What do you know about Tempe, Arizona? Probably not much, right?
Tempe tends to get the shaft in terms of notoriety, being unceremoniously sandwiched between the perpetually over-hyped Phoenix and the notoriously boring Scottsdale. Being neither a state capital with an exciting mythology-inspired name, nor a white-washed business-conference mega-destination, Tempe is eternally the forgotten middle child of the region. But as it turns out, Tempe is the area’s best kept secret, being home to some of the hippest spots in the desert. Whether you’re looking for good eats, live music, or nightlife, Tempe is the destination you never knew you needed. Check out the five spots you can’t miss next time you find yourself out in the Southwest.
The Chuckbox is undeniably a Tempe staple, and one that has survived nearly 50 years of business by sticking to the wise adage: “Less is More.” Since 1972, the Chuckbox has been serving up delicious all-beef burgers (flavored with “magic dust”—their own house blend of spices) to ASU students and Central Phoenix professionals, and have barely changed their winning format in all that time. Never ones to bend to the winds of trend, the secretive masterminds behind The Chuckbox have only made 2 significant additions to their menu: they added a BBQ chicken sandwich about 20 years into their tenure, and conceded to including a veggie burger about a decade later. You won’t find overpriced imported beef or specialty artisan fixings here, and yet The Chuckbox is consistently recognized as the best burger joint in Arizona. The secret to their success? It’s all in the charcoal. The Chuckbox cooks all their burgers in an open fire pit above mesquite and charcoal, rather than the flat-tops or gas grills favored by most restaurants. If you’re feeling brave, you can try the Chuckbox’s only specialty burger: the Tijuana Torpedo—a double cheeseburger with jalapeno jack cheese and topped with local green chiles. If you’re looking for a big burger and a pitcher of beer, you’re not going to find a better experience in Arizona than the Chuckbox.
Maybe you’re looking for something a little more adventurous than burgers and beer, but you want something that you know will be a guaranteed hit for your squad. Look no further than Café Lalibela, Tempe’s number one hotspot for authentic Ethiopian cuisine. For those not in the know, Ethiopian food is generally characterized by a variety of stews and curries served family style on top of a traditional Ethiopian flat bread known as Injera (imagine a hearty sourdough crepe—better than it sounds, I promise!). This family-operated restaurant has been running strong for nearly two decades, and has thrived despite the relatively niche offerings by providing a delicious, authentic meal in casual, modern environment and, unlike The Chuckbox, catering to the trends that sway the restaurant industry. To that end, they offer a number of vegetarian dishes, gluten-free options, and, thankfully, dishes with the traditional spice level toned down. They’re also well-loved for their traditional Ethiopian coffee, so whether you just need a quick caffeine jolt, or you’d like a cup alongside your wat and injera, Café Lalibela will hook you up and get you buzzing.
The Crescent Ballroom has become a major hub for the Tempe arts and music scene. For starters, it’s one of the premiere live music venues in the city, with a 500-person capacity ballroom that hosts many of the hottest touring artists that come through Tempe, regardless of genre. With a perfectly sized room, a masterfully EQ’d sound system, and bleacher-style seats along the back wall (a thoughtful nicety extended to shorter concert-goers that I’ve never seen anywhere else), the Crescent Ballroom holds a position of love and respect in the hearts of local music-lovers. Beyond that, they also offer a lounge and restaurant with patio-seating open to the public daily. The restaurant, Cocina 10, serves up Arizona-style Mexican food, over which hipsters and artists gather before catching the nightly performances. Casual dabblers can watch the stage show from the lounge (which never requires a cover charge) and get a taste of the action taking place in the ballroom next door. Also worth mentioning is the Valley Bar; owned and operated by the same team behind the Crescent Ballroom, Valley Bar offers a more intimate performance space (max. capacity is 250), but the same quality of service and experience one expects from a higher-end venue.
The Trunk Space
The Trunk Space is a non-profit arts organization focused on supporting and promoting young, upcoming artists and musicians in the Tempe area. The proprietors describe Trunk Space as a “place for art, music, experimental theater and performance art, circus side shows, vaudeville, and other creative acts you just can’t pigeon hole.” To that end, they provide an all-ages space for uncensored artistic expression, generally taking the form of live music performances. Although they sometimes collaborate with local bars to put on pop-up events, The Trunk Space is strictly an all-ages space, which means no alcohol is served or tolerated on site. Their one other oddball house rule: The Trunk Space only allows original material to be performed, meaning bands are not allowed to perform covers. The Trunk Space is the place to go to get a taste for the real Tempe artist underground: where tomorrow’s headliners are cutting their teeth in the music scene. If you’re looking for something a bit off the beaten path, take a look at The Trunk Space’s events calendar and catch some real local flavor.
Shady’s Fine Ales and Cocktails is Tempe’s ultimate neighborhood haunt. Don’t expect mustachioed mixologists or bottle service at this smoky dive, but come by with a healthy thirst and a hankering for pool and you’ll find everything you’re looking for. Known by locals to have some of the strongest drinks and best jukebox tunes in town, Shady’s is well loved by the Tempe community. The bar has this cozy living room feel, complete with leather-backed chairs and a fireplace, which keeps patrons nice and comfy as they down the rotating selection of craft beers. Plus there’s usually cult movies playing on the TVs inside. It’s the kind of place where old friends meet after a long work day to pass the time and down cheap beer. It’s low-key, it’s homey, it’s everything a dive bar should be. Keep an eye out for the Rude Boy on the sign, you can’t miss it!