Sunny, upbeat and optimistic, the cute bartender before me embodies everything I love about Phoenix, a city that’s having a very queer moment.
I’m perched on a barstool at Don Woods’ Say When, the rooftop cocktail lounge at Rise Uptown Hotel in Phoenix, where I’m chatting up the bartender. I am admiring his nipples through the mesh, floral button up he’s wearing and I’m wondering what that shirt might look like on the floor of my hotel room. He makes me a Whiskey Tart, a house favorite. “I Bet the ladies love you,” I say. “The ladies…the men…it’s all around,” he replies winkingly before pouring me a second tipple. Sunny, upbeat, and optimistic, this cutie embodies everything I love about Phoenix, a city that right now is having a very queer moment.
I’m all booze and no sustenance, so per my handsome mixologist’s recommendation I head across the street to trendy pan-Asian eatery Belly Kitchen and Bar. The host stand is right next to the kitchen, so while I wait for my table I watch as scallions are chopped and mussels cracked open, the smell of cilantro and mung bean linger in the air long after the efficient servers whisk each dish away. I am eventually seated at the outdoor counter on the second floor where it’s surprisingly chilly. The heat lamp overhead is keeping me toasty warm and because I’m full of alcohol, it’s having a flambé effect on my body. I snack on soft shelled crab bao buns and sauteed oyster mushrooms and begin plotting out my weekend.
My new found love of Phoenix is pure coincidence. I happened upon the city for the first time in years on a vacation-turned assignment in February 2020 where tantalizing attractions like Taliesin West (the gorgeous winter home of Frank Lloyd Wright and a must-visit destination), a youthful and revitalized downtown, and a booming bar and restaurant scene make up for oven-baked summers and a skyline in need of a marquee ‘scraper or two.
I returned in November 2020 as an election volunteer (and wept tears of joy when Biden was declared the winner of Arizona), and came back a third time near the end of a cross-country road trip in late summer 2022. What I’ve discovered is a booming queer scene, and I’m not just talking bars and brunch. Phoenix is home to numerous LGBTQ-owned businesses and it’s on this trip that I’m determined to check as many as possible off my list.
If Phoenix has a gayborhood, it’s the centrally located Melrose District where I’m sitting on the outdoor patio at queer bar Stacy’s at Melrose. Above me the heat lamps are glowing like paper lanterns, an apt description given that the Lunar New Year has only recently passed.
Because I’m fatigued from my flight and already three drinks into my evening, everything is a little blurry. I head to the bathroom where a cherub-faced twink delivers a stream of pee into the urinal next to me; a signal that he too has had too many vodka sodas. Though owner Stacey is a man, the bar attracts an even split between guys and gals and the dance floor is almost all women booty shaking to Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” With just enough stamina in me for one more drink, I stumble onward to the next bar.
It seems every gay in town tonight is at country western club Charlie’s whose cursive typeface will be familiar to anyone living in Chicago, Denver, or Vegas, where there are sibling locations. The parking lot is sprawling, so much so that I’m not even sure I’ll remember where I put my car. I’m wishing this was Disneyland where the lots are marked by familiar characters like Tinkerbell and Elsa.
Inside, I beeline for the bar where a handsome gent is wearing a neon fur harness with dollar bills poking out of it—his visible washboard abs having earned them all. I order a cocktail and head to the dance floor where beams of light crisscross and eventually shine down on an array of Latin go-go studs working the room. One dude boasts a package so enormous that his up-and-down gyrations are testing the strength of his tiny black thong. Another dons a pink cowboy hat, but Western wear and chiseled Latin hombres are the only thing country about Charlie’s which otherwise resembles a standard gay nightclub.
As I move across the dance floor I pass Diego, one half of a couple I met in LA. I miss the opportunity to say hi, but it doesn’t matter because I’ll run into him again tomorrow. Out front there is a taco truck I am told is a permanent fixture, like a barnacle attached to a whale. Two tacos are the last thing I eat before crashing and I swear they’re the best I’ve ever had, though that’s probably 2 A.M. talking.
When I wake up Saturday morning, I pinch my thumb and forefinger together and drag the sleep from my eyes, slip on a robe, and pull back the curtains. My gorgeous room at Rise is studded with mid-century furniture, playful cactus wallpaper, and a floor-to-ceiling window opening onto an enormous balcony. Below me is the pool area, the home to Lylo Swim Club on weekends. Even though temps will only climb into the high ‘60s today, by midafternoon every lounge chair and pink floatie will be claimed.
What I love most about Rise Uptown Hotel (well, second to the cute bartender at Don Woods and third behind their complimentary popsicle program) is the location. Everything new, exciting, and ascendant about the city is within a 7-minute drive of Rise Uptown Hotel, a hub around which all the coolest shops, bars, and restaurants in town now revolve. Such is the case at onsite (though separately owned) Cartel Coffee. “Cartel as in drug cartel,” I ask the barista. She rolls her eyes at me; she’s heard this one before. “We take a lot of shit for the name,” she says. “We even used to have a blend called black market. I think the owner thought he was being funny.” Armed with an Americano I slide into my rental car and drive to Scottsdale.
What a morning! I glide down Camelback Road, an east-west thoroughfare lined with nondescript strip malls and car dealerships, though some of the buildings harken back to mid-century including the pointy blue neon sign outside of Courtesy Chevrolet, a fabulous retro knockout. “We Love Who We Love” by Sam Smith is playing in the car.
