Many households had cooks in Manila, where I grew up, so I never really learned how to cook there. Here in America, I have learned to prepare many dishes well, so my husband and I rarely go out to eat. When we do, it is to celebrate a special occasion. And it is not just about food. When we were RVing, each campground gave us a majestic mountain, a flowing river, a refreshing lake, a sunny beach, et cetera as a backdrop. We have come to define a good dining experience as something unique, not just because of the food but also because of the place.
When we settled in Arizona after our many years on the road, the food scene did not disappoint. Here are six places we recommend.
1. Dolly Steamboat
Before I tell you about my other five picks, let me tell you about the fun dinner we had on a steamboat. One such cruise is the Desert Belle that plies around Saguaro Lake. But it is the other one, Dolly Steamboat on Canyon Lake, which offers dinners onboard the boat. They were actually replaced by wine cruises with live music during the days of COVID, but the Twilight Dinner Cruise has since resumed at 5 p.m. every day. Imagine having dinner (and wine) while you cruise around the lake, viewing great vistas, admiring desert plants that grow among the rocks, and spotting wildlife that is taking a peek at you — plus whatever else is happening below the lake surface.
And the dinner, served buffet-style, is always bountiful. We had a choice of grilled steaks or chicken with plenty of vegetables, potatoes, bread, and fruits. They do not scrimp on the dessert either, and you can even go for seconds! An added bonus is that you get a different view of the lake and its surroundings on the way back after the sun goes down. Be alert on the way in, have a sumptuous dinner, and allow romance to fill the air on the way back.
Pro Tip: They have added an Astronomy Cruise Dinner that starts at 6:30 p.m.
2. Cress On Oak Creek
We discovered an Arizona dining experience I will never forget when we were invited to have lunch by an Australian friend. She was part of Le Galerie, an art program package of lodging, food, and painting experiences offered by L’Auberge, a group of cottages “nestled under a canopy of sycamore trees…as distinct as they are serene” in Sedona, Arizona. The restaurant, Cress on Oak Creek, is known for creekside dining since its tables are right beside Oak Creek, where birds chirp while you delight in an exquisite meal. The following year, my husband brought me back for a magical 10th-anniversary lunch.
Cress is a fine dining restaurant with a price range to match. For example, their Mindful Dining Experience at their Creekside Reserve Gazebo — “under a canopy of vines with a romantic chandelier overlooking the creek” — comes complete with all the trimmings you can imagine at $1,495 per couple. Luckily, they also have a la carte menus for breakfast, lunch, and dinner that our budget could accommodate. What we had for lunch then is no longer on the menu today since Executive Chef Franck Desplechin and Pastry Chef Morgan Gurney often introduce exciting new internationally inspired dishes crafted from locally sourced ingredients. A Savory Creekside Sunday Brunch is also popular with special beverages like mimosas and Bloody Marys.
Pro Tips: Please visit their website or call to find out if they are welcoming dining-only guests. They only served hotel guests during COVID times. Also note that creekside dining may not be available during the winter months.
3. Mariposa Latin-Inspired Grille
Before we leave Sedona, let me tell you about the other dining place we consider a must-visit. With stunning floor-to-ceiling windows, Mariposa is perched atop a scenic bluff giving panoramic views of the majestic rocks to every table. My husband thought it was good enough for our 11th-anniversary dinner. The spacious, 6,500-square-foot restaurant has a 1,000-pound door crafted from African and South American stones. There are also two glass-enclosed wine vaults with more than 600 wine bottles, including many rare South American varieties. At the heart of the restaurant are a wood-fired grill and wood-burning oven. And Chef Dahl creates a unique South American-inspired cuisine that’s informed by her travels to Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile.
As a premium dining experience, they advise a resort casual dress code for the main dining room. It frowns on hats, tank tops, shorts, flip-flops, and branded sportswear. We were appropriately dressed but we preferred to sit on the beautiful expansive patio that leads right into the wide, well-manicured grass lawn in a huge garden that looks out to the red rocks unobstructed. All this beauty inspired us to have an anniversary photoshoot.
