The Legends of Fine Dining
Tradition and vision transcend the time-tested and cutting-edge recipes at many of the best Coachella Valley restaurants.
Wally's Desert Turtle
Photography by Arthur Coleman
What is a legend and how do you become one? Our desert has many: famous people, pioneers, cultural lore, and the area’s world-class accommodations, entertainment, golf, tennis, and — the tastiest of all — restaurants. It’s a tough business. Palm Springs Life has seen restaurants come and go. Here we salute some that have gained legendary status. Quality and excellent service make them enduring stars in the desert culinary scene. Here’s to another 50 years of fine dining!
Wally’s Desert Turtle
Built in 1978 by Wally Botello, the founder of the famed Velvet Turtle chain, Wally’s Desert Turtle is now owned and operated by his son Michael, who carries on the sophisticated ambiance envisioned by his father. Michael, host of one of the desert’s most awarded restaurants, attributes its longevity and popularity to quality, consistency, and service. He credits his longtime staff for developing genuine relationships with his clientele. Hostess Yvonne Scott and General Manager Arthur Chardin have been at Wally’s for nearly 20 years. Jean-Louis Jalouneix created the French/continental cuisine for many years prior to Pascal Lallemand’s arrival.
From Burgundy Escargots Chablisienne to a Grand Marnier Soufflé, every course — accompanied by the finest wines — is a delight. Private parties and special occasions are all part of the Wally’s experience. And the excellent catering staff delivers to your home or a venue of your choice.
Melvyn's at the Ingleside Inn
Tucked away in the gardens of The Ingleside Inn — the legendary, 80-year-old hotel — is Melvyn’s Restaurant, presided over by Mel Haber, the genial host and raconteur who came to Palm Springs more than 30 years ago, preserved this historic site, and made his own legends. This elegant and upbeat restaurant has a menu of fine continental cuisine and two world-class wine cellars serving four distinct dining rooms. It has been frequented by countless celebrities over the years, and their pictures line the walls.
But Melvyn’s is more than a place for the over-60 crowd to spot celebrities. A younger, hipper crowd comes to experience the aura of old Palm Springs.
Haber credits the success of his restaurant to affordable elegance, classic cuisine, and the longevity of his staff. Maître d’Hotel Brian Ellis and his floor captain, Bobby Bolduc, have been at Melvyn’s for 33 years. And Haber has never closed a day in those 33 years.
The Casablanca Lounge, with its restored 1895 carved oak and mahogany bar, entertains with live music and dancing every night and lively Sunday afternoon jam sessions with guest musicians.
Named “One of Ten Best” by the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous television show, Melvyn’s and The Ingleside Inn continue to lure A-list guests and the people who love to see them.
Las Casuelas —The Original
Joining Palm Springs Life in celebrating its 50th anniversary, the original Las Casuelas opened in 1958 on North Palm Canyon Drive. Florencio “Del” and Maria “Mary” Delgado created a local favorite. Today, daughter Florence supervises the preparation of the family recipes, and her daughter, Alana, assists at this bustling restaurant. Las Casuelas was built on the love and hard work of its founders, and they instilled their ethics in their children, who all worked in the restaurant.
Local customers prevail here, lending the restaurant an aura of familiarity. Chef Pablo Herrera has been at Las Casuelas for 23 years, Captain Jose Mesa for 15 years, and Olinda from Peru for 30 years. Their consistent service factors immensely in the restaurant’s success.
Delgado restaurants throughout the Coachella Valley exude a family tradition — each location owned by a family member and serving recipes handed down by their grandmother, Maria Tagle, as well as their own innovations. Son Joachim and his wife, Sharon, opened Las Casuelas Nuevas in Rancho Mirage in 1973; daughter Patty and her husband, Ric, opened Las Casuelas Terraza in downtown Palm Springs in 1979; son Robert and his wife, Lisa, opened Las Casuelas Quinta in La Quinta in 2003.
Each restaurant has its own personality with excellent food, entertainment, lively bars, and loyal clientele; but the sentimental favorite is still the intimate little restaurant lovingly created by the late Del and Mary Delgado.
Kaiser and son Lee Morcus opened Kaiser Grille in Palm Desert in 1992 and moved the restaurant in 1998 to downtown Palm Springs, where it has become a place to see and be seen on bustling Palm Canyon Drive. The restaurant serves an extensive, affordable American/Californian/Mediterranean menu using grain-fed certified Angus beef. Steaks are aged on premises and hand-cut daily, and fresh fish is hand-filleted. Locally grown produce ensures the fresh quality on all menu items — from thin-crust pizza and cheddar cheese foccacia from the wood-burning ovens to Peppercorn-Crusted Rare Ahi Tuna.
