PHOENIX — "We put salt on our drinks, not our roads," quipped a Phoenix native, who had the misfortune of visiting Chicago on a recent frigid day when the sun was MIA.
Meteorological bragging rights help explain why Arizona’s capital is the fastest-growing city in the country. Its population swelled by more than 25,000 people over the space of a year, according to the latest census data.
The greater Phoenix area has no problem attracting visitors either, especially around this time of year when near-perfect weather beckons, the Sonoran Desert starts to bloom and spring training draws legions of baseball fans looking to catch some Cactus League action.
If you’re one of the many soon headed to the Valley of the Sun, here’s a look at what’s new in this rapidly growing, ever-changing region.
COOKING AND COCKTAILS
Phoenix is home to a lot of Chicago transplants, but that wasn’t enough to keep a local outpost of Gino’s East alive for long. The deep-dish pizzeria closed its desert location less than two years after it opened.
What moved into the old Gino’s East space last fall: Century Grand, an innovative and fun culinary concept that celebrates the glamorous days of train travel and the Roaring ‘20s. The Art Deco, adults-only eatery evokes the aura of a swanky train station. Diners sit at the marble-top bar or bistro tables and order off a small menu of classic dishes with modern touches, such as braised beef cheek Wellington amped up with cauliflower cream, or a winter fruits and fennel Waldorf salad topped by goat cheese mousse.
The best part? The tantalizing "dim sum" carts that pass by, offering freshly shucked oysters and other goodies that you can grab or skip as you please. Not knowing when the next cart will appear — or what will be on it — adds an element of surprise.
After dinner, keep the train theme going at Platform 18, Century Grand’s Pullman-inspired, 36-seat rail car that doubles as a cocktail bar. Don’t worry about paging through the thick menu of drinks. Just tell your server what flavors you like and let the bar staff do its thing. Kick back with your cocktail and enjoy the ride — a journey that feels all the more authentic when you look out the train’s windows and see video shot during an actual rail trip through snowy Colorado.
Seating is limited at both Century Grand and the adjacent Platform 18, so you’ll want to reserve a 90-minute slot at each. Same for UnderTow, the tiki bar next door. Owned by the folks behind Century Grand, this intimate, subterranean lounge hidden below Sip Coffee & Beer Garage also does an immersive experience — this one based on a high-seas adventure complete with strobe lights, smoke and a swashbuckling story unfolding through the portholes.
In nearby Scottsdale, FnB restaurant isn’t new, but chef Charleen Badman’s James Beard Award is. The "veggie whisperer" was named Best Chef: Southwest in 2019. Badman relies on local farms and produce to deliver a real taste of Arizona, transforming humble ingredients such as radishes and chicken into creative flavor bombs. Arizona pride is evident on the wine list, too.
Speaking of Arizona wine, FnB’s former location in Old Town Scottsdale was reborn last year as a tasting room for Merkin Vineyards. The dark-hued, sexy space is owned by rock star/winemaker and former Midwesterner Maynard James Keenan, lead singer of Tool and A Perfect Circle.
Massive renovation projects recently wrapped up or are underway at some of the area’s biggest and best-known addresses — Arizona Biltmore, Sheraton Phoenix Downtown and The Phoenician, to name a few.
Newcomers to the lodging scene have popped up, too. Chicago-based Great Wolf Resorts opened a 350-suite hotel and 85,000-square-foot indoor waterpark in autumn.
In December, the Cambria chain debuted its third location in the metro region with a 127-room hotel near Phoenix’s artsy Roosevelt Row. The seven-story property boasts a killer rooftop bar, the perfect perch to watch the sunset while nibbling on ceviche, shishito peppers and other light bites by Nate Cayer, the ex-executive chef at Chicago’s Godfrey Hotel.
In Scottsdale, the iconic Hotel Valley Ho recently overhauled its signature restaurant, ZuZu. Brunch is served daily, and the dinner menu runs the gamut from salads and burgers to more chef-driven fare, such as seared diver scallops with lobster butter, pine nut fregola and fried Meyer lemon.
Leave the ordering up to folks in the kitchen with the "ZuZu, Take the Wheel" option. Fork over $75 and let the chef surprise you with a series of savory dishes before sticking the landing with dessert, such as the made-for-social-media Show Stopper Shake. The lineup of sweet treats that go into the decadent concoction changes monthly.
The hotel recently beefed up its tour offerings as well. Valley Ho historian Ace Bailey, a fount of knowledge about all things Scottsdale, leads an Insider Public Art Tour that hits Robert Indiana’s LOVE sculpture and other permanent installations on a two-hour walk in Old Town. The entertaining and energetic Bailey also can guide you around Scottsdale’s midcentury modern architecture or give you the skinny on Valley Ho’s past as a Hollywood playground during the Magical History Tour. That one costs $19.56, a nod to the year the hotel opened. Soak up sweeping views of the surrounding mountains when Bailey takes you up to the roof, a place that’s usually off-limits except for private events.
Last year, REI Co-op acquired the local guide company Arizona Outback Adventures, resulting in a fat portfolio of outdoorsy tours — biking, hiking, kayaking, rafting and more.
REI Co-op’s new Adventure Center in Scottsdale (not to be confused with an REI retail store) is the starting point for a slew of these guided excursions, such as a paddling trip on the Lower Salt River or road cycling rides in Phoenix and Scottsdale.
If you skew more DIY, REI rents a range of bicycles, including easier-to-pedal electric bikes. Arrangements can be made to drop off and pick up the equipment at your hotel or trailhead for an extra fee.
One of the company’s most in-demand trips is a mountain bike tour in the sprawling McDowell Sonoran Preserve laced with 200-plus miles of trails.
The guided, half-day trips (starting at $112 a person) are ideal for mountain bike rookies who want to couple their workout with a bit of desert education. Over the course of about 9 miles, you’ll learn how to navigate undulating terrain, rocky patches and sandy washes on two wheels. Occasional breaks are a chance to catch your breath and pick up interesting tidbits as guides talk about the rugged Sonoran scenery peppered with stoic, slow-growing saguaro cacti endemic to this desert alone.
The Sonoran stage might be especially colorful this spring, experts predict, thanks to heavier rainfall late last year. Wildflower blooms are expected to splash Mexican gold poppies, sunny bladderpods and purple owl’s clover across the stark landscape from late February through April.
You can always see more than 50,000 plants at Phoenix’s Desert Botanical Garden, where hundreds of oversized animal sculptures made of recyclable plastic are on display in the whimsical "Wild Rising by Cracking Art" exhibit through May 10.