Spaghetti Western at night.
PHOTO BY MARTINA ALBERTAZZI
Those collecting national park patches and posting #vanlife pics in Joshua Tree haven’t shied away from trailblazing. According to visitation data, more than 3 million visitors entered the park in 2022 — roughly the same number as the year prior — and rangers don’t expect the count to drop any time soon.
While the tourism boom has undoubtedly bolstered existing businesses, creatives hailing from Los Angeles, New York, and beyond have decided to hang around the desert a little longer. They’ve purchased their own commercial properties — transforming them into quirky desert attractions, watering holes, and chic boutiques in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s a roundup of our favorite new haunts.
A love of Sergio Leone and his ilk inspired Spaghetti Western, Morongo Valley’s bustling new restaurant and live music venue. Serving Italian-style cuisine with a kick of Southwestern spice, the saloon beckons desert dwellers and tourists to stop in for a meal with its bright-colored horse and buffalo statues, nicknamed Emilio and Bruno and painted by artist Emily Tayman.
Inside, the ambiance is cozy and cowboy-themed, with Wild West–inspired décor, dim lighting, a crackling fireplace, and a stage for live performers to play the perfect high noon soundtrack. Hailing from Rome, Italy, husband-and-wife owners Lorenzo Grassi and Jasmine Tommaso relocated from Los Angeles to bring their dream of Spaghetti Western to life.
Tommaso, a singer, and Grassi, a guitarist, wanted to blend their love of music and Italian food using fresh, local ingredients.
“We always dreamed of having a space of our own that we could have [as] an extension of our home, [where we could] host and play music,” Tommaso says.
The opening menu is simple, featuring pasta handmade locally by Sardinian pasta maker Marco Saba, who is based in Palm Springs, and scratch-made sauces incorporating produce from Temalpahk Farm in Coachella.
“We wanted to curate a small menu that reflected the different flavors that we grew up with and cater to the locals’ palates as much as possible,” Tommaso says.
One of the most beloved dishes is the Spaghetti Western itself, which is a Western twist on a traditional Amatriciana dish served in the central Italian region of Amatrice made with guanciale (salt-cured pig’s cheek), black pepper, Pecorino Romano cheese, tomato sauce, and dried chiles. Tommaso and Grassi’s version uses thick, smoked American-style bacon in place of pig’s cheek.
According to Tommaso, the American spin on authentic Italian food has already been well-received.
“We're from Italy, and [opening a restaurant in the desert] felt like the closest experience to home that we've had in a long time.”
Signage behind the bar at One Tiny Pony.
PHOTO COURTESY GOODSHUFFLE
Tiny Pony Tavern
The name “Tiny Pony” might bring to mind prancing palaminos and other equestrian-themed accents, but co-owner Alison Paris says you’ll find more cats than horses in the tavern.
The former gun shop and beauty salon packs a lot of atmosphere into its strip mall location. The Yucca Valley bar and grill has moody, grandmillenial goth–style décor with framed photos of felines and other oddities.
Together with her friend and co-owner Carmen Mello, Paris left New York and then later Los Angeles for the Mojave with a desire to improve the dining options in the desert, which Paris says were minimal when she starting visiting the area 15 years ago.
“[We] just really felt the need for more food options — places that were open seven days a week, that were open late night, and that really catered to people that were living out here rather than just tourists like some of the other bars that were only open on the weekends.”
With Mello’s background in natural wine and Paris’ desire for gourmet grub, the pair created a menu that satisfies most late-night cravings, with some healthier options that cater to vegans and vegetarians and handcrafted cocktails.
“We call it elevated bar food,” Paris says, mentioning that her favorite drink is the Pickletini, made with gin, celery shrub, and pickle juice rather than olive juice.
Along with a burger and loaded fries, guests can indulge on upscale offerings, such as cast iron scallops, steak, and toasted halloumi; play pool; and pose with friends in a photo booth. Tiny Pony has also become a hot spot for the LGBTQ+ crowd after the bar posted a pride flag in their window.
“To be able to provide a safe space in Yucca for that community and for other alternative communities has been really rewarding,” Paris says.
