While dining outdoors has always been a mainstay of European culture, Americans have historically been slower to adopt dining “al fresco” outside of private homes. According to Kate Krader, Food & Wine Magazine’s restaurant editor, “Once upon a time, it was challenging to find restaurants where you could consume truly good drinks and food in natural daylight, or twilight or moonlight. The best cocktails were in deep, dark speakeasies accessed through unmarked entrances and phone booths. The places with good food were protected by thick walls; invariably, light wasn’t pouring in from the outdoors, it was coming from the open kitchen.” These days, culinary trends are shifting, and it’s just as likely to find a foodie-worthy menu and handcrafted cocktails on an expansive street-facing patio as it is in the basement of an urban hotel.
But as the rest of the country slowly catches on to what Italians have always known (that fresh, thoughtful food just tastes better with a light breeze blowing across your face), it is important to emphasize that Arizona has long provided diners with five-star meals outdoors. In fact, our expansive spaces and gorgeous year-round weather have made our state a mecca for anyone looking to get out of the confines of indoors and out into the fresh air. And while you can definitely find frozen margaritas and bar food served on many local patios, you can also find a dedication to a craft, to providing guests with the best meal they can get – outdoors or not. Here are a few signature spots across the Grand Canyon State that exemplify dining at its best (and just happen to have gorgeous, open-air spaces as the setting for a meal):
Lon’s at the Hermosa (Phoenix)
Truly embodying the “farm to table” concept that has invaded the national culinary landscape, Lon’s at the Hermosa infuses its menu and specialty cocktails with herbs and produce grown in the one-acre onsite garden. This freshness is only further enhanced by the expansive Spanish-style patio that’s covered in bright, fragrant flowers and has a picture-perfect vista of Paradise Valley – when it comes to this fine dining restaurant, the open-air setting and elegant cuisine are a natural pair. Be sure to hit the patio during a cool desert night as well, when a stately adobe fireplace keeps you warm under the stars.
La Cocina (Tucson)
A staple of Tucson’s historic Old Town neighborhood, La Cocina fuses old world charm with new world sensibility. The outdoor setting is spectacular, with lush trees and adobe architecture, but there is a vibrant and progressive spirit to the place that elevates it from a traditional patio to an inclusive neighborhood gathering spot. From the food with a conscience (farm-raised beef nachos or Vegetarian Reuben, anyone?) to the diverse crowd that frequents the place, La Cocina knows that a great restaurant is more than the sum of its parts. So bring a friend – or your trusty dog – grab a glass of the cinnamon-infused sangria, and get comfortable. You’re home.
House of Tricks (Tempe)
Open since 1987, when the Trick family made an investment in a 1920’s cottage in a state of disrepair, House of Tricks is just a few blocks away from busy Mill Avenue, the center of downtown Tempe and the Arizona State University campus, but feels worlds apart from the hustle and bustle. Capturing the essence of a time when the area was primarily residential, the restaurant feels tranquil and romantic, largely because of its multiple patios, surrounded by green, expansive trees that shade the area and provide a sense of seclusion. But, of course, like any great Arizona restaurant, House of Tricks is more than just its outdoor spaces. The food is seasonally and globally inspired, with both local ingredients and eclectic touches (Asian flavors take a starring role in many of the new American dishes). In this sense, House of Tricks is a place to escape from the ordinary, whether with a cherished friend or a new romantic interest.
L’Auberge Restaurant on Oak Creek (Sedona)
A lesser known component of the Sedona’s natural beauty is the pristine Oak Creek, framed by lush greenery and truly unexpected in an area defined by its striking and majestic red rock vistas. Nothing seems to represent the purity and freshness of nature more than a river, and the L’Auberge Restaurant on Oak Creek therefore couldn’t have picked a better spot than the banks of the creek for a restaurant with a truly unadulterated focus on organic, local ingredients. As diners enjoy dishes such as roasted summer vegetables and all natural grilled ribeye, they are treated to the natural soundtrack of rushing water and birds chirping in the trees. There is little that’s more idyllic than that.
Kai Restaurant at The Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa (Chandler)
With only three tables on its patio, Kai Restaurant might be a surprising addition to this list, but the spectacular views of the uncorrupted desert and stellar Native-American-inspired cuisine (which have earned the restaurant the Forbes Five Star Award and designation of AAA Five Diamond Award Signature Restaurant) make it an al fresco destination that can’t be missed. The sweeping vistas over the Gila River Indian Community lands capture the imagination, but it’s the truly creative and local menu that provides each diner an experience that is intimately tied to nature. “Kai” means “seed” in the Pima language, and enjoying the restaurant’s farm-to-table cuisine in a pure outdoor setting is the ultimate celebration of those roots.
Grapes Restaurant (Jerome)
The town of Jerome is a former mining town tucked into the hills of Yavapai County and with its historic buildings and rich legacy, it is an unlikely location for a wine-focused restaurant with a romantic and airy patio. Grapes Restaurant pulls it off though, while still maintaining the historic roots of the town. Originally the telegraph and pony express station, the building that houses Grapes speaks loudly and clearly to a specific past while inviting today’s diners to enjoy affordable, fresh dishes thoughtfully paired with some of the world’s best wines. Perhaps the best thing about Grapes is that locals and tourists alike frequent the spacious patio – after all, there is something universal about wanting to escape from it all, and both the crisp air and the restaurant’s fresh cuisine make that so accessible and possible.
From the unmatched beauty of a desert sunset to the romance of sweeping floral vines, Arizona’s patio restaurants offer the kind of ambience that elevates eating out to an experience. Best of all, their passionate approach to thoughtful and sustainable cuisine is not only fitting for al fresco dining, but also helps to ensure that generations to come will be able to enjoy the timeless experience of a delicious meal enjoyed outdoors.
For another unique patio dining experience read From Corona Ranch to Province, Take your Phoenix Patio Pick
Christine Olivas moved to Phoenix in 2008 and has made it her mission then to try as many restaurants in Arizona, as quickly as possible. A self-proclaimed foodie, she appreciates great cuisine and cocktails, even more so when they can be enjoyed outdoors in Arizona's gorgeous weather.