The hosts who run the waiting list at Pappy & Harriet’s restaurant in Pioneertown have nerves of steel. On a recent Saturday night the line to add your name ran out of the entry room, through the bar and into the main dining room. It seemed as if people were in every crack and corner, between the tables and in the doors.
At the head of the line, the hosts politely explained to the guests that even if they waited, there was no guarantee of getting a table. “You can come back at 8:45 p.m.,” one of them said. It was 6:03 p.m
But people waited. Groups of hikers wearing North Face jackets shifted their weight from foot to foot as they waited. A couple in leather jackets with fringed front pockets sipped cocktails from Mason jars while they waited. An impressive number of people, wearing puffer jackets of every color imaginable, crowded the bar and waited. No one seemed put off by the wait. Rather than deterrence, it was part of the experience. Someone at the bar started dancing to pass the time.
“Business is better than ever,” said Lisa Elin, who owns the restaurant and venue with her partner Joseph Benjamin “JB” Moresco. Elin, a creative director and author, and Moresco, a longtime innkeeper, were frequent guests before purchasing the home in April 2021.
Pappy & Harriet’s is the place to eat when visiting Joshua Tree (about 10 miles away) or the surrounding Yucca Valley. (And with a limited number of culinary options in the area, the food is better than it needs to be.) It’s also the place to catch an intimate music show. Well-known acts such as Paul McCartney, Lizzo and Robert Plant have performed here over the years.
The restaurant is in Pioneertown, a tiny community that looks like it was plucked straight out of a western (and it was). In 1946, a group of Hollywood investors, including Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, established the city as a living film set complete with saloons, jails and a cantina. Dozens of movies and TV shows have been filmed there. In 1972, Francis and John Aleba bought the Cantina set and operated it as a cantina bar for a decade. Her daughter Harriet and husband Claude “Pappy” Allen took over the building and opened Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace restaurant and live music venue in 1982.
The exterior of the restaurant looks as you would imagine – like a weathered old-time saloon; the inside is a sea of brown. Dark wood and brick dominate the walls, ceiling and most surfaces. Cowboy boots, assorted bottles, photos, battered license plates, and other knick-knacks ensure you’ll never be short of things to get your attention while you wait. Sounds cheesy – it is, but it’s also charming.
Chef Chris Shurley said he consumes about 500 pounds of ribs and 625 pounds of tri-tip a week, all cooked with mesquite and red oak on a wood fire grill in the background. The tri-tip is barely adorned; seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic, it tastes of nothing but meat and the fire it was cooked on. The ribs are coated in the restaurant’s signature barbecue sauce, which is two parts seasoning and one part seasoning. The nachos are a welcome extravaganza, made with tortilla chips the size of halved tortillas, covered in melted cheese. Order the chili nachos and get a scoop of chili, made the same way since the restaurant opened, and flavored with tri-tip chunks, onions and peppers. There should be an order on each table.
Elin and Moresco said they tried to change as little as possible beyond operational adjustments to increase efficiency. It’s a constant balancing act between a don’t-fix-what-isn’t-broken mentality and hints of greater ambition.
Instead of writing each order on a notepad, waiters now have tablets that send orders straight to the kitchen or bar. If you look closely at the bar, you might notice a more extensive whiskey collection. High West and Laws Whiskey House are new additions, as is a line of Mexican Sierra Norte Whiskey. The classic cocktails like the Highway Queen (a bold concoction of mezcal, jalapeño bitters, orange juice, and lime with a sunset-hued Tajín rim) will always be available, but bar manager Cody Ahumada is said to be introducing an updated cocktail list New arrivals at the beginning of summer.
The menu’s Tex-Mex category has been removed, but some of these dishes — like the quesadilla — are now listed in the appetizers category. Elin and Moresco are also cutting the bowls (rice, beans, protein in one bowl) but said customers can still order one “off the menu.”
You may also notice slightly higher prices.
“We only increased food prices after almost a year,” Elin said. “We have suffered a major collapse in the cost of groceries.”
“There was a time of the year when we would subsidize people to eat rib eyes,” Moresco added.
Instead of increasing prices on the menu, they made the entrees a la carte, which ultimately led to a reduction in food waste as well (entrees range from $22 to $68).
“The amount of broccoli that we threw away that came with the plates didn’t feel good,” Moresco said. “We’ve reduced our food waste, but now we don’t have to prep or plate as much, and every little thing helps with our other big goal of trying to reduce wait times.”
When Elin and Moresco took over, there were 45 employees on the payroll. Now they employ more than 70 people and boast of not laying off a single employee during the pandemic.
“What the pandemic has shown is that this is a music venue, but a restaurant first,” Moresco said, referring to the period when entertainment venues were not allowed to operate due to COVID-19 mandates.
The two say they’ve seen a direct correlation between an increase in visitor numbers at Joshua Tree National Park and an increase in the number of patrons at the restaurant. Joshua Tree saw more than 3 million visitors in 2021, up from 1.4 million in 2012, according to figures from the National Park Service.
Elin and Moresco’s later plan is to expand the kitchen and add another 500 square meters of space that will allow them to serve even more people. But whatever they do, Elin has a motto she’s determined to live by.
“Preserve, celebrate, amplify, and that’s how we run it,” she said. “If you, as a long-time fan, had told me two years ago that I owned this joint, I would have said, ‘Come on.’ We are truly honored to take on this responsibility.”
53688 Pioneertown Road, Pioneertown, (760) 228-2222, papppyandharriets.com
https://www.latimes.com/food/story/2022-03-10/pappy-harriets-joshua-tree-national-park-bbq Pappy & Harriet’s, one of the best restaurants at Joshua Tree