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A salad at Chi Chi. (Photo: Sarah Dickenson.)

“I love fats, and I think wheat is killing us,” Tara Lazar tells me as we dive into taro-chip tostadas topped with mushrooms and kale. Her restaurant Chi Chi in Palm Springs, California, features a Mexican- and pan-Latin-inspired menu with a wellness bent. 

I had come to Palm Springs in December during the slowest time of year, those chilly two weeks after Thanksgiving and before the Christmas swing starts up. That was fine, since my main focus was to visit the otherworldly desert that surrounds the city, with the strange and spiky vegetation around Joshua Tree National Park to the north, and, to the east, the eerie, glorious stillness of the Salton Sea. Uncharacteristically, I wasn’t too concerned about where to eat. After all, I’d be staying at the Avalon, a stylish new boutique hotel owned by “It” interior designer Kelly Wearstler, with a Latin restaurant from a well-loved local chef. It sounded like an ideal food lover’s escape.

Reading about Lazar, the chef, I discovered that she and her husband, Marco Rossetti, also own Cheeky’s, the most popular breakfast joint in town, as well as Italian spot Birba, another fixture on must-eat lists. Likewise, Chi Chi, with its stylish, colorful interior and fresh, on-trend offerings, also seems poised to make the next round of hot spots. (I didn’t realize it then, but the couple had quietly rolled out a steakhouse, Mr. Lyons, last May — more on that shortly.) From what I read, it seemed as though the dining scene had grown more sophisticated in the last seven or eight years, expanding beyond the kinds of restaurants best suited for either special occasions or early-bird specials. Now it became clear that Lazar and her husband had been a driving force behind this shake-up.

Tara Lazar_credit Sarah Dickenson
Tara Lazar. (Photo: Sarah Dickenson.)

Lazar is the rare Palm Springs player who grew up in the town. After attending college in the Bay Area, she worked in finance before turning to restaurants and cheffing, two jobs in which she’s self-taught. When Lazar and Rossetti opened Cheeky’s in 2008, it really did mark a turning point. Back then, “you had casual diner food, which we still have, and it’s very good,” Lazar recalls. “And then we had fine dining, a lot of white tablecloths. No one was really doing anything in between, in price point or experience.”

Another thing no one was really doing was sourcing locally. That’s a bit shocking, since “we’re in this agriculture mecca,” Lazar points out. “We have the best tomatoes, the best corn, the best lettuces.” Despite that, “all these local farms complained about how they had trouble getting it into the market,” she says. Lazar started placing orders for Cheeky’s, and gradually, as the farm-to-table movement gained steam, other chefs followed. (Michael Beckman from Workshop Kitchen + Bar has been especially great about it, Lazar notes, as has Richard Pelz at Wally’s Desert Turtle.)  “It’s better for everyone, because it means you get more dependable deliveries,” she reflects. “It used to be they’d say, ‘Yeah, we only have one order. Do you mind if we come tomorrow?’ And I was like, ‘Ahhh, I need food!'” Nowadays, Lazar has farmers growing certain things just for her restaurants, and she also owns a stake in the chicken coop that supplies her birds and eggs.

Yet this focus on high-quality local ingredients has a flip side: It’s harder to offer the value that makes this town tick. “People are very-price sensitive,” Lazar says. “They’re retired on some kind of fixed income. There are a lot of places in town that have these prix fixe dinners for $19.” An inability to offer the prices people wanted is part of the reason Lazar closed her third restaurant, an Asian place called Jiao. “We were doing great sourced meats,” she says. “And I think price-wise, customers still wanted the same $8 lunch special. People expect Asian food to be cheap. We couldn’t get into that price point because our meats just cost so much.”

