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Insiders’ guide to the downtown Phoenix vibe

Downtown Phoenix's vibe is a sort of boho business chic befitting the emergence of new restaurants, clubs, hotels, and bars.
Downtown Phoenix's vibe is a sort of boho business chic befitting the emergence of new restaurants, clubs, hotels, and bars.
© MRNY

As recently as 1950, the city of Phoenix comprised an area smaller than the island of Manhattan with just over 100,000 residents. In those days, the “Valley of the Sun” was a desert oasis, verdant with palms and Japanese gardens – and a playground for high society and Hollywood stars.

Downtown Phoenix's vibe is a sort of boho business chic befitting the emergence of new restaurants, clubs, hotels, and bars.
© MRNY

With the creation of the highway act of 1956 and the advent of the automobile age, downtown areas around the States emptied out – including Phoenix. Suburbs boomed and, in the case of Phoenix, the city’s land mass increased to 519 square miles.

Today, downtown Phoenix is experiencing a renaissance. Opened in 2008, the Valley Metro light rail train line traverses 20 miles through downtown and north central Phoenix, with various stops in the heart of Phoenix’s newly-revitalized business district. Arizona State University (ASU), which often contains the nation’s the largest student body, has opened a downtown Phoenix campus. The city’s landmark hotel, Westward Ho (the tallest building in Phoenix for better than 30 years) is on the National Register of Historic Places. The resultant downtown vibe is a sort of boho business chic befitting the emergence of new restaurants, clubs, hotels, and bars.

As for the city’s architectural style, remember that Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West was established in 1937, thereby inaugurating Phoenix’s long-term love affair with Wright’s style of organic architecture, which is evinced in numerous buildings and resorts throughout the city.

One of Phoenix’s newest hotels is the luxury Westin Phoenix Downtown, located in the 26-floor Freeport McMoRan Center, adjacent to ASU’s campus. Opened in 2011, the Westin features spacious floor-to-ceiling windows in each of its 242 oversized guest rooms. The panoramic views are breathtaking – and particularly at night when the city’s seemingly endless expanse becomes a carpet of glittering lights all the way across the Sonoran Desert.

As tempting as it might be to remain within the confines of these sleek and stylish rooms, the Westin’s in-house restaurant, Province, draws upon the cuisines of Central and South America, as well as Spain, for an inspired reinterpretation of Hispanic farm-to-table gastronomy. Executive Chef Randy Zweiban and his team curate a Saturday evening "Latin Passport Dinner Series," in which the cuisine of a particular country is featured each month. Currently in Puerto Rico, the next stop for Province is Mexico for the month of January.

Since February 2005, the Phoenix Public Market in downtown Phoenix has been supporting small farmers and local businesses whose mission is to produce healthy products and strengthen sustainable food systems. Food Truck Fridays have proven particularly popular during Friday lunch hour – and the Open Air Market offers in-season fruits and vegetables, as well as jams, baked goods, honey, and local arts and crafts.

The success of Phoenix Public Market prompted the recent opening of the Phoenix Public Market Café, a casual urban eatery that offers breakfast until 3 pm, alongside a health-inspired menu that features a kaleidoscope of rainbow vegetables from the neighboring public market. As popular as it is delicious, Phoenix Public Market Café perfectly captures the chill atmosphere and artisanal prowess that marks downtown Phoenix today.

Other noteworthy establishments in the neighborhood include Angels Trumpet Ale House, which is passionate about craft beer with 31 taps and a full menu to be enjoyed indoors and on the patio. One of Phoenix’s “Top Ten New Restaurants of 2012,” Angels Trumpet Ale House is a testament to how much the surrounding neighborhood has changed in recent years.

Nearby is The Breadfruit & Rum Bar, which serves award-winning Jamaican cuisine in a tropical setting belying its desert locale. Voted one of the “Top 5 Cocktail Bars” in Phoenix, The Breadfruit features a collection of over 108 premium rums, as well as cigars. For those aficionados seeking a rum revelation, consider the $150 daiquiri made with Antigua’s English Harbour 1981, which has been aged a minimum of 25 years.

Cinephiles, as well as oenophiles, converge at Film Bar, a beer and wine bar conjoined with a movie theater. Open since February 2011, Film Bar specializes in independent and foreign films, as well as cult, classic, and retro – and the winning combination has secured them Phoenix’s “Best Weekly Dance Night” and “Best Cinema.”

In keeping with the neighborhood’s sustainable vibe, the Sheraton Phoenix Downtown Hotel features a rooftop garden for herbs and greens to be used at the hotel’s restaurant, District American Kitchen and Wine Bar. The largest hotel in Arizona, the Sheraton Phoenix Downtown Hotel is located just one block from the Phoenix Convention Center.

Those in search of a taste of Old Phoenix, particularly the era when the city was something of a backroom for the machinations of Vegas, head to Durant's. A classic, old-school restaurant filled with colorful characters, Durant’s Fine Foods is where you order a Martini and stone crabs from Florida – and savor the atmosphere. Insider tip: enter through the back door and traipse through the kitchen like all the locals.

Where once there were massive produce warehouses is the current home of US Airways Center, which is where Mrs. Carter, also known as Beyoncé, recently brought her concert tour to Phoenix for a one-night stand of sustained delirium.

Desert nightowls and the downtown urban tribe continue the party at The Bar on Central, which picks up where the beloved bar Amsterdam left off after 15 years at 718 North Central Avenue. Born from the belief that downtown Phoenix is an urban center in need of clubs and bars, The Bar on Central proves that downtown Phoenix offers a nocturnal alternative to Scottsdale.

Opened and managed by the same team behind Bliss ReBAR and other Phoenix hotspots, The Bar on Central features a series of weekly themed events, such as Church on Sundays, with games of cornhole on the rear patio.

Much like the mystical bird for which the city was named, downtown Phoenix is aloft again.