If you look up travel guides to Phoenix, Arizona you’ll notice that many of them include eateries in Tempe and Scottsdale. Many of Phoenix’s surrounding cities aren’t as massive as the capital, so they interlace at many points and are all too easy to access.
The thing is, though, quality always beats quantity. As a lifelong lover of small towns, my bias is clearly showing when I say that I’d take less for more any day. Why feel overwhelmed by choices on every corner when a stress-free number (that still stressed me out while here, because there were so many places I wanted to try and so little time to try them all!) with raving reviews all around are aplenty?
This city stops feeling small the moment you pass your sixth local restaurant, alive with the contented moans and exclamations around bites of food. Tempe’s culinary genius is a must for foodies like me, because like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.
Read on to find my guide to some of Tempe’s best places to eat and make your heart sing!
If you’re really into foodie cities, check out these guides:
- A Guide to Eating Your Way Through Dublin
- Here’s Why You’ll Love Burlington, Vermont
- 3 Days In Boston: The Ultimate Weekend Itinerary For Boston, Massachusetts
CARTEL COFFEE LAB
When your Google Maps takes you to an unassuming parking lot befitting office or motel space, don’t panic; just look for the also-unassuming sign for Cartel Coffee Lab, and inside find a wondrous roast haven.
I’m that girl in coffee shops you probably roll your eyes at: the one who leans over the counter slightly and asks quietly, almost guiltily, if they serve decaf. Recently I haven’t done this, though, much to my caffeine-sensitive body’s chagrin, only because somehow I think that feeding my system with it will make it better prone to the jolt of caffeine… Still a science fair project in the works.
In short, I am far from a coffee snob, but boy, are the people at Cartel Coffee Lab ever. I mean that in the kindest way possible–I admire the skill of coffee-ing, and watching the baristas work their magic was insane. Like, it took 15 minutes for them to brew my coffee, because they were making it from scratch. You are in good hands here.
I was lured in by a chocolatey roast, but they have a plethora of options to choose from, all equally yummy-smelling! Pick out a pastry from their counter, too!
Cartel Coffee Lab | 225 W University Dr #101, Tempe 85281
INFUSION COFFEE AND TEA
Infusion Coffee and Tea is darling for the fact that they have a mug wall. A charming Brooklyn-esque haunt for morning coffee with friends or for students/entrepreneurs/creatives to get work done, its brightness will match your mood once you’ve had a sip of your iced cold brew.
Like Cartel, coffee is their life’s work, and you can order blends with flavor profiles and signature drinks, featuring agave and soda water with espresso. Additionally, they serve parfaits, omelettes, pastries, and cookies… because what is breakfast without a little dessert?
Infusion Coffee and Tea | 1300 E 8th St #100, Tempe 85281
**Open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays**
I talked about Singh Meadows in my last post, but I’m talking about it again because it was incroyable. After perusing the fresh produce, breads, jams, and soaps in the main market area, have breakfast in the cafe. You will be delighted to know that some of their breakfasts come in baskets. Mine did not; however, my plate, the taste of the meadows, was overflowing with grapes, apple slices, orange, and grapefruit, all from the Singh family farm; dates; a delicate pile of honeycomb, also from the Singh’s bees; and pillowy mounds of ricotta cheese, all locally made and served with toasted halves of sourdough bread. The presentation was made complete with a couple of flowers propped on the cheese.
Singh Meadows | 1490 E Weber Dr, Tempe 85281
LA BOCCA PIZZERIA
Have you ever heard of a restaurant with its own menu section for bruschetta?! That’s what initially lured me in to La Bocca Pizzeria – the ability to order toasted bread dolloped with brie cheese, bacon, tomato jam, and arugula. You can err on the side of classic with ricotta cheese and honey, or go a little wild with whipped dates and goat cheese, prosciutto, orange gastrique, and picked grapes. I think this has the potential to become a global sensation–like avocado toast, but better
For your utmost carby delight, La Bocca crafts some seriously tasty hand-tossed pizzas, with every topping from spicy pepperoni to goat cheese to sliced meatballs. I’m not sure why I didn’t go for the pizza, because every plate that drifted past me left me wiping drool from my chin, but I went with one of the salads. It turned out to be one of the tastiest salads I’ve ever had. Next time, I’m adding the pizza in!
La Bocca Pizzeria | 699 S Mill Ave, Tempe 85281
FOUR PEAKS BREWING CO.
Whether it’s because I’m an adult or because I’m a millennial, I love the idea of a tasting, tour, and sit-down dining at a brewery. You get to try delicious beers, learn about the process, and then eat grub that most likely goes well with any of the drafts. Even for someone who’s only just starting to like beer, it’s a small pleasure to delight in.
Awesome people like Cole (our tour guide) make up the company, and are well-versed in Four Peaks’ history and unique process–they follow the same processes for every type of beer, right down to the water mineral count that the OGs work with. We learned that when it rains–a rarity in the desert–their beers can’t be bottled, because the room the final products are housed in begins to leak. And that some guy once lived in one of the back rooms that stretched a couple of stories high, the windows up by the ceilings, and had decorated the window sills with a doll collection. I’m still amazed at his commitment to interior styling.
