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 Every local I met mentioned Pizzeria Bianco, so I had no choice as to dinner plans. Chef-owner Chris Bianco has won a James Beard award, and his 42-seat shop was named best pizza in America in Ed Levine's new book, "Pizza: A Slice of Heaven." Reservations (parties of six or more only) are booked months in advance; otherwise, you have to arrive by 4 p.m. if you want a seat when the doors open at 5. Get there later and you may wait as long as three hours. We got some ugly attitude from the hostess (Phoenix really is becoming like L.A.), but the light-as-air pizzas and tomato-buffalo mozzarella salad made up for it. Best in America? I don't know. But very, very good.
After dinner, you might be tempted by Fate's grunge-ish style and inexpensive-ish drinks and pan-Asian dishes; or stand and model at Amsterdam (Phoenix's gay bar du jour, with about 75 types of martini); or quaff classic cocktails at Durant's Fine Foods, a 1950s steakhouse that may remind you of a scene from a David Lynch film.
As for me, I met another cousin, Marcia, a New York caterer wintering in nearby Scottsdale, at the tony Cheuvront Wine & Cheese Bar across from the Central Library. We couldn't have been happier swapping family stories over our flights of three wines each paired with a cheese: Marcia ordered Chardonnays with French cheeses, and I the "Spanish Nights" course with hearty selections from the sunny Mediterranean.
As we admired the busy room of polished concrete, shiny marble and glistening glass, it sunk in that this wasn't an "a" kind of place — and definitely not an "a" kind of weekend.
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The cutting edge
Expenses for one on this trip:
Two nights, with tax, at
the Clarendon Hotel + Suites $240
Meals & Drinks
My Florist Café, Pizzeria Bianco,
Matt's Big Breakfast and
Cheuvront Wine & Cheese Bar $55
Phoenix Art Museum admission $9
Round-trip airfare, Super Shuttle,
taxi and bus fares $170
Distance from L.A. 373 miles
Clarendon Hotel + Suites, 401 W. Clarendon Ave.; (602) 252-7363, http://www.theclarendon.net . Open since January, this stylish hotel is still getting some finishing touches, including a new restaurant and bar. Double rooms, $139 a night; one-bedroom suites, $159. Taxi to/from downtown, $5-8.
First Fridays is a monthly art walk through galleries and other art spaces around downtown Phoenix. Next event April 1. Maps and all shuttles available at Burton Barr Central Library. Information from Artlink, (602) 256-7539 or http://www.artlinkphoenix.com .
Valley Metro provides mass transit in Phoenix. Buses make frequent trips north and south on Central Avenue, but stop at about 10 p.m. Saturdays. The $1.25 fare includes a transfer valid for two hours. (602) 253-5000, http://www.valleymetro.org .
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK:
Paisley Violin, 1030 Grand Ave.; (602) 254-7843.
My Florist Café, 534 W. McDowell Road; (602) 254-0333, http://www.myfloristcafe.com .
Matt's Big Breakfast, 801 N. 1st St.; (602) 254-1074.
Pizzeria Bianco, 623 E. Adams St.; (602) 258-8300.
Fate, 905 N. 4th St.; (602) 254-6424.
Amsterdam, 718 N. Central Ave.; (602) 258-6122.
Durant's, 2611 N. Central Ave.; (602) 264-5967, http://www.durantsfinefoods.com .
Cheuvront Wine & Cheese Bar, 1326 N. Central Ave.; (602) 307-0022, http://www.cheuvront.biz .
SELECTED ART VENUES:
Paper Heart Arts Venue, 750 Grand Ave.; (602) 262-2020, http://www.thepaperheart.com .
Studio Fillmore West, 919 W. Fillmore St.; (602) 716-5667.
The Icehouse, 429 W. Jackson St.; (602) 257-8929.
Paulina Miller Studio Gallery, 817 N. 1st St.; (602) 307-9643, http://www.paulinamillerstudiogallery.com .
Holgas Art Space, 821 N. 3rd St.; (480) 540-2917, http://www.holgas.com .
MonOrchid, 214 E. Roosevelt St.; (602) 253-0039, http://www.shademag.com .
Burton Barr Central Library, 1221 N. Central Ave.; (602) 262-4636, http://www.phxlib.org .
Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 N. Central Ave.; (602) 257-1222, http://www.phxart.org .
— Andrew Bender