Since its inception in 1991, the James Beard Foundation has recognized the best of American food and beverage with the annual James Beard Awards. Often referred to as “the Oscars of the food world,” the awards honor chefs, restaurants, restaurateurs, bars, beverage producers and more — and Greater Phoenix is the proud home to more than a handful of nominees, semifinalists and winners.
Here you'll find a variety of dining concepts to explore, including both original award winners and new ventures by decorated chefs.
Editor's Note: The James Beard Foundation announced that, after taking an award hiatus in 2020 and 2021, “the next evolution” of the James Beard Awards will take place in 2022. The following reflects a sampling of past awards.
Best Chef: Southwest
In 2020, the foundation's Best Chef: Southwest award category was redrawn to encompasses all of Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Oklahoma (though in previous years, it has included Texas, Colorado and Utah).
Here are the winners that have put Greater Phoenix on the map.
In 2019, chef Charleen Badman of FnB restaurant in Scottsdale took home one of the night’s biggest prizes, the Best Chef: Southwest award. Badmans’ vegetable-centric restaurant and menu of local, seasonal produce helped her earn the title over chefs from Texas and Colorado, a feat an Arizona chef hadn’t accomplished in more than a decade.
In 2002, chef Nobuo Fukuda opened Sea Saw, a (now closed) Japanese tapas bar that would earn him a Best Chef: Southwest Award just five years later. He went on to helm Nobuo at Teeter House in downtown Phoenix’s Heritage Square for more than a decade.
Other Best Chef: Southwest winners include Chris Bianco, who won the award in 2003 for his world-famous restaurant Pizzeria Bianco and Roaring Fork chef Robert McGrath in 2001.
In 1998, while cooking at Mary Elaine’s at The Phoenician resort, chef Alessandro (Alex) Stratta also won the Best Chef: Southwest award. He went on to open several concepts in Las Vegas, star on “Iron Chef America” and earn two Michelin Stars before returning to Scottsdale. In June 2021, he opened Campo Italian Bistro & Bar with chef Jeremy Pacheco.
Christopher Gross also received the award in 1995 for his French restaurant Christopher’s. The fine-dining destination left its original location at the Biltmore Fashion Park, only to reopen in early 2021 at the Wrigley Mansion's glass-enclosed space with sweeping views of Camelback Mountain.
Rewind a little further back to when some of Greater Phoenix’s most time-honored chefs took home this award. The list includes chef Vincent Guerithault who, in 1993, earned the recognition for his namesake Southwest-influenced French restaurant Vincent on Camelback, which remains open today.
Phoenix-based restaurateur Sam Fox has been named a semifinalist for the Outstanding Restaurateur award more than 10 times for his work on such concepts as North Italia, Culinary Dropout, Blanco Tacos + Tequila and more. The restaurateur sold his Fox Restaurant Concepts in 2019.
Best New Restaurant of the Year
In addition to chef awards, the James Beard Foundation names one American restaurant the Best New Restaurant of the Year, a recognition for which at least four Greater Phoenix restaurants have been considered.
In 2019, modern Latin restaurant Vecina made the list of semifinalists after wowing diners with dishes including white bean puree with crispy short rib and hiramasa ceviche, featuring grilled pineapple and coconut leche de tigre.
The foundation named chef Gio Osso’s Mediterranean-influenced Virtù Honest Craft a semifinalist for the award in 2014, as well as chef Shinji Kurita’s ShinBay, now open in Old Town Scottsdale, in 2012, and chef Aaron Chamberlin’s St. Francis in 2010. Chamberlin sold St. Francis in 2018, though diners can find his influence in downtown Phoenix's Taco Chelo, a collaboration with chef Suny Santana and artist Gennaro Garcia.
The foundation also names restaurants as America’s Classics every year, an award which recognizes restaurants for being timeless and beloved regional eateries. Phoenix’s America’s Classics winners include The Fry Bread House (2012), a family-owned restaurant serving sweet and savory Native American fry bread, and El Chorro Lodge (2015), a Paradise Valley restaurant with a sprawling patio and stunning views of the surrounding Sonoran Desert.
And although not an award, The Breadfruit & Rum Bar in downtown Phoenix earns some Beard Foundation cred: Chef Danielle Leoni’s Jamaican restaurant serves sustainable seafood as a part of the foundation’s Smart Catch program. And, in 2019, Leoni caught her first spot on the awards' list of semifinalists.
The 2020 list of semifinalists included 18 Greater Phoenix establishments and 13 chefs who call this city home:
Best Chef — Southwest (AZ, NM, NV, OK)
- Stephen Jones of The Larder + The Delta, Phoenix
- Bernie Kantak of Citizen Public House, Scottsdale
- Shinji Kurita of ShinBay Omakase Room, Scottsdale
- Danielle Leoni of The Breadfruit & Rum Bar, Phoenix
- Chrysa Robertson of Rancho Pinot, Scottsdale
- Silvana Salcido Esparza of Barrio Café Gran Reserva (now closed), Phoenix
- Samantha Sanz of Talavera, Scottsdale
- Ryan Swanson of Kai Restaurant, Phoenix
Best New Restaurant
- Vecina, Phoenix
Outstanding Bar Program
- Little Rituals, Phoenix
- Kai Restaurant, Phoenix
Outstanding Pastry Chef
- Country Velador, Super Chunk Sweets & Treats, Scottsdale
- Pizzeria Bianco, Phoenix
- Mike Mastro and Jeff Mastro, Prime Steak Concepts, Scottsdale (Dominick’s Steakhouse, Steak 44, Ocean 44)
Outstanding Wine Program
- FnB, Scottsdale
Rising Star Chef of the Year
- Cassie Shortino, Tratto, Phoenix