Escargots of Burgundy at Wally's Desert Turtle in Rancho Mirage.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY NATE ABBOTT
When taking that first step down into the sunken main dining room at Wally’s Desert Turtle, there’s a sense of both nostalgia and elation. Nostalgia because the atmosphere (and menu) have mostly remained unchanged in the 43 years since Wally Botello founded the French-tinged restaurant in 1978. And elation because you’re about to embark on Rancho Mirage’s finest dining experience.
Once seated, diners are enveloped — top to bottom, in that order — by an eclectic fantasia dreamed up by designers Steve Chase and Randy Patton, including a towering coffered ceiling punctuated with mirror, lavish Peruvian candelabras, etched glass panels, an atrium bursting with light and greenery, exotic hand-painted murals of desertscapes, and nightly live music wafting through it all.
They don’t make restaurants like this anymore. It’s no wonder that Wally’s attracted luminaries like Bob and Dolores Hope, Frank Sinatra, President Gerald and Betty Ford, Carol Channing, and Tom Hanks over years. It’s an undeniable classic — one of those places where the regulars will take notice of the slightest change.
Golden Osetra caviar.
Pan-roasted Greater Omaha filet of beef, and raspberry soufflé.
The menu, currently overseen by executive chef Pascal Lallemand, features such dishes as Dover sole, filet of beef, roasted chicken, and escargot. (If you needed further proof Wally’s is a total throwback, look no further than the calf’s liver.) The signature dessert is a Grand Marnier soufflé, which must be ordered in advance. Is it adventurous? Not really, but that’s the point.
Wally’s is also a delight because it’s a family affair. Wally’s son Michael and his wife, Nicole, have operated the restaurant full time after Wally’s death. They recently passed the torch to their daughter Madalyn. During the pandemic, the Botellos smartly offered a luxurious take-out service and transformed one of the dining rooms into an outdoor patio.
If desert tortoises live well over 50 years, there’s no reason Wally’s can’t make it to that age, too. wallysdesertturtle.com
Winners Voted by Our Readers
For more than 20 years, Austrian-born chef Johannes Bachner has delighted Palm Springs diners with whimsical approaches to European fare, such as a shrimp cocktail with his secret sauce, meatballs in a fragrant yellow curry, and an “ultimate cheese” spätzeln. Save room for his mother’s apple strudel. johannespalmsprings.com
When craving well-done Italian cuisine without a Palm Springs or El Paseo price tag, Trilussa is at the ready with sexy salads (romaine wedge, caprese), classics pastas (lasagna Bolognese, spaghetti and meatballs), and not-to-be-missed desserts (bomba, tiramisu). trilussarestaurant.com
Named after owners June and Jay Trubee’s daughter, Jillian’s is a romantic haven housed in a historic 1940s hacienda. The menu is populated with classic dishes like Scottish salmon wrapped in parchment and rack of Colorado lamb. The al fresco center courtyard is always popular, and the intimate interior dining rooms are equally adorable. jilliansfinedining.com
Vicky’s of Santa Fe
Inside an adobe-style building with tile floors, wood-plank ceilings, and copper lamps is a prime venue for enjoying glasses of wine, craft cocktails, and dinners of chops, steaks, seafood, and pasta. Several nights a week, family-owned Vicky’s transforms into a supper club with live entertainment. vickysofsantafe.com
An essential dining experience in La Quinta, Lavender Bistro serves new American dishes — wild mushroom soup, pistachio-crusted rack of lamb, raspberry mousse tulip, to name a few — with French twists. The twinkling lights-filled patio was built with amore in mind. lavenderbistro.com
Above the bustling casino floor at Fantasy Springs Resort Casino, beyond a set of Craftsmen-style double doors, this cozy steakhouse features a menu made up of much more than T-bones and porterhouses. There’s sea bass glazed in miso and sake, meatloaf constructed with Kobe beef, and Long Island duck crisped to perfection. fantasyspringsresort.com