Phoenix Rising: LGBT Well-Being in the Nation’s Fifth Largest City
On the desert floor, a jackrabbit darts amongst the saguaro, his ears alert for the sound of a coyote. The ten of us in the hot air balloon above him are as silent as the desert air. It’s early morning and the caffeine has yet to kick in - but mostly, we’re respectful of the desert’s stillness as we float over the Sonoran Desert.
Like a soap bubble on the air, we rise and fall, according to the desert winds - and the whims of our Rainbow Ryders, Inc. pilot (aka "Captain") Brooke Owen who’s logged more than 2,400 hours flying at least 15,000 people through the desert sky. The rabbits scurry as a coyote darts through the scrub brush: it’s Bugs Bunny and Wile E. Coyote in virtual reality.
All around us are multi-colored balloons, maybe six or ten, their shadows bobbing over the desert hills, while below us, at the desert’s edges, stretch the subdivisions of suburban Phoenix. We’re sailing over the desert like the Wizard on his way home from Oz.
It’s always interesting when you think you know a place because of the media’s portrayal - only to find out that you were seeing but a portion of the entire picture. Recent headlines about Arizona, and the resultant jokes rendering Arizona as a punch line, might have made you wonder about the state - and with good reason - and yet to visit Phoenix is to recognize anew that smart and compassionate people are to be found everywhere.
The fifth largest city in the US, Phoenix is also the most populous state capital in the States. Much like ancient Phoenicia, whose civilization was organized in Greek-like city-states, modern-day Phoenix is a collection of urban villages. Think of it as a vast metropolitan area of city-states, much like Los Angeles or Atlanta (or ancient Phoenicia) where a twenty-minute drive takes you into another town that is somehow still connected to and a part of the larger city. And similar to Miami’s South Beach, or Atlanta’s Buckhead, or any number of LA neighborhoods, Phoenix is a city comprised of various local stereotypes: the Kierland lady and the Tempe bohemian student and the Scottsdale party people (aka "Snottsdales") - as well as the gay cowboy.
Tempe, for example, home of Arizona State University - which, during most academic years, houses the largest student body in the US - is much like many other progressive US collegetowns, with its own LGBT website, providing access to everything gay related to Tempe.
To get an idea of Scottsdale’s character, consider that Scottsdale has more destination spas per capita than any other US city - and more AAA Five Diamond hotel-resorts than any other American city except New York.
As for the city’s style, you might 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.
The one comment that you can expect to hear from nearly every native and transplanted Phoenix resident is about the weather: more than 325 days of sunshine every year. It’s a badge of honor for every Phoenix resident. Not one snowflake has fallen in downtown Phoenix since 1939.
And in a city marked by the preponderance of students, hotels, and the hospitality and tourism industries, Phoenix is home to a strong and diverse LGBT community. Nationally-recognized LGBT Phoenix events include Pride, the Rainbows Festival, the Roadrunner Regional Rodeo, and the Cactus Cities Softball league, events which have helped spike LGBT tourism to Phoenix by 80%, making Phoenix the city with the second highest surge in LGBT tourism.
One night, we share dinner with Councilman Tom Simplot, who was elected to the Phoenix City Council in 2003 - as the first openly gay councilperson in Phoenix’s history. Simplot was re-elected in 2005, and then unanimously voted by his fellow council members to serve as Phoenix’s Vice Mayor. The talk on the street is that it’s only a matter of time before we’ll be addressing him as Mayor Simplot.
Later, at Charlie’s, Phoenix’s long-time favorite gay bar, owner John King talks about his 26 years in Phoenix - and how the town has changed and evolved. It’s Friday night and the bar is packed - with a dance floor filled with two-stepping cowboys, all of them dancing in perfect line formation, big grins on their faces.
It’s hard to resist such unabashed joy - and at that moment, it’s easy to understand the belief in Phoenix’s future that LGBT leaders like Simplot and King have about their city.
Meanwhile, back in the hot-air balloon, someone is humming, "Up, up and away, in my beautiful balloon," which, at that moment, seems to encapsulate the feeling that, much like the mystical bird for which it was named, Phoenix is rising anew.
