Heading to Joshua Tree? Eat at Pappy & Harriet’s
The hosts running the waitlist at Pappy & Harriet’s restaurant in Pioneertown have nerves of steel. On a recent Saturday night, the line to add your name spilled out of the entry room, through the bar and into the main dining room. It seemed as if there were people in every crevice and corner, in between the tables and in the doorways.
At the front of the line, hosts politely told guests that even if they waited, there was no guarantee of getting a table. “You can check back at 8:45 p.m.,” one of them said. It was 6:03 p.m.
But the people waited. Groups of hikers wearing North Face jackets shifted weight from one foot to the other while they waited. A couple in leather jackets with fringe hanging from the front pockets sipped cocktails out of Mason jars while they waited. An impressive number of people wearing puffer jackets in every color imaginable crowded the bar and waited. No one seemed put off by the wait. Instead of a deterrent, it was part of the experience. Someone at the bar started dancing to pass the time.
“Business is better than it’s ever been,” said Lisa Elin, who owns the restaurant and music venue with her partner, Joseph Benjamin “J.B.” Moresco. Elin, a creative director and writer, and Moresco, a longtime hospitality operator, were frequent patrons before they bought the place in April 2021.
Pappy & Harriet’s is the place to eat if you’re visiting Joshua Tree (about 10 miles away) or the surrounding Yucca Valley. (And with a finite 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. Big-name acts such as Paul McCartney, Lizzo and Robert Plant have performed here over the years.
The restaurant is located in Pioneertown, a tiny community that looks like it was plucked straight from a western (and it was). In 1946, a group of investors from Hollywood that included Gene Autry and Roy Rogers founded the town as a living movie set, complete with saloons, jails and a cantina. Dozens of films and television shows were filmed there. In 1972, Francis and John Aleba bought the cantina set and operated it as the Cantina bar for a decade. Their daughter Harriet and her 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 might imagine — like a weathered, old-time saloon; the interior is a sea of brown. Dark wood and brick dominate the walls, ceiling and most surfaces. Cowboy boots, various bottles, photos, beat-up license plates and other knick-knacks ensure there’s never a shortage of stuff to catch your eye while you wait. It sounds kitschy — and it is, but it’s also charming.
Chef Chris Shurley said he goes through about 500 pounds of ribs and 625 pounds of tri-tip a week, all cooked with mesquite and red oak wood on a wood-fire grill out back. The tri-tip is scarcely adorned; seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic, it tastes of nothing more than meat and the fire it was cooked on. The racks of ribs are lacquered in the restaurant’s signature barbecue sauce that’s two parts tang and one part spice. The nachos are a welcome spectacle, constructed from tortilla chips the size of halved tortillas, blanketed in melted cheese. Order the chili nachos and you’ll receive a ladleful of chili on top, made the same way since the restaurant opened, fortified with chunks of tri-tip, onions and peppers. There should be an order on every table.
Elin and Moresco said they attempted to change as little as possible beyond operational adjustments to help with efficiency. It’s a constant balancing act of a don’t-fix-what’s-not-broken mentality and hints of greater aspirations.
The high desert may have gone upscale, but don’t worry — it’s still funky.
Instead of writing every order on a notepad, servers now have tablets that send orders straight to the kitchen or bar. If you look closely at the bar, you may notice a more extensive collection of whiskey. High West and Laws Whiskey House are new additions, as is a line of Sierra Norte Mexican Whiskey. The classic cocktails such as the Highway Queen (a potent, sunset-colored concoction of mezcal, jalapeño bitters, orange juice and lime with a Tajín rim) will always be available, but the plan is for bar manager Cody Ahumada to introduce an updated cocktail list with new additions at the start of the summer.
The Tex-Mex category of the menu was removed but some of those items — like the quesadilla — are now listed under the appetizers category. Elin and Moresco also cut the bowls (rice, beans, protein in a bowl) but said that customers can still order one “off the menu.”
You may notice slightly higher prices, as well.
“We didn’t raise food prices until almost a year into this,” Elin said. “We took a huge hit on the food cost.”
“There was a period of time during the year when we were subsidizing people to eat rib-eyes,” Moresco added.
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Instead of raising prices across the menu, they made the entrees a la carte, which ended up cutting down on food waste as well (entrees range from $22 to $68).
“The amount of broccoli we were throwing away that came with the plates didn’t feel good,” Moresco said. “We lessened our food waste, but now we don’t need to make as much or plate as much, and every little thing helps with our other major goal, which is attempting to get the wait times down.”
When Elin and Moresco took over, there were 45 people on the payroll. Now, they employ more than 70, boasting that they didn’t lay off a single person during the pandemic.
“What the pandemic showed is that this is a music venue, but it’s a restaurant first,” Moresco said, referencing the period of time when entertainment venues were not allowed to operate due to COVID-19 mandates.
The two say they have seen a direct correlation between an increase in visitors to Joshua Tree National Park and growth in the number of diners at the restaurant. According to numbers from the National Park Service, Joshua Tree saw more than 3 million visitors in 2021, up from 1.4 million in 2012.
Elin and Moresco’s eventual plan is to build out the kitchen, adding another 500 square feet of space that will allow them to serve even more people. But whatever they do, Elin has a motto she’s determined to stick to.
”Preserve, celebrate, amplify, and that’s how we’re running it,” she said. “As a longtime fan, if you would have said to me two years ago that I’d own this joint, I would have said, ‘Come on.’ We’re just really honored to have this stewardship.”
53688 Pioneertown Road, Pioneertown, (760) 228-2222, pappyandharriets.com
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