Cheerful bistro La Copine wins fans in Mojave Desert – San Bernardino Sun

The desert is full of surprises. That would definitely include the existence of a bistro outside Yucca Valley with an ambitious menu, seasonal ingredients and a French name.

La Copine may be the only restaurant in San Bernardino County ever reviewed by the New York Times. “A joyful oasis thrives in the California desert” was the headline of Tejal Rao’s 2019 rave.

I heard about La Copine before my first Joshua Tree visit but didn’t make it there. It’s a little off the beaten path even by Joshua Tree standards. Days before my recent return visit, I looked it up, read the NYT review and put the restaurant on my must-go list.

Thus, on a recent Sunday I drove into Yucca Valley and waited to turn left off Highway 62. It was the day before my birthday, and I wasn’t the only one. A bearded man on the corner held a cardboard sign: “Tomorrow is my birthday. I wear a size 10 dollar bill.”

I headed north on the evocatively named Old Woman Springs Road some eight miles toward La Copine. Like a mirage, there it was, a standalone building surrounded by desert, with a monument sign along the road and a dirt parking lot, mostly full.

The protected patio was full too, and at least as many people were waiting for a table.

As the Times had put it, “The wait might be 15 minutes or 50 for a table, and the host is hesitant to quote an exact time.” No reservations are taken.

Thus forewarned, when I put my name in at the greeter station, I didn’t ask how long it might be. Did it matter? La Copine was my destination. Whatever the wait, that would be fine with me.

Around the building’s corner was some casual seating under a shade sail where others waited for their name, plus a few other chairs or benches here and there.

A shade sail extends over the waiting area at La Copine, where murals add color to the restaurant exterior. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

People from their 20s to 70s — gay couples, hetero couples, small groups and singles — chatted, sipped wine, checked their phones or stepped in or out of the small gift shop, housed in a trailer. Nobody seemed stressed.

Did I wait an hour? Around that. I wasn’t paying attention to time. An employee led me around the back to a table for one.

The one-page menu had such items as steamed mussels, roasted chicken brochettes, artichoke toast and duck confit, plus a separate list of wines and cocktails. This isn’t your grandpappy’s desert.

A friendly, informal server approached. I ordered the salad Lyonnaise with a poached egg ($20) and figs and beets ($16), which she agreed ought to be the right amount of food to make a meal. Cheaply, I stuck to water. Gotta hydrate in the desert.

At La Copine, the salad Lyonnaise, left, and figs and beets, served outdoors with the desert landscape as backdrop. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

Well, the food was delicious, the portions just right. Meanwhile, the restaurant’s playlist ran to the Stones, Lou Reed, Macy Gray, Gerry Rafferty and the Police, all up my alley, and there was good people-watching as would-be diners walked in from the parking lot.

Also, the solo diner behind me in a stylish sun hat asked the server for recommendations for coffeehouses and other spots, dropping that she was visiting from New York City. OK, Miss Thing.

Rao’s review said the staff “seems powered by a charming, almost goofy energy,” and even during what is still a stressful time, that appeared true. A staffer on his own volition brought over 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 happy demeanor. When she brought back my credit card slip to sign, she said: “Don’t go anywhere. Just relax. Enjoy yourself.”

So I hung out a bit. It was nice. If I lived close, I’d eat at La Copine as often as I could afford to (sticking to water helps).

Before I left, I approached the woman who’d taken my name two hours earlier, having realized she was co-owner Claire Wadsworth.

“Hi, David!” she said, obviously having good recall. I introduced myself and she gave me her email address for questions.

Claire, a singer, and Nikki Hill, a chef who’d cooked at Huckleberry, visited from L.A. a month after their 2015 wedding. After hiking at Joshua Tree National Park, they checked out the Integratron in Landers, where an owner told them about a long-closed diner for sale and urged them to buy it.

Very soon, the couple who’d just been visiting for the weekend found themselves buying the restaurant, making upgrades and benefiting from community help in painting walls and scrubbing equipment.

La Copine (which means “girlfriend”) was embraced from the start. Because the investment was slight, about $60,000, and Claire has another career — she performs as C’est Claire and is releasing a record this year — she and Nikki can afford to be open only Thursday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The patio of La Copine on a recent Sunday afternoon is busy. Umbrellas and a fence offer some shelter from the desert sun and breeze. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

“We really just want to be an inclusive restaurant where people feel at home. We do lunch because it suits the space and it’s our favorite meal of the day,” Claire says by email. “We also want our staff to have a high quality of life.”

La Copine stopped dine-in the first year of the pandemic but kept going with takeout and weekend meal pickups. With the resumption of dining in, business has roared back, as the Sunday crowd bore out.

The customer mix is about half locals, including part-timers who live in the desert on weekends, and half tourists, some from the East Coast, some of them international, who are there to see Joshua Tree National Park.

“There are people who plan entire trips around eating at La Copine because of the NYT article,” Claire says. “There’s a woman who comes from Paris for her birthday. From Paris!”

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