Father and sons Mario, Matthew, and Peter Del Guidice of Mario’s Italian Café.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY BRANDON HARMAN
There’s a theory in business known as the Lindy Effect, which goes like this: The life expectancy of a technology or idea is proportional to its age. In other words, the longer it has been around, the longer it’s likely to last.
Patrick Service invokes this in regard to Las Casuelas Terraza, part of his family’s local chain of restaurants. Service in 2011 took over the then-44-year-old establishment, working alongside his mother, Patricia Delgado Service, who had taken it over from her parents.
“If you can isolate out and distill down what has led something to be successful for a long period of time, and if you leave that unchanged,” Patrick says, “then you can easily — well, maybe not easily — go another 40 years.” The fact that Service, 39, attended business school at USC and went on to earn a master’s degree in hospitality management at Cornell University certainly doesn’t hurt the trajectory.
From left: Patricia Delgado Service, Alana Coffin, Andres Delgado, Patrick Service, Bennett Service (in his arms), Nicolas Delgado, Daniel Delgado, and Lilliana Delgado in front of portraits of the Las Casuelas founders, Florencio and Maria Farjado Delgado.
At Las Casuelas, the “it” factor is most assuredly Abuelita’s recipes. The menu of classic dishes from Sinaloa, Mexico, still centers around the pre-Depression-era recipes of Patricia’s grandmother. (In addition to Terraza, the chain includes the original Las Casuelas location in downtown Palm Springs, which opened in 1958, and branches in Rancho Mirage and Palm Desert; most are now operated by grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the founders, Florencio and Maria Fajardo Delgado.)
“To me, this food tastes the same as it did when I was a child,” says Patricia, 76. “Food is something people remember, and they want the same certain things. They want what they first experienced.”
It’s true that nostalgia is high-value currency in Greater Palm Springs. Take it from Vincent Costa, the owner and head chef of Johnny Costa’s Ristorante, which was started in 1976 by his father, a native of Naples, Italy. Johnny Costa made his name in the desert cooking for Frank Sinatra; legend has it that the crooner would not eat linguini with clam sauce prepared by anybody else.
From left: Sal Iliano, Nick Costa, Tony Costa, Vince Costa, John Costa Jr., and Chip Iliano of Johnny Costa’s Ristorante in Palm Springs.
A family-size serving of Johnny Costa’s spaghetti and homemade meatballs with garlic bread.
“People always wanted to talk to him because he was chef to Sinatra,” says Vincent, 60, who notes that his dad’s celebrity connections — along with a consistency in food and service — have helped to keep the restaurant going, even amid family squabbles, the pandemic, and other challenges.
Old-school hospitality is also the driver at Mario’s Italian Cafés, a desert institution with six locations across the Coachella Valley. Founder Mario Del Guidice, 81, remains at the helm of an operation that includes sons Peter and Matthew, as well as daughters-in-law, grandchildren, and nephews. “We serve the largest glass of wine in the valley for five bucks,” Mario says. “I have served that glass of wine since 1972. I’ve never changed the price.”
Longevity has everything to do with people, according to siblings Sam and Janet Harris, the owners of Sherman’s Deli & Bakery. Their late father, Sherman, opened shop in 1963, a decade after moving the family to Palm Springs from Wisconsin.
“It’s about taking care of your staff, treating ’em like family, not like a number. And that’s how our father was. Everybody was treated as an individual,” says Sam, 64, who runs the Palm Springs location. “We followed the same tradition. There’s really nothing that we wouldn’t do for our staff, within reason. And, you know, that’s why we have people that have been with us for over 20 years.”
Originally opened in 1963, Sherman’s Deli & Bakery now has two locations in the Coachella Valley operated by Sherman’s children, Sam and Janet Harris. Sam runs the Palm Springs location (seen here), and Janet helms the Palm Desert outpost.
It’s not just the staff — the clientele have been dining at Sherman’s for generations.
“We have children and grandchildren that are coming in,” says Janet, 73, who runs Sherman’s in Palm Desert. “And so we keep that legacy going as our customers keep coming in and being here with us and their family. Anybody that walks in the door is part of us, and that’s how we treat them.”