Pro Tip: Availability is tight for months in advance, and COVID capacity restrictions may still be in place, so call for reservations. They are only open for dinner and are closed on Tuesdays.
4. Salt Cellar
For our ninth anniversary, my husband looked hard for a seafood place because that is my favorite, having grown up on the Philippine islands. Luckily, he got a reservation at one that has made best of seafood lists in the Phoenix Metropolitan area since 1971. But there is another draw to this place. Salt Cellar is the only underground restaurant in Arizona. Decorated as a “snug seaside hideaway,” this dining place is located below ground on the posh side of the valley, in upscale Scottsdale. When you descend the antique wooden three flights of stairs to the select tables below, you will be welcomed into a world far removed from the desert.
And the seafood menu was indeed outstanding. A tour of fresh fish and seafood from around the world begins with the whole Maine lobster (both 1.5- and 3-pound options), which they reputedly never run out of. Selections come from Hawaii, Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake Bay, Boston, Georges Bank, and even New Zealand. But Salt Cellar’s offerings also change, featuring seasonal fish throughout the year. The menu is so extensive that no one with a seafood craving will go away dissatisfied. Mine pick was the smaller lobster, but my husband stuck to his usual New York strip.
Pro Tip: Salt Cellar has also pioneered the twin happy hour concept, serving discounted cocktails and classic appetizers that include shrimps, oysters, clams, mussels, and crab cakes. The first one is from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., and then a second one happens from 10 p.m. to closing.
5. Wrigley Mansion
A visit from a Filipino psychiatrist friend brought us to dine at the elegant Wrigley Mansion. Luckily, her schoolmate pediatrician friend was a member, and he invited her for dinner there — and the invite was extended to include us, her hosts! Wrigley Mansion is a renowned Phoenix landmark built by the chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. in 1932 as a 50th-anniversary gift to his beloved wife. It looks very similar to the mansion on Catalina Island off the Los Angeles coast, which was another gift Wrigley had constructed for his wife. Both sit atop hills, commanding dramatic views of the mountains and the city (or island). Inspired by architectural elements from Spain; Monterey, California; and the Mediterranean, the original tiles that were shipped from the Wrigley family’s tile factory on Catalina Island are still there.
After the Wrigley family sold the mansion in 1973, it changed hands several times, but in 1992, the late Geordie Hormel and his wife Jamie bought the property and lovingly restored it. Today, the Wrigley Mansion is a premier fine dining and special event venue. There’s Geordie’s Restaurant and Lounge, Jamie’s Wine Bar, and the recently opened Christopher’s in an adjacent glass building (a replacement of sorts as the original at the airport was closed due to COVID). Executive Chef Christopher Gross leads a strong culinary team, and CEO and Sommelier Paola Embry directs the wine program that consistently wins prestigious wine awards.
Pro Tip: Wrigley Mansion also offers tours of the elegant house. You will be amazed at its grand, sweeping staircase, fabulous first-class decor, and even a vintage telephone system.
6. Market Cafe
My husband saw an ad mentioning dining by a waterfall in the desert that is Phoenix. However, during COVID lockdowns, Market Cafe in Marriott Phoenix Resort Tempe at The Buttes was only open for breakfast from 6:30 to 10:30 a.m., so we decided to begin his 2021 Father’s Day celebration with a special morning meal, even if that meant waking up early. We just had to make sure that — even with the 30-minute trip from our home — we could get a table on the row closest to the unique scene.
As we wound up the tree-lined private road to the secluded resort, we began to feel assured we were going to have a great start for his special day. My husband was so happy we made it in time to get the lone table for two beside the mini-waterfall. Yes, it was a small one, but he still thought it was a grand way to start his special day, especially since his eggs Benedict was the best he has had in a long time. On the other hand, I chose to have a great plate of white eggs spinach frittata with a side bowl of fresh fruit.
Pro Tip: Make it a whole day experience at The Buttes. Have lunch poolside and dinner at the Top of the Rock with panoramic views of the city below.