Once seated for lunch, start off with a flight of four drinks, and maybe pick up a pint of their ice cream as an appetizer. Beer and ice cream pairings are the future. Four Peaks makes and sells their own ice cream, some boozy, some not, all delish.
If you aren’t super keen on beer, I recommend a flight of the Peach Ale, 8th Street Pale Ale, the Hop Knot, and Ace Cider (local to California). Order the veggie beer bread wrap, held together by gooey tangles of cheese, with fries.
Four Peak Brewery | 1340 E 8th St #104, Tempe 85281
SNAKES AND LATTES
I knew it as Chutes and Ladders; others, Snakes and Ladders. No matter how the dice fall, this restaurant’s play on the beloved board game will spark childhood nostalgia… and then they do it again when you walk in and find well-loved boxes of Clue and Mall Madness.
At Snakes and Lattes, grab a table, order a round of drinks, and forge epic rivalries (that stay here!) over your favorite board games. I recommend the pierogi pizza (my actual dream come true), vegan disco fries, hummus & friends, and the classic smash burger. The above pair well with SanTan Mr. Pineapple draft beer. I also sampled a blueberry cider recently added to the menu that finished dinner on a sweet note.
Snakes and Lattes | 20 W 6th St, Tempe 85281
This quirky spot fills up quickly on the weekends for people celebrating birthdays, reunions, or simply the end of the workweek. They have live music set off in the back room, equally as massive as the main dining room. Concrete, metal, and wood accents up the modern ante, and the dangling asterisk-shaped chandeliers enhance the youthful ambiance. It’s a lively place, and a place I recommend making a reservation for. You may be asked to wait 5-10 minutes even so, but you can listen to the music as you wait.
As you walk through the restaurant, the kitchen is exposed with glass-paneled walls and where the chefs cook everything from scratch. This is one of the first things the server said when our group was seated. I’ve never been told outright that any given restaurant is a scratch kitchen, and I really appreciated that. They take pride in their work, and it shows.
And they SHOULD. My answer to the old what would my last meal be question has changed: now, it will forever include the soft pretzels and provolone fondue I devoured that night. I legitimately ate three of the snowball-sized pretzel rolls, and dunked every last bite into the cheese. This is a surefire way to find salvation.
When I was a little girl, I liked the idea of strawberry ice cream because it was pink, though I don’t think I actually liked it until I was older. I ordered the Pink Cadillac Margarita on a few similar principles: I still love pink, I appreciated the ode to Elvis, and margaritas are my general drink of choice. Add in some prickly pear curacao, a sweet finish on the drink, and you’ve got yourself a winning drink. Superficial reasons aside (though look how pretty it is!), I found myself smitten with a cocktail like I’d never been before.
My other suggestions? The hummus and pub burger. If house BBQ sauce speaks to your soul, then its feature on the burger will tickle your fancies.
Culinary Dropout | 149 S Farmer Ave, Tempe 85281
COTTON & COPPER
Named for two of Arizona’s five C’s–the others being cattle, citrus, and climate–owner and head chef of South Tempe’s Cotton & Copper, Tamara Stanger, is focused on a wholly Arizonian experience. She even forages for her own ingredients once a week.
Copper & Cotton’s approach is modernized pub, with a few Wild West-esque touches that bring the laid back mood together. For a cocktail with some kick, opt for the agua caliente. The server might warn you that it’s smoky, but just keep nodding. Or, for something a little tamer, try the silver king. Carbs stave off any immediate buzz, so order a basket of rolls injected with honey butter and sided with honey butter for the table. You (I) could eat the butter with a spoon.
Cotton & Copper | 1006 E Warner Rd #113, Tempe 85284
If you go to the Southwest, you can’t not have Mexican food. It’s a sin, probably. Tempe is home to a phenomenal restaurant called Ghost Ranch, a southwestern hub turning up the heat with ingredients, flavors, and eclectic decor.
Chef Aaron Chamberlin, world traveler and chef extraordinaire, made it his mission to learn as much about food as he could before settling down in his home state to open a restaurant reflecting its culture, history, and gastronomy. Ghost Ranch is the product of that global exploration, and at once it feels exotic and comforting.
Tempe is your one-stop shop for pink drinks. Exhibit B: the prickly pear frosé margarita.
Pink drink alert: In enlarged text in the far left column of the drinks menu is the prickly pear frosé margarita. Order it. Admire it. Bring the head-sized glass to your lips. Feel the slushy and smooth concoction hit your tongue. Rejoice. Repeat. I still think about that cocktail at least once a week.
Since just chips and salsa (three kinds, plus guacamole) won’t do, order the chicken enchiladas. They will rock you. Or, for something new, order the mesquite grilled sword fish tacos. Follow the lead of your neighbors and forget that time exists; now, you are in a bubble of no past or future, just the here and now, with good company and a steady soundtrack playing overhead.
Ghost Ranch | 1006 E Warner Rd #102-103, Tempe 85284