The Flagstaff restaurant scene is happening. Just ask Robert Stieve, editor of Arizona Highways magazine.
The magazine's April issue, already in subscribers' mailboxes and due on newsstands soon, features four Flagstaff restaurants in its list of the state's top 25.
On this year's list are Cuvee 928, New Jersey Pizza Co., MartAnne's and Tinderbox Kitchen, which is featured on the cover.
"These are a lot of great restaurants, but there are other great restaurants out there, too," Stieve said. He added that the magazine's list is not meant to be comprehensive. Instead, it is designed to open readers' eyes to different places.
Too many people -- himself included -- know of one place they like in a town, and eat there every visit, he said.
"Food is a big reason why people travel," Stieve said, adding that even if it's not, they still need to know where to eat.
This issue of Arizona Highways can be a tour guide of sorts. It can also drum up business for local restaurants that otherwise might get missed, he said.
Restaurants that made the list, which also includes Cucina Rustica and Fournos in Sedona and Page's Blue Buddha Sushi Lounge, were chosen based on three criteria: Great food, great service and great ambience.
"Ideally, each restaurant would hit a home run in all three," Stieve said.
Initial input for the list came from readers, magazine contributors, TV personality Robin Sewell and the Arizona Highways TV crew, and the magazine's staff. From the master list, restaurants were checked out and the 25 finalists were chosen.
Here's a quick look at Flagstaff's winners.
An always-changing menu, great location and sophisticated yet casual and friendly atmosphere are what earned 3 1/2-year-old Cuvee 928 a spot on the Arizona Highways list, co-owner Jennifer Smith said.
"Our chef comes up with different specials every day for lunch and dinner," she said.
Among them are the chef's macaroni and cheese creations -- such as jalapeno-bacon and shrimp Creole -- that are dished up on Thursday and Saturday nights.
That's just the Thursday and Saturday special. "Every day of the week, there's something going on," Smith said.
Mondays, diners can get the restaurant's legendary beef brisket sandwich and a beer for $10. On Tuesdays, wines by the glass are just $6 all day. Wednesdays feature a wine tasting (four wines and light appetizers) for $20.
Cuvee 928 also offers wines by the glass or bottle. Twenty-five varieties are sold by the glass, with more than 300 bottles to choose from. Most are domestic wines people are familiar with, but some come from France and Italy, she said.
The restaurant's location, right in Heritage Square, is another plus. It's a great place for people-watching, Smith said.
Diners aren't the only watchful ones, though. Cuvee 928's small staff prides itself on getting to know its customers.
"When you walk through the door, we know your name," Smith said. "We try to be as accommodating as possible."
NEW JERSEY PIZZA CO.
New Jersey Pizza Co. has been a Flagstaff fixture for nearly 12 years, first in the building that now houses Pizza By George and later at 2224 E. Cedar Ave., across from the Salvation Army.
It serves up pizza, salads, seasonal specialties and a rotating selection of desserts, said Marco Agostini, who co-owns the restaurant with Seth Sharkey.
The focus is on using locally grown, organic ingredients as much as possible, including organic meats and produce from around Arizona. Ingredients that aren't from around here are made in a similar manner, such as the Maytag blue cheese from Iowa and cheese from Cabot Farms in Vermont, Agostini said.
But the ingredients are only half of what makes New Jersey Pizza Co.'s pizza so special.
"We're never satisfied with the way things are," Agostini said. "We're always looking to learn and grow."
Whether it's watching Food Network and PBS cooking shows or reading the pages of culinary books (Alice Waters is a big inspiration, he said), "there's always a way to learn."
And learn they have. Agostini has attended the Culinary Institute of America in Napa, Calif., among other cooking schools. Both he and Sharkey, who has also attended culinary school, are graduates of NAU.
At least one writer puts New Jersey Pizza Co. in some very elite company, comparing its pizzas to those of Chris Bianco. Bianco's Pizzeria Bianco, in Phoenix, was named best pizza in American in a 2005 book called "Slice of Heaven" and also has been lauded by the Food Network, New York Times and Gourmet and Martha Stewart Living magazines.
Agostini says the restaurant owes a debt of gratitude to NAU's Gary Nabhan and Bob McClendan in Peoria, who provides a lot of the produce.
"They're an integral part of the process," he said. "When you have good ingredients to start with, you've got a really good foundation. It's much, much easier."
"American comfort food redefined" is the catchphrase at Tinderbox Kitchen, where chef Scott Heinonen does practically everything in-house.
"It's what sets us apart," said Kevin Heinonen, who co-owns the restaurant with Chef Scott. They're cousins.
Heinonen said they were flattered to have been selected for the cover.
"We're pretty excited," he said.
The magazine's staff got a taste of Tinderbox Kitchen last summer. In town for Passport to Flagstaff, they had a reception at Tinderbox. "It was a great time," Heinonen said.
Chef Scott changes the restaurant's menu daily, making every day a new dining adventure, Heinonen said. Daily menus can be found online at www.tinderboxkitchen.com. "You can try something new every day."
The menu varies according to the time of year and availability of ingredients. Among winter offerings are soups, stews and buffalo pot roast, what Heinonen characterized as "cold-weather comfort foods."
One recurring item is the jalapeno macaroni and cheese with duck leg confit. Another customer favorite is barbecued pork belly, served over blue cheese grits.
The Arizona Highways article mentioned the restaurant's smoked salmon deviled eggs.
No matter what's on the menu, Tinderbox Kitchen has one goal.
"Our goal is to get a superior product on your plate," Heinonen said.
There may not be agreement on the name -- the restaurant is known variously as MartAnne's Burrito Palace, Mart-Anne's Cafe and just plain MartAnne's -- but everyone agrees that the food is fantastic.
Online reviews call it the "best hole-in-the-wall restaurant you may ever eat in," "best green chile in Flagstaff," "the best Mexican breakfast I've ever had" and "best place to get breakfast in Flagstaff."
"We were thrilled" to make the magazine's list, owner Anne Martinez said.
She has owned the restaurant, which Daily Sun readers voted "best hole-in-the-wall restaurant," for nine years.
It's best known for its breakfasts. Martinez's daughter, Tina, who works there, said the most popular is the chilaquiles -- scrambled eggs, corn tortillas, red or green enchilada sauce, cheese and onions. The menu includes vegetarian and vegan options and portions are huge.
The fun, funky decor is noteworthy, too. The brightly colored walls are painted with murals by Flagstaff artist Emma Gardner, whose skeleton-themed works also hang throughout the restaurant.
MartAnne's is almost always packed and there's limited seating, so be prepared to wait for a table. It opens at 8:30 a.m. and stays open until the food runs out, closing at 1 p.m. at the latest.