A spot of sun at Más o Menos.
PHOTO BY MORGAN ELLIS
Más o Menos
Halfway between Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms, partners and co-owners Melissa Mathewson and Christian Bradford found the perfect spot to open a cocktail bar and coffee shop. Más o Menos, which means “more or less” in Spanish, is just that — offering more than your average mixed drink menu but a little less than other establishments serving food from dawn to dusk.
Originally from Oklahoma, the couple was inspired while on vacation in Marfa, Texas, by the stark, mostly white adobe structures and knew they wanted to bring a similar aesthetic to the High Desert.
They found the perfect spot to move into in Joshua Tree. “It's just a beautiful building,” Bradford says, “and as soon as we pulled in, we had a vision for it.”
“Just seeing the bones and the structure of the building,” Mathewson adds, “we [realized] this is so special, and there's so much potential here.”
Mezcal margaritas, fruity palomas, and other Mexican-inspired drinks are ideal pick-me-ups on a hot afternoon, but morning visitors can get some sun on the back patio while they sip espresso and eat light bites and pastries made by L’Artisan Valley Baking Company in Thousand Palms.
Warm lighting, wood paneling, and copper ceilings add to the cozy vibe at The Copper Room.
PHOTO COURTESY THE COPPER ROOM
The Copper Room
On the tarmac of the Yucca Valley Airport, patrons can sip a Oaxacan old fashioned or a gin martini while watching the planes and taking in the desert sunset at The Copper Room, a landmark restaurant and lounge.
The tavern, which has been many things for many people since it first opened in 1957, was a hangout for Gram Parsons, who allegedly had his last drink at The Copper Room before he died in a room at the Joshua Tree Inn in 1973.
When visitors open the massive, copper-clad door to the tavern, they’re in for a blast from the past. Using period-specific décor sourced from eBay and Etsy, managing partner Jeffrey Baker says they were able to re-create The Copper Room’s iconic atmosphere. As for the menu, Baker emphasizes it was important to keep it international.
“You had people coming in from all over the world to visit this part of the country. They literally had martini parties and dancing on the runway. So it was a very cosmopolitan, international kind of flavor at that time, and we want that as well,” he says. “There's something romantic about being able to go back and bring back such a golden era, where people were sipping well-made drinks and having a good time and just enjoying life.”
The entrées are mostly Asian-inspired, including char siu pork belly and spring rolls, but you can also order a classic American cheeseburger and Lousiana shrimp. For Baker, fine-tuning the nostalgia is paramount to The Copper Room’s continued success.
“We don't look at it as ownership,” he says. “We look at it as stewardship. This is a special place that's been here for a long time and had many colorful chapters, and we're just the latest ones to try to continue that.”
Sarah Lyons (right) at her shop, Scorpion Lollipop.
PHOTO BY VICTORIA NICOLL
When she traded Orange County for the High Desert, Sara Lyons had big plans to open a bottle shop at Corner 62, a retail space built in 1945 in downtown Twentynine Palms. Lyons runs her own brand as an illustrator, muralist, and product designer, but this venture — Scorpion Lollipop — is her first brick-and-mortar. She sells everything from stickers to real scorpion lollipops made by Hotlix, a Grover Beach–based candy company specializing in crunchy bug confections.
“They cut the stinger off, so it won’t poke you or anything. It’s more about the psychological thrill of eating it,” says Lyons. “It kind of tastes like peanut butter.”
Lyons’ line of cheeky paper clips, key chains, stickers, paper goods, and scratch-off fortunes isn’t something you’d see at Hallmark.
“I make small, cute things,” she says. “I am about weirdness, whimsy, color, and fun. Some of my stuff has a little bit of edge. We keep things punk but kind of cute.”
In addition to selling desert-themed swag, Scorpion Lollipop also serves ice-cold beverages from a fridge, with a variety of local and unusual bottled brands ranging from kombuchas to sparkling water. She hopes to expand to wine and craft beer.
The creative endeavor in the desert has been rewarding.
“I’m really enjoying the small-town feel,” Lyons says.
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