At Chadwick’s Urban Market in Scottsdale, an LGBTQ-owned corner store crammed with sundries, fancy wines, and a little deli, I approach the counter. “This is like a bodega,” I say. The cute gay behind the counter replies, “New Yorkers hate when people say that.” (Of course they do, New Yorkers complain about everything.) “Are you Chadwick,” I ask him, hoping to ignite a flirtation. He’s not, but he flirts back while constructing for me a smoked gouda breakfast sandwich. As he artfully puts it all together, I notice an apron for sale that reads: “Well Hung” and an oven mitt that says, “When in doubt, pull it out.” Yep, this place is definitely queer.
The streets that spiral outward from the lovely Bronze Horse Fountain by Bob Parks in Old Town Scottsdale are undeniably appealing, but most of the art galleries and shops for which the neighborhood is so heavily touristed are not yet open. There was a time not long ago when a visit to Phoenix really meant a how-fast-can-you drive beeline to one of the posh resorts for which Scottsdale is famous, like The Phoenician or Sanctuary Camelback Mountain.
This snowbird mecca, however, is not without its unique charms. For example, I pass Diego Pops, a trendy Mexican restaurant I dined at several years ago that is famous for its snow cone margaritas. There’s also chic and cheerful Hotel Valley Ho, a legendary boutique property that leans into its mid-century origins via an onsite restaurant that gives off retro steakhouse vibes, guestrooms that celebrate the era with bold patterns and modular furniture, and bright bursts of citrus sprinkled throughout the property.
Scottsdale also boasts two dazzling cocktails dens, and in the same building no less. UnderTow delivers visitors to the underbelly of a 19th-century clipper vessel as it traces the spice route. Think of it as a souped-up tiki bar, the kind of place Indiana Jones would hang out at while on holiday in the South Pacific. Within the same complex sits Platform 18, a 36-seat, Pullman-inspired luxury rail car straight out of the golden age of rail travel. Nattily dressed mixologists serve up high falutin’ spirits while synced-up TV screens showing passing scenery make the folks smart enough to make a reservation weeks in advance feel like they’re imbibing inside an actual moving train.
I’m killing time at Scottdale Fashion Square mall. It’s not a buttery twisted pretzel from Auntie Anne’s I’m after, but rather a visit to Wonderspaces Arizona. Boasting locations in Philly, San Diego, and Austin, Wonderspaces offers fully immersive art installations in locations purposefully placed to accommodate the widest possible audiences to bolster its mission that art is for everyone. The space boasts a dozen or so pieces like fan favorites “Portraits in Pink, Blue, and Silver,” which records clips of visitors as they interact with the piece and Candy Chang’s “Before I Die” which allows folks to scribble bucket list desires right onto the wall in chalk. Scribbled entries like “Before I die I want to meet Cher” assure me I’m not the only gay visitor. The Jessica Chastain-narrated virtual reality experience “Spheres” is completely captivating, that is until I’m jolted back to reality by a message on the Scruff app from vrscumlvndad (I should’ve silenced my phone).
I zoom back to the city for lunch where I visit Phoenix Coqui, a casual Puerto Rican restaurant that started as a food truck in 2017 by out owner Alexis Carbajal and his fiancé Juan Alberto Ayala. I order a monfongo bowl, a heavenly scented pile of mashed green plantains, fried pork chunks, seasoned rice, and pigeon peas, and I hang out with owner Carbajal who shares with me the restaurant’s origin story including his visit to the island in 2013 where he met Carbajal. In a city where Mexican food dominates, Phoenix Coqui is both a novelty and a relief to the islanders who call the Valley of the Sun home. From our conversation I gather the couple was inspired by lesbian chef-activist (and five-time James Beard Award nominee) Silvana Salcido Esparza whose Barrio Café is a Phoenix hotspot for regional Mexican cooking and a place I very much enjoyed on a previous visit.
After lunch, I see a t-shirt for sale at Phoenix General that reads “Howdy” and I’m tempted to use it as an excuse to strike up a conversation with the handsome shop clerk who I later learn is one of the store’s two out owners. This lovely brick-and-mortar shop features locally made goods in the form of men and women’s clothing, scented candles, jewelry, and more, and it epitomizes the entrepreneurial spirit that’s luring artists and professionals alike back to downtown in impressive numbers.
At Off Chute Too, a vast Melrose District retailer of men’s underwear, sex toys, harnesses, and LGBTQ novelty items, I hoist up a crown. “I didn’t realize so many queens want to be kings,” I say to the busy shopkeeper. “They want to be kweens,” he replies carefully spelling out the k-w. A couple pair of short shorts catch my attention and as I slip into them I find myself purposefully leaving the dressing room door slightly ajar in hopes of attracting the attention of two cuties perusing a selection of body jewelry. In the toy section of the store, I overhear a couple discussing a talking dildo. I don’t know what that is.
The closest thing Phoenix has to its very own Willy Wonka is Rick Nolan, the hilarious gay owner and mad dairy scientist behind LIX Uptown Ice Cream. Using a secret cream base to concoct traditional flavor favorites like vanilla bean and rum raisin alongside cheeky additions like The Shaft and Piisssstachio, LIX offers a sweet break in my day. The super gay décor features a hot pink chandelier, gratuitous unicorn tchotchkes, and cozy seating, and then there’s Nolan, the wiry and loquacious owner. When I tell him I’ve just come from Off Chute Too he jokes, “Did the clerk offer to help you try on a cock ring?” And when I mention the bidet in the bathroom Nolan deadpans, “Some guys come out wet.”