You’ll feel as if you’ve entered the home of a French relative who wants nothing better than to make you happy.” That’s how Palm Springs’ landmark restaurant Le Vallauris describes itself. The words echo the sounds a cheerful, casual French cafe, but Le Vallauris is actually one of the most highly-rated establishments in California. Zagats gave it a nearly perfect score in their restaurant review; it’s been the recipient of AAA’s 4 Diamond Award for many years; and it’s received a TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence award. Jerry Berns, the former proprietor of Manhattan’s famous 21 Club, said of Le Vallauris, “I would rank it as one of the best restaurants in the world.” Dustin Hoffman and wife Lisa enjoyed a romantic Valentine’s dinner there in 2011, local residents Suzanne Somers and her BFF Barry Manilow are often spotted dining together on the patio, and everyone from Loretta Young to the Gabor sisters to Jane Goodall have all eaten here. Celebrating its 40th consecutive season of accolades, Le Vallauris is far from the clichéd uptight and stuffy French restaurant. The place does indeed exude the atmosphere of a cheerful, casual French cafe – albeit with seasoned waiters fluent in French and dressed in impeccable suits, with a backdrop of Flemish tapestries and the Louis-XV furniture.
When Paul Bruggemans created Le Vallauris Restaurant in 1974, he picked one of the oldest buildings in Palm Springs to house it in – the 1927 Roberson home, tucked up behind downtown Palm Springs.
Bruggemans and Camille Bardet then owned Hollywood’s celebrated Le St. Germain Restaurant (which closed in 1988), and it wasn’t difficult to pay homage to that establishment’s luxurious intimacy with Le Vallauris. Bruggemans wisely chose to keep the historic house intact with its original layout, including its expansive patio shaded by fichus trees Buggemans planted himself, now dotted with clusters of soft beehive lights.
The patio seats 150 people, but retains the intimate feeling of dining at a friend’s elegant home. Indoors, the Spanish adobe walls are a gentle green, accented by rich red upholstered chairs and banquette seating. In keeping with French tradition, Le Vallauris’ menu is handwritten on to a board presented to your table on an easel, like a painting. And Le Vallauris’ menu of French, Mediterranean, and Californian cuisine is indeed a work of art: Items change by the day and season, and include gourmet offerings like red beet raspberry gazpacho, duck breast with white port reduction, grilled lamb loin with mint garlic olive oil ratatouille, and Grand Marnier soufflé with vanilla créme anglaise. Le Vallauris’ classy yet approachable atmosphere derives from the happy memories that inhabit its abode. The restaurant is snug inside a 1927 Mediterranean/Spanish Revival three-bedroom house is surrounded by a wall made of native stone. And if these walls could talk, the stories they would tell … before it was open to the public, grand parties here sparkled with names like Lena Horne, Patti Page, Buddy Rogers, Desi Arnez, Lucille Ball, Peggy Lee, Sophie Tucker, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Mary Martin, Mae West, and many more. If you inhale deeply in the lounge area, you could almost make out the fragrance of General Patton’s cigars he often smoke here. Le Vallauris’ history begins in 1908, when pioneers Dr. Harry Coffman and wife Nellie purchased the property across the street, near where the Palm Springs Art Museum stands today. The couple opened one of the first accommodations in the region, The Desert Inn and Sanitorium – “a modern sanitorium on the edge of the desert with no fogs and no sandstorms,” boasted an early brochure. Back then, the healing natural waters of Palm Springs mainly attracted tuberculosis sufferers looking for cures, who arrived to the then-tiny village on horseback. The Coffman’s marriage quickly dissolved when the entrepreneurial and bull-headed Nellie decided in 1915 that Palm Springs appealed to a much wider audience than merely the ill. She actively promoted a “no invalid” policy for The Desert Inn that excluded those afflicted with any communicable disease whatsoever. The good doctor moved his practice down The Coachella Valley rather than butt heads with his tough-as-nails wife. After all, you don’t mess with a woman who, as a young girl, had migrated with her family from Indiana to Texas in an open ox wagon. By the 1920s, Nellie’s iron-willed vision made The Desert Inn famous around the world. She alone was almost solely responsible for putting Palm Springs on the tourist map. Hollywood celebrities peppered the inn, the Vanderbilt and Hearst families used it for vacations, and even President Herbert Hoover spent the night here. Nellie’s resort morphed from mere shacks to a gleaming white-walled Indian-Spanish landmark, complete with red-tiled roofs and wide terra-cotta verandas, and rich gardens featuring desert flora. The fabled Desert Inn finally closed its doors in 1955, a few years after Nellie’s death. Its historic structures were completely razed in 1967 to make way for the megalithic eyesore that was the Desert Fashion Plaza shopping mall. The only legacy still standing from The Desert Inn era is the home built by Nellie’s son George B. Roberson in 1927 – the same year The Desert Inn reopened in all its Spanish stucco glory. Roberson and his half-brother, O. Earl Coffman managed the inn alongside their mother/boss for more than 40 years. Le Vallauris inhabits the actual home where George and his family spent many happy decades watching Palm Springs boom and mature into a major destination. The pioneering Nellie was beloved by all of Palm Springs, and everyone called her Mother Coffman. A local school is now named in her honor. Nellie, George, and Earl (pictured below) are all buried just a few blocks from Le Vallauris, in the Welwood Murray Cemetery on West Chino Drive. You can almost feel them smiling as you sit down to eat at the magnificent restaurant they helped make possible. Le Vallauris is located at 385 West Tahquitz Way, just behind downtown Palm Springs. It’s open seven days a week from 11:30AM to 2:30PM, and from 5PM to 10:30PM. Starting October 14th, Executive Chef Jean Paul Lair will personally teach cooking classes on every second Monday at 10:30AM.
For reservations, go to www.levallauris.com or call (760) 325 5059.