A Former Day-Trader Brings Much-Needed Pizazz to the Palm Springs Dining Scene

With Cheeky’s, Birba, and now a reinvented steak house called Mr. Lyons, Tara Lazar has updated the area’s cuisine for the first time since the Rat Pack era

Tara Lazar draws a big square in the air to describe what Palm Springs was like growing up. “I was bored basically all the time,” she says at a gravel turnout overlooking the city’s patchwork of fairways and xeriscaped lots. We’re idling inside Lazar’s white BMW SUV at a favorite spot of hers called Horizon Mobile Village & RV Park near the base of the San Jacinto Mountains. Lazar, who recently turned 39 and had her first baby last summer, is slim and petite in khaki shorts and a white tank top. She could pass for a college student, down to her winning sarcasm. “So grand,” she says, gesturing toward the Corinthian columns one resident has appended to the front of a double-wide. “This town sorta makes you want to get into trouble.” When I ask for specifics, she shifts into drive and smiles, saying, “Let’s just say I stole a lot of golf carts as a kid.”

All afternoon Lazar, the jaunty visionary behind a growing desert hospitality empire, has been showing off Palm Springs as only someone raised here can. She points to where Sambo’s used to be. There is the party house Leonardo DiCaprio owns but never inhabits. Rolling along South Madrona Drive, she slows as we pass a row of slinky midcentury moderns. “You can totally picture women in leisure suits serving canapés in sunken living rooms,” she says. “I played tennis around here with a Koch wife”—referring to the conservative billionaire brothers—“and still can’t tell my staunch Democrat friends.”

Lazar pulls into the motor court of the vacant Canyon Estates Country Club. The architecture is classic 1970s swank: flat cantilevered roofs and squat pillars of desert stone under swaying palms. Through the clubhouse windows you can glimpse a fountain geyser erupting in the middle of a lake. Lazar turns to see if I smell potential the way she does.

“The Indians own it, and I want it,” she says. “How freaking great would it be to create a country club that’s actually cool?”

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In 2008, Lazar quit a day trader job in San Francisco and returned home with her husband, Marco Rossetti, to open a 30-seat breakfast restaurant on North Palm Canyon Drive in what was once Peppertree Bookstore. The menu dispensed with the usual hollandaise-on-everything approach that has been popular locally since the Rat Pack era in favor of items like duck confit hash, truffle tater tots, and bacon flights. Having no real training as a chef other than a single cooking class in Bologna and making breakfasts at home, Lazar essentially winged it in the kitchen. “I’d never seen order tickets come out of a machine before day one,” she says. It helped that Rossetti, who is Italian, had been assistant manager for room service at San Francisco’s Four Seasons. She named her new restaurant Cheeky’s—“obviously, because I’m a smart-ass,” Lazar says—and within days of the June 2008 launch, people were calling it the best thing to ever happen to brunch in Palm Springs.

The lines stretching to the curb gave Lazar the confidence three years later to open a sister restaurant, Birba, a stylish cantina with a wood-burning pizza oven and excellent cocktails. With long, cushiony benches around outdoor fire pits and a good-looking young crowd, the place became the boozy civic hub of the burgeoning Uptown Design District. A few months later Lazar, backed by New York investors and with an assist from Manhattan interior design partner Carol Blum, took over the adjacent 34-room Pepper Tree Inn and fashioned it into a retreat of whitewashed minimalism called Alcazar. Lazar was again flying by the seat of her pants. “My only guiding principle was, I wanted a hotel that felt like the opposite of being at home,” she says. Her gambits worked well enough to overshadow the demise of Jiao, an Asian street food restaurant Lazar opened across the street that she now shrugs off as “ahead of its time in a city that wasn’t exactly ready for responsibly sourced meats and the price tag that comes with it.”

“You can say the boldness of taking these risks is Tara’s superpower,” Rossetti tells me. His main gig is as a commercial real estate broker. “But I think there was a hunger here for good experiences, for great food, and for sophisticated places to hang out—and Tara gave people that.” Rossetti and I are standing at the magnificent tree trunk slab that serves as a counter in the couple’s spacious modern home in the wealthy Las Palmas district. Lazar’s parents (her dad is Jewish, her mom is Chinese; they’ve been married 50 years) live in a separate house on the same 17,000-square-foot lot, which once belonged to movie mogul Sam Goldwyn. Lazar has spent most of her life residing at the Hermosa Place estate.

In preparation for our night out this evening, Lazar is pumping breast milk in the living room as her newborn son, Maszlo, reclines in a bassinet on the dining table. “We called him ‘Campfire’ the first few weeks because we just sat and stared at him,” she says. Lazar worked until the day before giving birth and was back in action the following Thursday. “Tara’s very relaxed, but if you go for early breakfast, she’s the one making your omelette, and you’ll probably see her again at Birba at the end of the night,” says her friend, the clothing designer Trina Turk, who opened her first retail shop on North Palm Canyon Drive in 2002. “We joke that we’re the two hardest-working half-Asian women entrepreneurs in the history of Palm Springs.”

After quick sunset drinks at Birba (“My first post-knock-up cocktail,” Lazar says with a clink), we check out her latest venture—a reinvented steak house called Mr. Lyons on the south end of town. Lazar plunked down a million dollars from her own pocket to clean up a verminous landmark pub operated as Lyons English Grille for 70 years by Dave Lyons, who is 102. “There were dead rats caked in grease that were older than me,” Lazar says with a sigh. She puts her hand to her chest when I ask what the negotiations were like. “We ate so many fucking corned beef sandwiches at Sherman’s Deli that I should be in cardiac arrest.”

