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By LA Friday, February 4, 2011

Restaurants with ambiance

Some desert establishments add unique surroundings to their menus

When Coachella Valley pioneer and hotelier George B. Roberson built his three-bedroom Mediterranean-Spanish Revival home in 1927, tucked back behind then-nearly nonexistent downtown Palm Springs, little did he know it would become one of the most celebrated restaurants in California.

Roberson and his family opened up the area’s first luxury resort, The Desert Inn, which was stituated on the current site of the Palm Springs Art Museum. But across the street from the museum, Roberson’s house still proudly stands — in the form of Le Vallauris.

With its red-tile roof and antique fireplaces, Roberson’s home is now considered a historic landmark, although remodels over the decades have transformed its interior into a classic French restaurant decorated with Flemish tapestries and Louis XV furniture.

Le Vallauris serves dishes like foie gras ravioli in cream of aged parmesan and truffle oil. The waiters all speak French and have worked here for years, lending an added air of history to the dining experience.

Such local residents as Barry Manilow can sometimes be spotted dining on the patio. Zagat gave Le Vallauris a nearly perfect score in its 2010 review.

“Le Vallauris makes my top-10 restaurant list nearly every year without fail,” said Donna Curran of Palm Springs Life Magazine.

Ambiance counts

The Palm Springs area is chock full of such restaurant wonders — places where the setting is nearly as important as the menu.

“Now most restaurants here are so savvy about décor and atmosphere,” said Curran, who has been the food editor for the last 10 of the 25 years she’s worked at the magazine. “Over the years, the local restaurant owners have all gotten to understand that ambiance is just as important as food and service.”

Take Copley’s, for instance. Located in a remodeled building built in the 1920s that was once Cary Grant’s estate, the restaurant has kept the flavor of the original Spanish architecture with its red-tile roofs, gurgling fountains and a large tile patio.

Copley’s is named after executive chef Andrew Manion Copley, who racked up a slew of awards for his menus in Australia, Hawaii and San Francisco.

He brings his history to Copley’s, serving Hawaiian ahi tacos and pan-roasted Australian barramundi fish and offering entertaining cooking classes set amid his herb gardens in the patio.

“I am passionate about the use of herbs in most all of the dishes we serve,” Copley said. “Our weather and soil does limit what can be produced locally, but many herbs grow great here and we have plans to expand the plantings to include even more varieties of seasonings.”

Hobbit house

Down valley from Palm Springs, about a half-hour south on Highway 111, you’ll find the newly opened Bananaz Tropical Grill in Rancho Mirage.

It’s located in one of the most peculiar edifices in the valley — the Wessman- Chart House. The vision of architect Kendrick Kellogg and developer John Wessman, this low-lying structure with a curved, sloping roof built into a hillside resembles a hobbit’s abode.

The restaurant is nearly all underground — something that keeps it nice and cool in the summertime. Its unique structure of such natural materials as redwood beams, limestone floors and rock, are nicely accented by low-level mood lighting, which also highlights the tropical décor of birds and trees.

The menu is also dramatically tropical, with dishes like fresh Hawaiian ahi with teriyaki buerre blanc and grilled Australian lobster tails.

Historic resort

And last but not least, one of the finest dining milieus in the region belongs to Morgan’s in the Desert, housed in a dining room at the La Quinta Resort & Club, a 1926 hotel where the likes of Clark Gable and Greta Garbo often stayed.

The hacienda-style atmosphere is as historically Californian as it gets: Ornate Spanish mosaics adorn the walls, wood beams soar overhead; a fireplace crackles in one corner; and tile floors and Mediterranean arches fill the place.

Just one year old, the restaurant is the brainchild of chef, cookbook author and James Beard-award winner Jimmy Schmidt. He employs traditional cooking methods like open grilling and slow roasting to create simple yet bold flavors.

Schmidt, a pioneer of the farm-to-table movement, uses mostly local ingredients. “A tomato harvested green in winter and shipped to its destination for ripening has about half the nutritional value of an in-season field-ripened tomato from your local farmer’s market,” Schmidt said.

If Morgan’s keeps up its reputation for extraordinary quality and flavor, the desert is sure to have one more stellar restaurant to add to its constellation of fascinating culinary stars.

— Matthew Link Custom Publishing Writer

Top photo: The patio at Le Vallauris


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