The hosts manning 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 spilled out of the lobby, through the bar, and into the main dining room. It was as if there were people in every crevice and every corner, between tables and in doorways.
At the front of the line, the hosts politely told guests that even if they waited, there was no guarantee of a table. “You can come back at 8:45 p.m.,” said one. 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 wearing leather jackets with fringe hanging from the front pockets sipped cocktails from mason jars while they waited. An overwhelming number of people wearing down jackets of every color imaginable crowded the bar and waited. No one seemed put off by the wait. Instead of being a deterrent, it was part of the experience. Someone at the bar started dancing to pass the time.
“Business is better than it has ever been,” said Lisa Elin, owner of the restaurant and music venue with her partner, Joseph Benjamin “JB” Moresco. Elin, creative director and writer, and Moresco, a longtime hotel operator, were frequent customers before buying 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 necessary.) It’s also the perfect place to catch an intimate musical performance. Famous artists such as Paul McCartney, Lizzo and Robert Plant have performed here over the years.
The restaurant is located in Pioneertown, a small community that looks straight out of a western (and it was). In 1946, a group of Hollywood investors, including Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, founded the city as a living movie set, complete with saloons, jails and a canteen. Dozens of movies and TV shows have been filmed here. In 1972 Francis and John Aleba purchased the cantina complex and operated it as a 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 concert hall in 1982.
The exterior of the restaurant looks as you might imagine – like an old fashioned weathered saloon; the interior is a sea of brown. Dark wood and brick dominate the walls, ceiling and most surfaces. Cowboy boots, miscellaneous bottles, photos, dented license plates and other trinkets ensure you’ll never run out of things to catch your eye while you wait. It sounds kitschy – and it is, but it’s also charming.
Chef Chris Shurley said he eats about 500 pounds of ribs and 625 pounds of tri-tip a week, all cooked with mesquite and red oak wood on a wood-burning grill out back. The tri-tip is barely ornate; seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic, it tastes like nothing more than meat and the fire over which it was cooked. The ribs are lacquered in the restaurant’s signature barbecue sauce which is two parts flavor and one part spice. Nachos are a welcome sight, constructed from halved tortilla-sized tortilla chips, topped with melted cheese. Order the chili nachos and you’ll receive a ladleful of chili on top, prepared the same way since the restaurant opened, spiked 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 gain efficiency. It’s a constant balancing act between a mentality of not fixing what isn’t broken and hinting at higher aspirations.
Instead of writing each order on a notepad, servers now have tablets that send orders directly 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 Mexican whiskey Sierra Norte. Classic cocktails such as the Highway Queen (a potent concoction of mezcal, jalapeño bitters, orange juice and lime with a rim of Tajín) will still be available, but bar manager Cody Ahumada is expected to present an updated cocktail. roster with new additions in early summer.
The menu’s Tex-Mex category has been removed, but some of those items — like the quesadilla — are now listed under the appetizers category. Elin and Moresco also cut out the bowls (rice, beans, protein in a bowl) but said customers can still order one “off the menu.”
You may also notice slightly higher prices.
“We haven’t raised food prices for almost a year,” Elin said. “We took a huge hit on the cost of food.”
“There was a time during the year when we were subsidizing people to eat ribeye,” Moresco added.
Instead of raising the prices on the menu, they made the appetizers a la carte, which also reduced food waste (appetizers range from $22 to $68).
“The amount of broccoli we were throwing that went with the plates was not nice,” Moresco said. “We’ve reduced our food waste, but now we don’t have to waste as much or put as much, and every little thing contributes to our other big goal, which is to reduce wait times.”
When Elin and Moresco took over, there were 45 people on the payroll. Today, they employ more than 70, boasting that they haven’t laid off anyone during the pandemic.
“What the pandemic has shown is that this is a concert hall, but it’s a restaurant first,” Moresco said, referring to the time when entertainment venues were not permitted to operate due to COVID-19 mandates.
The two men say they have seen a direct correlation between an increase in the number of visitors to Joshua Tree National Park and growth in the number of restaurant diners. According to National Park Service figures, Joshua Tree welcomed more than 3 million visitors in 2021, up from 1.4 million in 2012.
Elin and Moresco’s eventual plan is to build the kitchen, adding another 500 square feet of space that will allow them to serve even more people. But no matter what they do, Elin has a motto she is determined to live up to.
“Preserve, celebrate, amplify, and that’s how we manage,” she said. “As a lifelong fan, if you had told me two years ago that I would own this joint, I would have said, ‘Come on. We are truly honored to have this stewardship.
53688 Pioneertown Road, Pioneertown, (760) 228-2222, pappyandharries.com