READERS' PICK: Maybe it's the comfort foods available on the late-night menu; or the unpredictable music mix (representative of the club across the lobby) playing in the background. Perhaps it's the casual, young waitstaff that seems genuinely happy to serve, or the changing art on those thick, historic walls. Whatever it is, it's hip and happening without seeming trendy or intimidating. Nestled in the heart of downtown, within the realm of the Hotel Congress, The Cup Café is the place to go when you want a taste of metropolitan life. The Club Congress regulars, downtown socialites and politicos accentuate the distinctly urban environment here. So regardless of whether The Cup is half full or half empty when you arrive, it's a very cool place to contemplate.
READERS' POLL RUNNER-UP: Native Café, 3073 N. Campbell Ave. Normally we'd run screaming from a place that serves things with names like Zen Approach and Inner Balance. Sounds like we'd be subjected to jasmine incense, sitar music and lotus-sitters. Thank goodness Native Café is a café/restaurant with a little something for everyone. Debauchery is present, along with the holistic scene: consider drinks called Jungle Love and Kick Start. The ambiance follows the menu -- natural and nurturing, wild and raw, genteel and calm, colorful and quirky. Native Café occupies a space once home to another café/restaurant, but the new owners have added touches that give the place a pleasant personality. Like the food, the plants around the place are carefully appointed: Mexican primrose and purple verbena near the door, a tiny succulent garden near the entrance. A half-dozen colors of paint are utilized: terra cotta, sea blue, khaki, gold, honey and brown. Comfortable chairs covered in black leather accompany wooden and wrought-iron tables. The art is eclectic, but mostly modernistic. The music typically is Celtic, classical, New World; and the staff is kind enough to turn it down a bit when the din of the lunch crowd gets loud, without having to be asked.
MORE MANIA: They used to live in Milan and vacation in Tucson, but now they live in Tucson and vacation in Milan. Or so we've gathered from our recent visits to Caffé Milano, 47 W. Congress St. When the husband, wife and sister team who run this newly refurbished downtown café (formerly Café Renaissance) speak to each other in Italian over the din of buses on Congress Street, it transports us right to the Old World. Milano has the best espresso and lattes downtown, and their pannini sandwiches (straight from Milan in taste and substance), sidewalk tables, window seating and framed posters are downright worthy of envy. At least for one patron: After delivering a menu to a sidewalk table customer, the owner went inside and returned to find both customer and the nearest picture conspicuously absent. A quick jaunt around the block -- "Did you see a guy go by here with a picture?" -- and the picture was retrieved. We understand the temptation well, but we must implore: visit Caffé Milano often; but don't take it home with you.