Other long-standing restaurants, meanwhile, are trying to shake certain associations to the past. Wally’s Desert Turtle, started by Wally Botello, has been a fine-dining destination in Rancho Mirage for decades, lauded for its classical French cuisine. After Wally’s death in 1985, the restaurant passed to his son Michael and, most recently, to Michael’s daughter Maddy Botello, 28.
Father and daughter Michael and Maddy Botello of Wally's Desert Turtle.
Wally's Cape Cod scallops served with scorched corn and tomato relish.
“You know, when my dad first started, he catered to the country-club crowd,” Michael says. “You needed a jacket to be here.” With the arrival of major hotels to the region, Wally’s Desert Turtle stepped back that restriction and other formalities, striving to be accessible to a potential new customer base of tourists. “But it’s amazing how it still held,” he notes. “People call all the time: ‘Do I need a jacket?’ You cannot shake that reputation.”
These days, Wally’s is “moving away from [being] a very fancy restaurant,” Maddy says. “Our focus is trying to get the conversation out that we are continuing to evolve, and we are a place for everyone. There’s something for everyone here.” Despite loosening the dress code, the formal service standards — and the popular soufflés — that Wally originated remain.
Vegetable salad with baked tofu at Wally's.
“NOTHING IS A LINE,” Logan Roy tells his power-hungry daughter, Shiv, who is desperate to take over his empire, in the HBO series Succession. “Everything, everywhere, is always moving. Forever. Get used to it.”
While the Roys are not necessarily the model of effective succession planning, the truth remains that no business should be set in stone. Some degree of change is inevitable — and necessary — even for a family operation that has thrived for decades.
At Mario’s, the grandchildren have put their stamp on the menu in the form of gluten-free pastas, vegan sausages, and other healthier spins on Italian home cooking. Such breaks from tradition are arrived at democratically.
“We meet at my son’s house. He has the big house; it seats 24 people,” Mario says. “We have breakfast and a two-hour meeting, and then we all vote which way we’re going to go. It’s very important that my family is 100 percent behind what I do, because that’s my strength. I respect their thoughts and their ideas as well as my own.”
The French dip is a favorite at Sherman's.
Dishes at Las Casuelas Terraza.
Before Patrick Service took the reins at Las Casuelas Terraza, he served as wine director at New York’s heralded Union Square Cafe. From that world of fine dining, he brought to the family business “the nuance of their philosophy, which is managing staff and emphasizing hospitality.” He also brought a spirit of innovation to the menu, branching out with the addition of black beans (not typically seen in Sinaloan cooking), more salads, tequila flights, and “better wine.”
But such tweaks are “very incremental,” he points out. “We don’t move fast or break things here — sorry, Mark Zuckerberg.” His formula centers around keeping 75 percent of the menu as it has always been while tinkering with the rest: “We very carefully pick what’s going to be not necessarily as timeless as the 75 percent, but something with a few years’ staying power.”
Founder Wally Botello’s son, Michael, who took the reins in the 1980s, recently passed the torch to his daughter Maddy, who is modernizing the Wally’s Desert Turtle experience.
At Wally’s Desert Turtle, the pandemic was a catalyst for change. Michael Botello had put the business up for sale when daughter Maddy decided to return to the desert from Washington, D.C., where COVID-19 had put her management career with the Four Seasons on hold. She hadn’t intended to take over the family restaurant — which was what had inspired her to go into hospitality in the first place — but when the opportunity arose, she decided “it would be the best course for my future.”
Initially, Maddy organized meals for high-risk seniors. After lockdowns lifted, she turned her attention to putting the “core values” she learned at the Four Seasons — a “higher level of service” — to work for the Wally’s clientele.
“It’s all about the guest experience,” she says. “It’s about creating memories that last forever. People will never forget how you made them feel. And no matter the technology and everything we have in our lives to better ourselves, a human connection goes a long way.”
Meanwhile, she says, the menu is “moving away from heavy French sauces” to “modern California cuisine,” with a focus on health, sustainability, and influences from multiple cultures. She also added a bar menu, geared toward customers who might enjoy small bites during the nightly live entertainment, and a selection of boutique wines.
