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

By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 22, 2009; F01

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.

Breakfast is served even at lunch. (Cheeky's doesn't serve dinner.) So while you might be swooning over a salad of shaved Brussels sprouts and zucchini tossed with toasted hazelnuts, tart pomegranate seeds and lashings of pecorino, or tagliatelle swirled with anchovies, breadcrumbs and cardoons (a vegetable that resembles artichokes in flavor) in the afternoon, your neighbor might be digging into eggs or two-trends-in-one: a "flight" of five strips of artisanal bacon, including one cured right here. How Cheeky!

622 N. Palm Canyon Dr. 760-327-7595. Breakfast dishes $7-$14; salads and sandwiches $7-$11.

* * *

"Outside or in?" That's how guests are greeted at the front door of Copley's on Palm Canyon. We take a peek around the 60-seat dining room. The honey-lit interior, with its intimate bar and graceful archways, is plenty handsome. Yet like just about everyone who strolls past the fragrant garden, the burbling fountain and the fire pit that dress the grounds here, my companion and I opt for a ceiling of stars and a curtain of mountains at this romantic restaurant.

Best known as Cary Grant's one-time four-bedroom entertainment pad, the address has been home to three previous restaurants and a long-ago kindergarten that some regulars attended. (Overheard at the bar: "I used to sleep in the corner there when I was 5 years old.") For the past five years, the property has been nurtured by chef Andrew Copley, his wife and a business partner. Born and trained in Great Britain, Copley, 44, has enjoyed an eclectic career, having fed the masses on the Queen Elizabeth 2 but also the pampered set at Ritz-Carltons in Hawaii and San Francisco. "I wanted to get away from the corporate world," Copley says of his decision to settle in Palm Springs, where his in-laws had a home at the time. He also thought the city could use an upscale restaurant like the one he envisioned.

The menu is hard to read in the dark of night. Thoughtfully, Copley's keeps a small flashlight on each outdoor table and stocks the host desk with reading glasses. Less helpful is a waiter who responds to everything we order with "Good choice!"

As with a lot of kitchens, this one impresses us more with its starters than with its main courses. The chef knows that his clientele, 80 percent of them from the area, want to see tuna tartare on the menu, yet he packages the commonplace appetizer in a fresh way, splashing the dewy cubes of fish with a lime dressing and tucking them inside miniature "taco" shells made with sesame seed, miso and ginger. House-made ravioli gets a filling of roasted butternut squash flavored with honey and garlic; the silky pasta, garnished with a foamy chardonnay-butter sauce, sits on gratineed goat cheese. Both first courses are Ritz-worthy. In contrast, a juicy but bland pork chop is upstaged by its crisp, cheese-enriched polenta cake. Herbs from the garden lend lushness to one of Copley's best conclusions: lavender-infused pound cake offered with basil ice cream, the flavors in each identifiable but used with restraint so as not to overwhelm diners' taste buds.

In a later telephone exchange, the chef lets me know that he hopes to open a second restaurant, in the city where he got married 12 years ago and where his brother-in-law resides. "I've always loved Washington," he says.

621 N. Palm Canyon Dr. 760-327-9555. Dinner entrees $29-$37.

* * *

One of the strategies I use to find good food on the road: Join a line trailing outside a market or restaurant. It took 30 minutes for four of us to reach a table at Tyler's Burgers, but once we tried the signature sandwich, I understood the wait.

"I make the kind of burgers I ate growing up" in Venice, Calif., says owner Diana DiAmico. She opened her 75-seat eatery in what's called La Plaza 14 years ago, modeling the food on that of a burger joint her mother operated. DiAmico is reluctant to share her recipes, but she allows that the meat for her juicy patties is mostly chuck, never frozen and ground fresh each day. "Nothing fancy" dresses the burgers, she says. "No mushrooms, no avocados." Partnered with a nice soft bun, the beef picks up most of its flavor from the grill, because not even salt or pepper are used to season it.

Most of the establishment's seats are al fresco. Inside, a small counter gives occupants a close-up view of staff hustling to make and move meals. A chalkboard menu and a squeaky screen door give Tyler's a homey touch. So does the banter. "You're not in a hurry, are you?" asks a harried but genial server. A question from a diner about what kind of white wine is poured is met with straightforward charm: "House." In other incarnations, Tyler's was, among other things, a bus depot and a gas station; street and highway signs, rethought by a metal artist, now draw eyes to the eatery's ceiling.

Burgers are the draw here, but there are other paths to pleasure, including snappy hot dogs cradled with sauerkraut in their buns and an inches-thick sandwich packed with soothing egg salad. Almost everything -- the sauces, the soups, the creamy coleslaw -- is made fresh. An exception: the golden but ordinary french fries.

Is there ever a lull in the action? DiAmico tips us off that the best time to refuel at Tyler's is early and late, between 11 and noon and again between 3 and 4 p.m.

149 S. Indian Canyon Dr. 760-325-2990. Sandwiches $4.25-$9.

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