But there was another reason for closing Jiao. “You can only run so many restaurants as mom-and-pops,” Lazar says. “One day we got a really bad Yelp review. It said, ‘This is just not up to Cheeky’s standards. You can tell she’s spread too thin.’ That really got to me.” Not long after, Lazar happened to visit Food & Wine‘s website. “They were interviewing this woman in New York, and it was about how to expand into multiple locations,” she recalls. “She said, ‘Unless you don’t want kids or don’t mind washing dishes, don’t run three mom-and-pops.’ I was like, ‘I’ve got to get out of Jiao.'”

Luckily, Palm Springs is “a forgiving market,” Lazar says. That’s enabled her to learn the business as she goes, with help from Rossetti, who was working at the Four Seasons in San Francisco when the couple met. Mr. Lyons, the couple’s new steakhouse, seems to represent the next phase of their business, which is known as F10 Creative and also includes the Alcazar hotel. “I decided to trade out something smaller for something bigger,” Lazar says of closing Jiao and opening Mr. Lyons. “Something where I could have enough volume and cash flow to hire an executive chef and a manager.”

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The dining room at Mr. Lyons. (Photo: Sarah Dickenson.)

Bigger is right. Mr. Lyons is 9,000 square feet all told, including a clubby bar done in floor-to-ceiling wood, a main dining room with green velvet booths and black-and-white marble floors, and a bright white room dubbed “the conservatory” — not to mention outdoor seating. “We wanted to hit something that’s elegant and timeless, not trendy,” Lazar says.

That’s fitting, given the restaurant’s history. For years, it was Lyons English Grille, a regular hang for the mostly retired crowd living in the upscale development that surrounds it. “The old timers could have their 16-ounce martinis and then drive home with no cops,” Lazar remembers. She bought the place from Mr. Lyons himself, which took three tries. “He’s 102 years old,” she says. “We’d go to his office to sign the papers and he would say, ‘My family doesn’t want to sell.'” Eventually they did sell, and Lyons received a complete overhaul. The old customers still come in sometimes, says Lazar. “We kept a few dishes, like the chicken liver — a blend of chicken liver and foie gras. We have matzo ball soup. And we have a [beef] Wellington with puff pastry we make ourselves.”

On the night that Lazar and I meet up, she kindly shows me around the mostly dead town, despite being exhausted thanks to an infant son at home and several early-morning catering gigs that week. We stop into the Amigo Room bar at the Ace Hotel, which has maybe four customers, then scope out the Parker (the hotel’s supper club, Mister Parker’s, is reasonably full). But nothing is really hopping until we arrive at Mr. Lyons, where the lounge proves convivially crowded and a few tables still linger in the dining room around 9:30 p.m. I meet the GM, a veteran of Thomas Keller’s restaurants whom Lazar lured to the valley. The young but knowledgeable sommelier, who’d arrived from the East Coast, offers me a pour of a delightfully smoky “secret Malbec” she has only a few bottles of. “I think having people from the city is key,” says Lazar.

So far, importing staff seems to be paying off for Mr. Lyons. Not only has it drawn in diners despite its extremely quiet end-of-season opening, but “the service is noticeably better than anywhere else in town, and the food is getting there,” Lazar says. She doesn’t let things slide. As we dig into a splendidly messy heap of prime-rib fries and a whole-leaf Caesar off the bar menu, she takes a few bites, then sends the salad back. “Tell them to dress it more,” she instructs the server. “You can get away with murder on a 10- or 12-dollar breakfast,” Lazar tells me, referring to Cheeky’s. “But with a Four Seasons experience, people are going to send it back.”

Presently, it’s high season again in Palm Springs, and when I finally manage to reconnect with Lazar over the phone, she casually mentions that she’s opening a speakeasy-style indoor-outdoor bar within the Mr. Lyons space around March. “It’s called Seymour’s, after my 88-year-old dad,” she says. “You enter through a side door that’s kind of cool and secret, behind the hedges.” Lazar might have something else in the works, too, but after the three tries it took to buy Mr. Lyons, she’s not talking yet. “It’s nothing I can disclose right now,” she says. “I wish I could. As soon as the ink is dry.”