Correction to This Article
A photo caption with this article about restaurants in Palm Springs, Calif., misidentified one of the people pictured. The woman dining with Vin Toyer is Michelle North, not Rebecca Votto.

Postcard from Tom: Cheeky's, Copley's, Tyler's offer great food in Palm Springs

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By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 22, 2009

Starting with the weather -- 354 days of sunshine -- Palm Springs has much to recommend it. If you like to swing a golf club, or if mid-century modern design is an interest, this desert city of just over 42,000 people merits a spot on your travel to-do list.

And if you care about matters of the table?

"I can tell you where to shop," says my friend the food editor in Los Angeles, sidestepping the question.

A discerning dining critic from the Midwest who visits his father in Palm Springs every winter put it more bluntly in an e-mail: "It has always been the great Palm Springs mystery: With all the gays, and all the money, floating around PS, why do the restaurants suck?" Before I jetted out earlier this month, he warned, "The pickings are slim. That's being kind."

He's right. The menus in even some of the toniest places read as if they were written a decade ago, and they give diners little sense of what part of the country they're eating in. (Do you really want to eat bouillabaisse surrounded by sand?) Still, I relish a challenge. During a three-day trip to Palm Springs, I decided that I wouldn't leave without coming up with at least three good dining suggestions.

Here's what made the cut, and where I'll be sending the naysayers:

* * *

On the surface, there's no reason to think that Tara Lazar makes the best breakfast, and possibly the most interesting lunch, in Palm Springs. She never went to cooking school, and she says that as a student at the University of California at Berkeley, her focus was "political economics of industrial societies -- perfect for flipping pancakes."

Show up at Cheeky's, however, and you'll discover a blissful oasis that nails all the details. The menu informs diners that the juices are squeezed by hand, the sausages are made in-house and "scrambled eggs come custard style, if you like them more cooked, just let us know!" Cream for coffee is presented in miniature milk bottles, and waffles go savory rather than sweet: They're flavored with pumpernickel and decorated with smoked salmon. Green chile pork stew is a heartier eye-opener, framed as it is with a fried egg, warm tortillas and mellow Peruano beans. The dish is a throwback to the several years Lazar and her family lived in Mexico when she was a child. Mexico also explains the restaurant's name. "Cheeky" was how one of Lazar's friends there referred to people in conversation.

Man's best friend is welcome, too. While the master is enjoying his mimosa, the dog gets a water bowl and a Milk-Bone biscuit. "Pets are part of breakfast" at home, explains Lazar, who owns two harriers and endeavors to put "fun, thought and love" into what she calls her favorite meal of the day.

Lazar, 32, opened Cheeky's two summers ago, after leaving a job as a stock trader in San Francisco. With the help of a friend who is a furniture designer, she transformed a former bookstore into an airy, 20-seat dining room and, this being always-sunny Palm Springs, an outdoor patio with double that number of orange acrylic chairs. From the dining room, you can hear the sizzling grill and spot the top of the petite chef's head in the semi-open kitchen. Nearby is a shelf lined with cookbooks whose authors -- Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Judy Rodgers of Zuni Cafe in San Francisco -- inspire Lazar.


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