Brothers and cousins, the Costas and Ilianos of Johnny Costa’s Ristorante.
“We are not the same restaurant that we were in 1978, but we have a lot of great aspects that we pull from,” Maddy says. “And we will never forget where we came from.”
Contrast that mentality with the approach at Johnny Costa’s, where “consistency is the No. 1 thing,” Vincent says. “It gives me chills when I say that.” Still, he has made an effort to streamline the menu while incorporating lighter options such as a caprese salad, grilled fish, and gluten-free pastas. He also made the decision to start buying USDA Prime meat, which bumped up prices but ensures a high level of quality.
As for consistency with the family — that is another story. Vincent started working at Johnny Costa’s “reluctantly” as a teen. (“Dad was old-school,” Vincent says. “He was like, ‘You’ll work here.’ ”) His three brothers — John Jr., Nick, and Tony — and two of their cousins work alongside him in the kitchen or in managing the restaurant. But Vincent’s kids “want nothing to do with” the business. “So I’m thinking it might be the last of the generations.”
Without exception, the multigenerational restaurateurs in the Coachella Valley attribute their staying power to community engagement. They hold regular fundraisers for local schools and other causes, and many serve on the boards of regional philanthropic groups. They express gratitude for the loyalty of their customers and staff and the support of fellow businesspeople.
“We still think of ourselves as a small town,” Sam Harris of Sherman’s says. “Everybody knows everybody, and they help each other. There’s another restaurant down the street, and that’s our competition, but we’re good friends, and we’ll talk to each other about pricing.”
Janet and Sam interact with customers at Sherman's in Palm Springs.
He notes that such camaraderie has been the case from the community’s earliest days: “The parents came when there was nothing here, and they needed each other to make it work.”
In all these families, the children begin coming into the restaurant at an early age, washing dishes, rolling silverware, bussing tables — perhaps before it’s strictly legal for them to do so. Some ultimately decide that such work is not for them. Those who stay see themselves as custodians of the family legacy, working alongside the older generation until the time comes to take stewardship. It’s often a soft transition, with elders hesitant to step back completely. Maddy says she’s happy to be able to bounce ideas for Wally’s Desert Turtle off her dad, and Patrick jokes that his mom calls Las Casuelas Terraza “every day.”
Mario, meanwhile, takes pride in retaining an active role at his empire. “The kids try to slow me down. But if I sat in the house, I would waste away, and I would not have the feeling I have in my chest doing everything I do in the community and for my customers,” he says. “I love my people, I love my community, and I love my American flag.”
What do you recommend?
Restaurants with staying power can often attribute their success to a singular, in-demand dish. Here, the top-selling menu items at these stalwart eateries.
Johnny Costa’s Ristorante
Chicken parmigiana, lightly breaded and topped with fresh mozzarella and marinara. “One lady came in, and she goes, ‘I always judge a restaurant by the chicken parm. If that didn’t make it, I would never come back. You have a new regular.’ ”
Las Casuelas Terraza
Combo plate with chicken taco, cheese enchilada, and ground-beef tostada, served with rice and beans. “We have it on the menu as ‘Numero Uno.’ Sixty-five years ago, it was the same but it was a No. 5. People that’ve been with us for a long time still call it No. 5.”
Mario’s Italian Cafés
Baked lasagna. “My lasagna has layers of lean ground beef. It has layers of cheese. It has the ricotta cheese from New York — I don’t use a local cheese — and it’s a full cream. The magic inside my lasagna is my homemade sausage. I make my own sausage, and every other layer gets the sausage in it. There’s so many different flavors in there, it’s outstanding.”
Sherman’s Deli & Bakery
Grilled Reuben. (Close second: French dip.) “It’s made with our fresh-baked rye bread, fresh sauerkraut, our pastrami we get out of New York. It’s a real traditional sandwich. A deli without a Reuben? They’d look at you like you’re crazy.”
Wally’s Desert Turtle
Sautéed imported Dover sole, prepared amandine or meunière, with seasonal vegetables and mashed potatoes. “People want to come to their favorite place and not see the Dover sole taken off the menu. It would be a problem. People come year after year for the Dover sole.”