WHERE TO EAT:
St. Francis: Helmed by Chef Aaron Chamberlin who trained under Jean-Georges Vongerichten, St. Francis is the culmination of a lifelong dream for Chamberlin - and every aspect of this contemporary and stylish restaurant co-owned with his brother, David, radiates with the pride and pleasures to be derived from a dream’s realization. Both urbane and familial, St. Francis manages to be as serious about its cuisine as it is friendly and warm in its hospitality.
Housed in uptown Phoenix in an historic building with particular meaning for Phoenix’s LGBT community, the restaurant is like a downtown loft, with a second-floor dining room overlooking tables on the main floor. Brick walls and corkwood provide a rustic charm that complements the more industrial elements such as a polished concrete floor. The bar spills out onto an al fresco patio - and on weekends, the buzz is intoxicating as locals and savvy tourists chow down on seasonal American food from Chamberlin’s well-sourced menu.
The restaurant and kitchen’s focal point is the massive handcrafted wood-fire brick oven, which turns out fresh baked breads, and grilled meats, fish, and vegetables. There’s a house-made baguette and crispy fingerling potatoes, for starters, as well as a punchy citrus salad, and an aromatic red quinoa salad, and a seven-vegetable rice mélange with a sweet and spicy dressing. This is homey, comfort food filtered through the mind of a chef who’s been fed in Vongerichten’s kitchens. Don’t miss the sticky toffee pudding, laden with sweet dates and served with vanilla gelato. It’s the sort of dessert you might consider ordering twice - because you want the taste to linger on your palate as you dream through the night.
What lingers in the mind after an evening at St. Francis is the conviviality of a community devoted to eating well. In short, St. Francis is precisely the restaurant that makes you anticipate a return visit to Phoenix.
LINK: St. Francis Restaurant
deseo: Given his widely-accepted status as the originator of Nuevo Latino cuisine, James Beard Award-winning Chef Douglas Rodriguez was almost certain to make an appearance in the American Southwest - and Rodriguez’s imprint at deseo (Spanish for "desire") beautifully epitomizes his masterful blending of Latin and American cuisines.
Working with Chef Roberto Madrid, Rodriguez has created a menu at deseo that highlights ceviches in their many mouth-watering incarnations - and all of them burst with flavor and freshness. If you’re seated along "the Rail," in front of the open kitchen, you’ll be able to witness the chef creating your meal - and few things are as enticing and appetizing as watching someone cook specifically for you.
Suffused with a red glow in the evenings, the two-story room is atmospheric and romantic, somewhat evocative of Havana’s heyday as an idyllic playground. The vibrant and colorful work of Cuban artist, Nelson Garcia-Miranda, a Phoenix local, hangs on the walls, bringing Cuba’s charms that much closer.
If, at meal’s end, after "smoking" Rodriguez’s signature dessert chocolate cigar, you find yourself unable to leave, return to the restaurant’s Muddle Bar next door where patrons create their own mojitos and caipirinhas from a selection of fresh fruits, herbs, and spirits. Sink back into a chair and toast to the glories of Latin American cuisine.
House of Tricks: For nearly twenty-five years, House of Tricks (named for the owner whose surname is Tricks - and no, her first name is not Trixie) has been serving students and dignitaries, politicos and families from a seasonally inspired menu that is both affordable and innovative (consider the bacon martini (aka Hot Potatotini), if you’re bacon-obsessed...).
Located in downtown Tempe, a few steps off bustling Mill Avenue amidst Arizona State University’s sprawling main campus, this award-winning local favorite is as romantic and charming as it is popular.
The restaurant’s two historic bungalows, which date from the 1920s, have been lovingly restored, complete with vintage stone fireplace and an outdoor tree-covered bar. A canopy of trees shades the verdant gardens that bloom with petunias, lobelias, daisies, and geranium - all nurtured daily by the owner’s mother, Mary Trick.
Winner of a Wine Spectator Award for Excellence for two years’ running, House of Tricks also houses a splendid art collection, featuring works from artists such as William Wegman. Cats stretch across the garden walls while goldfish swim in a small pond - and House of Tricks feels like a true oasis in the desert.
LINK: House of Tricks
(Story continues on next pages: Where to Stay, Spa Treatments, What to Do, Where to Play...)