 7th Street.
Fun in Scottsdale
It’s about a 20- to 30-minute drive from Phoenix to neighboring Scottsdale http://www.experiencescottsdale.com, whose bustling commercial district captures the elegance of Beverly Hills, the artsy feel of Santa Fe, and the Old West ambience that’s typical of more rural parts of Arizona. If you consider shopping a sport, brace yourself – there’s plenty to keep you busy here. The Scottsdale Fashion Square is an enormous, fancy mall with oodles of high-end shops. Just south, 5th Avenue is lined with more fine retail. More touristy but still brimming with great shopping is Old Town Scottsdale, which is at its best along Main Street between Brown Avenue and 70th Street. Another great retail area, Marshall Way contains dozens of fine home-furnishing and design shops, including D&G Contemporary Designs, which specializes in Mid-Century Modern furniture, ceramic bowls, and original art.
Once you’ve shopped for a few hours, you might want to take a cultural break by driving to North Scottsdale and visiting Taliesin West, architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home, which he built in 1937 and lived in part-time until his death in 1959. Tours of the grounds are conducted daily. On the north side of Phoenix but not too far from Scottsdale either, do not miss the amazing Musical Instrument Museum, which opened in a stunning contemporary building in 2010 and contains an incredible trove of instruments tracing musical heritage and culture from all over the world.
Scottsdale has a number of acclaimed restaurants, with one of the hottest foodie destinations in town being Citizen Public House http://www.citizenpublichouse.com, an elegantly casual gastropub renowned for its craft cocktails and creative renditions of comfort classics, like addictive bacon-fat popcorn, fall-off-the-bone short ribs with dried-cherry bbq sauce, and a stunner of a chopped salad. Sophisticated and hip Cowboy Ciao http://www.cowboyciao.com serves beautifully plated lunch, brunch, and dinner fare from a globally inspired menu (pepita-crusted rack of wild boar is a highlight) – the restaurant’s speakeasy-like Kazimierz Wine Bar http://www.kazbar.net is an insider’s favorite for cocktails and hobnobbing, with its clubby interior, live music, and amazingly comprehensive wine list.
Malee’s http://www.maleesthaibistro.com, a superb Thai restaurant right in the thick of the retail district, serves some of the tastiest Asian fare in Arizona, including a knockout tempura soft-shell crab with a spicy cucumber sauce. And AZ 88 http://www.az88.com brims with fashion plates and pretty people, boasting a loyal queer following for its martinis and excellent updated bar fare, including a sublime tuna Nicoise. Scottsdale also has one excellent, long-running gay-bar, BS West http://www.bswest.com, an attractive spot that’s equally popular with visitors and locals of all ages, from college students to retirees. The cozy bar offers plenty of drink specials and theme nights.
Where to Stay in Phoenix and Scottsdale
In downtown Phoenix, the gay-friendly Kimpton brand recently opened the super-trendy Hotel Palomar http://www.hotelpalomar-phoenix.com, a stylish, contemporary property with a fantastic restaurant, Blue Hound Kitchen & Cocktails, and a scene-y pool bar called Lustre. The official host hotel of Phoenix Gay Pride in April, the Kimpton has quickly become a favorite of GLBT visitors. Also popular is the boutique-y Clarendon Hotel http://www.theclarendon.net, which caters to a lively, see-and-be-seen set with its rooftop bar and roomy, smartly decorated accommodations. A less obvious downtown pick is the funky, gay-friendly Hotel San Carlos http://www.hotelsancarlos.com, a grand if faded Italian Renaissance-style building that’s allegedly haunted (by friendly ghosts). Rooms have quirky, vintage furnishings but are generally quite large, and rates are extremely reasonable, especially given the convenient, central location.
With all the snazzy new resorts that have opened in Scottsdale and other outlying cities, it’s easy to forget that Phoenix itself is home to a pair of aces: the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired Arizona Biltmore http://www.arizonabiltmore.com, and the intimate, old-world Royal Palms http://www.royalpalmshotel.com, both of which opened in the late ’20s and have among the most sumptuous rooms in the region.
Nearby Scottsdale abounds with lovely resorts, from the supremely cushy Sanctuary Camelback Mountain http://www.sanctuaryoncamelback.com and swish Four Seasons Scottsdale http://www.fourseasons.com, to the sexy and hip Saguaro http://www.thesaguaro.com, the first Arizona property of California’s gay-popular Joie de Vivre hotel company. This high-tech urban oasis is popular with fashionistas, artists, and scenesters. Rooms in this sleek property have angular, low-slung furniture, and the hotel’s acclaimed restaurant, Distrito, features the mod Mexican cuisine of celeb chef Jose Garces.
Scottsdale’s Hotel Valley Ho http://www.hotelvalleyho.com is a retro-chic Rat Pack-inspired resort with a cool Mid-Century Modern aesthetic. The boldly designed rooms have floor-to-ceiling glass doors that open to big patios or balconies, and the OH Pool Bar and ZuZu Restaurant are hot spots for drinking and dining. Kimpton’s FireSky Resort http://www.fireskyresort.com occupies a central location in Old Town Scottsdale and has tastefully furnished, spacious rooms, a fabulous spa, one of the best pools in town, and a knockout contemporary Italian restaurant, Taggia. If you’re looking for a clean and simple hotel that’s centrally located and affordable, check into the gay-friendly Best Western Plus Sundial http://www.bestwestern.com, a nicely maintained property.
Back in Phoenix, there is one all-gay property, the racy Palm Springs-style Arizona Royal Villa http://www.royalvilla.com, a nudity-permitted men’s compound with an impressively enticing pool, hot tub, and sunning area and rooms and suites in a variety of configurations. For $15, non-overnight guests can spend the day here swimming, tanning, and mingling with fellow sun-bunnies.