Call me an L.A. snob, but Phoenix has always struck me as a land of "a's." Establishments that sound natural with that article in front — a Quiznos, a Safeway, a Mobil station — grace every corner, amid sand-colored low-rise condos and the occasional empty lot. It's all very functional, perfectly livable but hardly cutting-edge.

So I was skeptical when my cousins Hank and Tom described a flourishing alternative art scene around downtown Phoenix. The first Friday of each month, dozens of galleries band together for a giant art fair.

"All the freaks come out," Tom told me. "And Phoenix is not a freak town."

Clarification: The scene is not exclusively or even predominantly freaks. But people do come out, as many as 20,000 on a single night, to browse, meet artists, hear live music, drink cheap wine and snack on bean dip in about 80 art spaces as diverse as ramshackle bungalows and historic structures. New restaurants, too, have cropped up to serve this urbane crowd.

Most of Phoenix's downtown hotels are A-list (a Hyatt, a Wyndham), but the new, independent Clarendon Hotel + Suites, where I stayed the first weekend in March, proved worthy of the scene, despite its location in a nondescript stretch 2 1/2 miles north of downtown. (Just off Central Avenue, it is a quick trip by bus or taxi into downtown.) Four stories form a courtyard around a cobalt-blue pool deck. Inside it's desert-meets-Design-Within-Reach: charcoal-colored furniture topped with ice-blue glass, geometric carpeting and stucco walls painted beige, sky blue and chocolate brown. Club music thumped in the lobby.

I joined Hank, Tom and some friends aboard one of the free buses that shuttled among the First Friday destinations. Their friend Ron commented that Phoenix is obsessed with turning itself into L.A., and others nodded in agreement. Phoenix's envy, I called it.

Sure enough, the shuttle dropped us at the Paper Heart Arts Venue, which would be easily at home in an artsy L.A. neighborhood such as Venice Beach or Silver Lake. Most of the time, it's a cafe-gallery setting with leopard-print sofa, Naugahyde booths, angular tables, and music, dance or spoken-word performances. That night, though, it was packed with viewers of local art including Corey Paisley's "Pablo," a giant eye done in neon and mixed-media, and David James' nature photographs graced with gorgeous nudes.

Paper Heart is one of a dozen venues around Grand Avenue, northwest of the city center. So is Fillmore West Studios, a tiny, colorful house owned by three women, all photographers, who mentor students from nearby Arizona State University. It wasn't long ago, Tom told me, that Grand Avenue was so decrepit that "you'd need a tetanus shot to come here." You still see lots encircled with razor wire, but on First Fridays it just looks edgy.

A short walk away is Paisley Violin, a neighborhood cafe that serves sandwiches such as "jamón, mozzarella and roasted pepper." A band called Cocorotica played a sort of Latin-funk fusion while a belly dancer in a monkey mask undulated around the floor below.

"L.A. only wishes it had this," I said to Ron. He beamed.

The bus rolled on to the former city ice house, in the old warehouse district south of the city center. An installation piece called "Wedding Dance" grabbed us and ushered us in: Concentric chalk circles on a concrete floor strewn with white and red roses led to a giant metal bowl filled with water, while early recordings of romantic Italian songs wafted from speakers. "Look at the ceiling," Hank said. "It's painted like the sky." In fact, it was the sky.

Later, we drove through downtown's other, more established gallery district, Roosevelt Row, where fire-throwers entertained and "Ryder galleries" (rental trucks that house traveling exhibitions) had set up shop on an open lot. We continued on to a late dinner at My Florist Café, a popular spot in a onetime flower shop that is stylishly mint green, cobalt and glass brick inside. It's known for its fresh breads and for Nicole Pesce, the ever-smiling pianist whose repertoire darts from Scott Joplin to Abba, George Gershwin to Led Zeppelin.

Friday leads to Saturday

The next morning, I skipped the Clarendon's worthy, free continental breakfast in favor of Matt's Big Breakfast. Matt's opened in October, but it already does line-out-the-door business in honest comfort food. Add your name on the list outside and spend some of your wait browsing the Saturday farmers market across the street. My scramble was three eggs with strips of soppressata salami; the Boston émigrés next to me gave their pancakes a 10.

A quick walk away, several galleries around Roosevelt Street extend the First Friday glow with "Saturday After." Paulina Miller Studio Gallery, one of downtown's long-standing galleries, has a stable of artists including Elizabeth Bret Harte-Lyon, whose work combines film transparencies with paper and thread, and Susan Porteous, whose digital pinhole prints evoke the Southwest.

Holgas, also nearby, is a live-work cooperative in a dingbat apartment building. See the work of the young artist-residents in the gallery downstairs or maybe catch them in person at home. I loved the "Cowboys & Indians" series by Chris Parish (Apartment 5), images silk-screened on a wood panel covered in a copper oxide patina.

MonOrchid, across Roosevelt, is the downtown gallery that launched the scene. It's also the most polished with its shiny corrugated metal walls and high, raftered ceilings.

Walking back toward the hotel, I was drawn inside the monolithic Burton Barr Central Library, with its soaring suspended ceiling, bold accents and modern, industrial-looking elevator lobby. It's on the way to the Phoenix Art Museum, where I enjoyed the gallery devoted to painter Philip C. Curtis. He was one of the first pioneers of art in Phoenix, arriving under the Work Projects Administration. As if to continue that mission, the museum is undergoing a $41.2-million expansion due to be completed next year.

Pizza and cocktails