Lee attributes the restaurant’s success to a sharp team that pays attention to every detail. Chef Jose Jimenez started 18 years ago as a cook at the original Kaiser Grille and now is in charge of the busy exhibition kitchen. Lee’s hands-on leadership reflects boldly in the diversity and personality of the restaurant. In fact, his drive resulted in four other restaurants in the Kaiser Family of Restaurants.
In 2000, the Morcuses purchased Hog’s Breath Inn in Carmel from Clint Eastwood, launched Chop House in Palm Springs in 2001 and Chop House in Palm Desert in 2003, and opened a second Hog’s Breath Inn in Old Town La Quinta in 2004. The Kaiser group also offers catering off-site and at their Top of the Chop private dining venue in downtown Palm Springs.
Paul Bruggemans, owner and host of Le Vallauris, previously co-owned the famed Le St. Germain in Los Angeles. In 1973, he and partner Camille Bardet came to Palm Springs to open a restaurant. They fell in love with the Robertson house, built in 1924 by the son of Palm Springs pioneer Nellie Coffman. In 1974, Le Vallauris emerged with great care taken to preserve its original layout and the glamorous reputation of Coffman’s nearby Desert Inn where politicians, Hollywood elite, industrialists, and socialites partied. Le Vallauris caters to new generations of similar clientele, as well as locals. Le St. Germain in Los Angeles closed in 1988 and reopened in Indian Wells in 1995 to rave reviews.
The elegant French/Mediterranean cuisine created by Chef Jean Paul Lair is a high point of the restaurant, which also caters privately. Bruggemans points out other attributes: impeccable upholstery, posh décor, and a terrace abundant with fresh flowers and the scene of luncheons, receptions, and special dinners.
Bruggemans emphasizes that the fidelity of his staff and the renewal of his clientele — along with consistently excellent food, service, and ambiance — make it run like a well-oiled machine, captained by a charming host. He is there for lunch and dinner most days, mingling with diners and watching for superb quality.
LG’s Prime Steakhouse
Palm Desert, Palm Springs, and La Quinta
LG’s was the first prime steakhouse in the desert when it opened in 1991 in Palm Desert to rave reviews. Located in a Southwest-inspired building (circa 1948), the structure was once home to the original Desert Magazine. Serving outstanding food with the finest available ingredients, LG’s steaks are 100 percent USDA prime, hand-trimmed, never frozen, and dry-aged on premises. Owners Leon and Gail Greenberg preside over every detail to ensure that quality and service exceed expectations. They have received numerous awards over the years, including Tom Horan’s Top Ten List and the Zagat Survey’s rating of “Best Steak in Town.”
The popularity of the Palm Desert location inspired additional locations in Palm Springs (1997) and La Quinta (2002). The menu, under the keen eye of Executive Chef Maura (Moe) Tello, is the same in all locations. LG’s knowledgeable staffs are well versed in the intricacies of the menu and the wine list. Waiter Dennis has been with the Greenbergs since 1991; many regular clients reserve seating in his territory. This is true of many servers who have developed relationships with guests. Joe, the waiter in LG’s commercials, has his own cult following. Guests always tell LG how much they enjoy his commercial.
These are family restaurants, and LG and Gail — proud local owners with a well-earned national reputation — visit all three on a regular basis to chat with diners.
Lyons English Grille
Serving fine English food with a continental flair since 1945, this atmospheric, family-owned-and-operated restaurant has maintained the high standards set by David Lyons, whose longtime staff — especially Chef Arturo Nool — serves with quality and consistency. Host Jeffrey Lyons welcomes everyone and mingles with guests throughout the several dining rooms.
The aura of a 19th century London inn is replete with colorful coats of arms, old Toby mugs, Royal Doulton tankards in the bar, and rows of hanging medieval banners. Leaded-glass windows in the foyer show both scenes from the raucous reign of Henry VIII and the more somber Houses of Parliament. The Lyons brothers, David and the late Arthur, brought recipes for steak and kidney pie and the classic tryfle from their family’s home in Lancashire, England; the dishes are still served in traditional style. Dining at Lyons is a step back in the history of serving hearty fare to royalty for centuries.
Cabaret dinner shows on Sunday in the elegant Regency Room represent the restaurant’s American touch.
For three decades, this family-owned restaurant has specialized in northern and southern Italian cuisine and has become a true benchmark for fine dining. Three generations of Riccios believe in unhurried dining, reinforced by the décor, which includes crystal chandeliers, elegant wall treatments, and discreet booths in an intimate dining room with romantic Old World charm. Every patron is important (and they serve celebrities, corporate giants, former U.S. presidents, and local movers and shakers).
