The desert is full of surprises. This would certainly include the existence of a bistro outside of Yucca Valley with an ambitious menu, seasonal ingredients and a French name.
I heard about La Copine before my first visit to Joshua Tree but didn’t go. It’s a bit off the beaten path, even by Joshua Tree standards. A few days before my recent return visit, I researched, read the NYT review, and put the restaurant on my must-visit list.
So, on a recent Sunday, I drove through Yucca Valley and waited for a left turn onto Highway 62. It was the day before my birthday, and I wasn’t the only one. A bearded guy around the corner was holding a cardboard sign“Tomorrow is my birthday. I’m carrying a 10 dollar bill.
I headed north on the road evocatively named Old Woman Springs, about eight miles toward La Copine. Like a mirage there it was, a free-standing building surrounded by desert, with a road sign along the road and an almost full dirt parking lot.
The sheltered patio was full too, and at least as many people were waiting for a table.
As The Times had said, “The wait can be 15 minutes or 50 for a table, and the host is reluctant to quote an exact time.” No reservations are taken.
So warned, when I docked my name, I didn’t ask how long it could last. Did it matter? La Copine was my destination. Whatever the expectation, it would suit me.
Around the corner of the building were casual seats under a shade sail where others were waiting for their names, along with a few more chairs or benches here and there.
People in their 20s and 70s — gay couples, straight couples, small groups and singles — chatted, sipped wine, checked their phones or walked in and out of the tiny gift shop, housed in a trailer. No one seemed stressed.
I waited an hour? Around that. I didn’t pay attention to the time. An employee led me out the back to a table for one.
The one-page menu included items such as steamed mussels, roast chicken skewers, artichoke toast and duck confit, as well as a separate wine and cocktail list. This is not your grandfather’s desert.
A friendly and informal waiter approached. I ordered the Salad Lyonnaise with a poached egg ($20) and figs and beets ($16), which she said should be the right amount of food to make a meal. Cheap, I stuck with water. I have to hydrate myself in the desert.
Well, the food was delicious, the portions just right. Meanwhile, the restaurant playlist was heading to the Stones, Lou Reed, Macy Gray, Gerry Rafferty and the police, all the way up my driveway, and there were good people watching future diners enter from the parking lot. .
Also, the solo diner behind me in a stylish sun hat asked the waiter for recommendations for cafes and other places, dropping that she was from New York. Okay, Miss Thing.
Rao’s review said the staff “seems powered by a charming, almost clumsy energy”, and even during what is still a stressful time, that seemed true. A staff member voluntarily brought an umbrella for shade, even though I was wearing a hat, saying I looked protected, but a little extra wouldn’t hurt.
And my server was taken by my reading material and my happy attitude. When she brought my credit card statement to sign, she said, “Don’t go anywhere. Relax. Have fun.”
So I dragged on a bit. It was nice. If I lived nearby, I would eat at La Copine as often as possible (sticking to water helps).
Before leaving, I approached the woman who had taken my name two hours earlier, after realizing she was co-owner Claire Wadsworth.
“Hi David!” she said, obviously having a good memory. I introduced myself and she gave me her email address for questions.
Claire, a singer, and Nikki Hill, a chef who had cooked at Huckleberry, traveled from LA a month after their 2015 wedding. After a hike in Joshua Tree National Park, they visited the Integratron in Landers, where an owner told them about a long-closed restaurant for sale and urged them to buy it.
Soon, the couple who had just spent the weekend found themselves buying the restaurant, doing renovations, and getting help from the community to paint the walls and scrub the equipment.
La Copine (meaning “girlfriend”) was embraced from the start. Because the investment was low, around $60,000, and Claire has another career — she plays the role of It is clear and pulls out a record this year – she and Nikki can afford to be open only Thursday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
“We really want to be an inclusive restaurant where people feel at home. We eat lunch because it suits the space and it’s our favorite meal of the day,” Claire explains via email. “We also want our staff to have a high quality of life.
La Copine stopped dining out during the first year of the pandemic, but continued with takeout and weekend meal pickups. With on-site dining resuming, business has picked up, as confirmed by the Sunday crowd.
The clientele is roughly half local, including part-timers who live in the desert on the weekends, and half tourists, some from the East Coast, some international, who are there for see Joshua Tree National Park.
“There are people planning entire trips around eating at La Copine because of the NYT article,” Claire says. “There is a woman who comes from Paris for her birthday. From Paris!”
Who knew it was hard to find good food in France? Anyway, this woman and I have something in common. She arrives from Paris for her birthday. I left Claremont the day before my birthday. And like her, I’ll be back too.
Based on $90.90 in qualifying purchases in 2021, my REI Co-op Reward, received in the mail shortly before my birthday, saves me a locally significant figure: $9.09. I don’t know if I should spend it or frame it.
David Allen co-opts this space on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Email [email protected], call 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.