Although Mr. Lyons retains a few classics like matzo ball soup and New York pepper steak, the vibe is pure Lazar. Old sconces have Edison bulbs. Beef Wellington can be done as a vegetable dish. Foie gras comes as a side to anything for an extra ten bucks. A speakeasy off the main room is named Seymour’s, after Lazar’s father. Tonight out-of-town dudes in tats and man buns crowd into velvety green banquettes alongside pretty young women dressed vaguely like Native American princesses. Everyone is Instagramming; the volume is concussive. Lazar arches one eyebrow when I congratulate her after the busy night. “Just don’t call it another Palm Springs renaissance,” she says.

“Tara can be tough, but I admire her for growing without scaling too large and for riding out the boom-and-bust cycle of gentrification that defines a place like Palm Springs,” says Doug Smith, the hotelier and architect behind local boutiques Korakia and the Sparrow. “Tara’s got enough fieriness and nerve to keep herself in the game.”

It is true that every few years some fabulous new hotel debuts or an A-list celeb settles in behind bougainvillea, and people start raving that Palm Springs is “back.” There was the gay wave of the 1980s. The hip hotel explosion, led by Korakia, in the ’90s. The everybody-loves-modernism stage, the White Party, Coachella, the Ace. Last spring The New York Times rhapsodized about the French fashion types arriving to attend a Louis Vuitton gala at the old Bob Hope estate, and in January JetBlue began direct flights from JFK. The talk this season is about the reborn L’Horizon hotel and the $350 million redevelopment that’s sprucing up the downtown core. It’s a couple of blocks from the Avalon Hotel’s restaurant, where Lazar has introduced Caribbean-inspired menus and drinks.

“Good weather and great alcohol—it’s what makes things bearable around here,” she says.

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As much as she jokes about Palm Springs, Lazar doesn’t have it in for the place. She is fond of its quirks. Earlier she made a point of stopping by Billy Reed’s, a ’70s-era restaurant that looks like Marie Callender’s spiffier cousin. Longtime customers are laughing over plates of Yankee pot roast and country-fried steak. The chairs are red velvet thrones. Tiffany crystal is everywhere. Ceiling wood is varnished to nautical standards. Lazar directs me to the vast refrigerated display of cream pies. “The absolute best is the banana cream,” she says, “but they only make it on weekends.”

Every day for ten days before Lazar’s birth, her mother, Alyce, came here for meals. “Billy Reed’s is right next to the hospital, but Mom also thought there was a magical quality within these walls,” says Lazar, who speaks just as fondly of her father, telling me, “He’s incredibly fair, incredibly optimistic, and the biggest part of why I am the way I am.”

That was also why Lazar was driving me over to meet her parents, which inevitably led to questions about her dad. After 50 years as a Los Angeles entertainment lawyer, investor, and professional hobnobber, Seymour was indicted by a grand jury for taking illegal kickbacks in scores of class-action lawsuits in which he, Alyce, his mother-in-law, and two of their three children, including Tara, served as lead plaintiffs. The family was fortunate to know a few good lawyers. Seymour got off lightly, paying fines and serving six months of house arrest along with two years of probation. This was in 2006, and I wasn’t sure what to expect upon meeting the 88-year-old.

By way of preparation, Tara’s husband told me, “When I first went to their house for a Passover seder, Tara’s dad opened the door and said”—and here Rossetti exchanged his Italian accent for a lilting Jewish one—“‘So, do you want a glass of wine or maybe some beer? Or how about we smoke a joint?’ ”

After growing up on a ranch in the San Fernando Valley, Seymour studied law at USC, sued his own father after being disinherited, and built a client base that included Miles Davis, Lenny Bruce, the Beatles, and Bob Dylan. “He dated Maya Angelou when she was a Hollywood cabaret singer in the 1950s and convinced her to become a writer,” Tara says. The tales go on.

Seymour is sitting in the kitchen when we walk in, looking frail and slurping on a cold lox wing that had been flown in on dry ice from Barney Greengrass in New York. He is dwarfed by giant feathery totems and carved statuary; the Lazars possess one of the nation’s largest private collections of pre-Columbian and Pacific Islander art. Spears and shields consume entire rooms. Tara hands me a ceramic shaman vessel. “I used to bring stuff like this to show-and-tell at school and would spill my juice box on it.” Her dad, who’s been mostly silent, looks at his daughter, then at me, and whispers, “When she told me she was getting into restaurants, I said, ‘What, are you…goddamned crazy?’ ”

Then again, it was Seymour who bought the land beneath Cheeky’s, Birba, and Alcazar (he eventually “gifted” the property for the first two to Tara, she says), and his spirit of enterprise has clearly been passed down to his daughter. Several years ago she began an afterschool nutrition program that teaches kids how to cook and wants to delve more deeply into philanthropy. Although by January she had lost interest in the hipster country club, Lazar is still eyeing the kitschy Palm Springs time capsule that is Ingleside Inn. (“The mystique isn’t in crusty comforters,” she says. “It’s the history, the stories, the fact that the building is a horseshoe.”) She wants to expand her brand to the beach. She might write a cookbook, too. It can be challenging to keep up. The next morning I depart just after seven to beat the traffic back to Los Angeles. As I drive past Cheeky’s, Lazar is already at work in the kitchen.

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