Owner/Chef Danny Riccio orchestrates the menu, which also has a contemporary appeal. With selections from an international array of fresh seafood to filet mignon, double-bone veal chops, and Lobster Fra Diavolo, plus fabulous pastas and luscious desserts, guests are assured of a superb meal. Everything is made in-house, including breads, sausages, and desserts; and the stocks, made from scratch, are long-simmered and tended by hand. After dinner, many guests enjoy Riccio’s flaming coffee at the bar while enjoying piano entertainment by Larry Stephenson.
Riccio is proud of the longtime fine reputation of the restaurant and of the hard work of his family and staff for 30 years. Maître d’ Dimitri Arvanitis welcomes and prepares guests to become immersed in the art of fine dining.
Riccio’s also presents winemaker dinners that are festive and informative and offers catering in-house or at a private location.
Lord Fletcher Inn
Lord Fletcher Inn is an old-fashioned, intimate English inn with a fascinating collection of authentic art, antiques, etchings, and bric-a-brac — all selected and shipped from England by owner Ron Fletcher. A portrait of Sir Winston Churchill — the last of four painted by A. Edgerton Cooper — greets guests and reflects the intimacy and familiarity of the restaurant felt by the guests, many of whom have been dining with Fletcher since he opened the restaurant 40 years ago. Son Michael Fletcher is now the host and manager.
Each dining room has its own special appeal. Some guests opt for the lively bar with its collection of English Toby mugs. Others enjoy the main dining room or the intimate Shakespeare Room, which contains exquisite 200-year-old etchings depicting scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. The menu specialties include certified Angus Prime Rib, roasted in the time-proven manner and served with Yorkshire pudding, creamed spinach, and English rice pudding, made fresh daily and served with raspberries or cinnamon and whipped cream. After dinner, guests enjoy Lord Fletcher’s Royal Brandy Ice, an exotic ice cream drink.
Michael feels that the enduring popularity of the restaurant that launched Restaurant Row is due to its comfortable atmosphere, personalized service by employees that have worked in the business for up to 30 years, consistency of food preparation, and the continuity of a family business where longtime customers know the first generation and have watched the second grow up.
Exuding the warmth of a romantic bistro in Tuscany, Castelli’s opened in 1988. Owner Michael Castelli or his brother John warmly greet guests. Soft lighting, lace curtains, dark woods, fresh flowers, and greenery set the tone for a wonderful dinner and evening. Guests are treated like family and may be seated in the intimate enclosed patio, in the Celebrity Room (where celebrity photos line the walls), or in an elegant private dining room.
Castelli’s serves traditional family recipes, such as Fettuccine Alfredo, a house specialty served as an appetizer or an entrée. Other tantalizing menu items are Osso Buco, Baby Rack of Lamb, Filetto Marsala (a 10-ounce petite filet mignon, charbroiled, and topped with a Marsala wine sauce and portabello mushrooms), or Australian Lobster Tails. Chef Brian Altman and his kitchen staff have been with Castelli’s for many years. It’s fun to discover Altman’s seasonal specials and experience his willingness to cook exactly to preference. Desserts are decadent and best savored with a Cappuccino Romano.
Michael credits his longtime staff for caring as much as he does about customers and seeing to their every need. He is a genial host who mingles with guests and has a good time. Castelli’s also has a lively bar with piano entertainment by Joe Jaggi. And the restaurant caters privately.
Sherman’s Deli & Bakery
Palm Springs and Palm Desert
This landmark Kosher-style deli-catessen and bakery has been satisfying locals and tourists since 1953. Visiting New Yorkers and Chicagoans especially appreciate the deli-style treats served for breakfast, brunch, lunch, and dinner along with fine wines and beers. Sherman’s has so many specialty items that you could reasonably say that signature dishes such as Southern-Style Fried Chicken or Roast Brisket of Beef permeate the menu. All food — including breads, pastries, and cakes — is made fresh daily, and catering services are available to make any occasion special.
The restaurant is owned and operated by Sherman Harris, son Sam, and daughter Janet, whose attention to customers’ every craving has cultivated loyal clientele. You need only to stroll along Tahquitz Canyon Way to see diners enjoying bountiful portions on the patio — great for people-watching.
Sam Harris attributes the restaurant’s success to the longevity of staff that cares as much as he does about customer satisfaction. They make guests feel as if they are coming into their home. He feels his staff works with, not for, him — like a big family.
During the wildfires, this staff fed about 400 displaced residents of Borrego Springs — and then returned to finish their shifts at the restaurant. Sherman’s spirit encouraged them to open a second deli in Palm Desert.
More Legends in the Making
Ristorante Mamma Gina
Kobe Japanese Steak House
Midori Japanese Restaurant
Keedy’s Fountain Grill
The Red Tomato/House of Lamb