YUCCA VALLEY, Calif. — The first time I drove east from Los Angeles to Flamingo Heights, I came to a stop behind a truck with a fairly blunt sticker on its sliding rear window: “Go Back to L.A.”
It was a reminder that this rural town, just north of Joshua Tree National Park, has an uneasy relationship with outsiders, who drop in by the hundreds to camp, or rent luxuriously renovated homes posted on Airbnb, take guided sound baths and hike with Nubian goats. After rainfall, when the pale desert dandelions and purple pincushions stagger into bloom, tourists come to geotag the flowers and take selfies in the shifting, mystifyingly beautiful desert light. And then? They’re gone.
Nikki Hill, a chef, and Claire Wadsworth, a musician, were married and living in Los Angeles in 2015 when they visited for the weekend and spotted a double rainbow. But instead of going back to the city, they bought an old diner on Highway 247 for about $30,000, turning it into an afternoon-only restaurant that adds a new dimension to the region’s culinary identity.
It’s a balancing act, but La Copine manages to serve the kind of seasonal, reassuringly confident food that appeals to both brunching families and retreat-seekers on a cleanse, in an inclusive dining room run with joy and exuberance. Though from a distance, the restaurant still looks like a diner on a dusty stretch of road — a little pit stop with a big lawless parking lot — the two women have turned it into a hub for the community and its flux of visitors.
Flamingo Heights is a town just north of Joshua Tree National Park, home to a small population and a flux of tourists.CreditNate Abbott for The New York Times
There is no doubt when spring has come to the high desert. La Copine’s tables are piled with crisp haricots verts dressed in tahini, and creamy new potatoes tasting of rosemary and duck fat, dressed with aioli so that the softest parts of the potato become smushed and almost indistinguishable from the sauce.
All of the salads at La Copine, and there are usually two or three on the menu, are hunks — burly and satisfying, full of delicious secrets. You might find, under crisp, generously dressed leaves, a smattering of fried capers or a treasure of syrupy sherry-soaked dates.
The fried chicken thighs, dredged with potato flour, have a delicately crisp lace around the skin, which is sweet with hot honey. And the stack of layered eggplant, baked with a mellow tomato sauce until it’s meltingly soft and tender, doesn’t announce that it’s vegan. It is.
Though at first, Ms. Hill shopped at supermarkets and drove to the lower desert to find produce, she now gets her fruits and vegetables from farms in California, including ones in nearby Pipes Canyon, Bakersfield and Chino.
The menu is concise; even with the wine list and desserts, it fits on a single page. Seating is first-come, first-served, and regulars know to look for the scribbled list attached to a clipboard by the bar outside, so they can put their names down as they arrive.
Most dishes are composed with speed and efficiency, rather than prettiness in mind — no wasted movements in the kitchen, no superfluous components on the plate. Ms. Hill, who cooked at Scopa and Huckleberry in Los Angeles, takes a sincere, straightforward approach to cooking, building dishes that tend to underpromise and overdeliver.
Opening a restaurant in Los Angeles, or any major city, would have required bigger loans and a much larger investment, but after putting another $30,000 or so into furniture and repairs — fixing the leaky roof and replacing the walk-in compressor, repairing the appliances on the line and sanding the walls — the couple was ready for business.
The line is outfitted with little more than two propane burners and a small grill, complemented by two tabletop fryers — one for chicken and another for beignets. Ms. Hill found a tiny electric smoker on Amazon that she uses to finish the salmon for the house salad.
Weekends, vacations and humane schedules are a rarity in restaurants, where hours are long and time off is tenuous. But since the couple’s investment in the space was relatively small, Ms. Hill and Ms. Wadsworth can afford to close their restaurant for three days each week and two summer months each year.
When it’s open, though, it’s slammed. At 2 p.m., just as La Copine starts to seat diners, a crowd is already waiting on the porch. Some live in nearby Landers. Some have traveled from Palm Springs or Los Angeles. Even on weekdays, the mood is of a casual, all-day celebratory brunch spot.
Grandparents in floppy sun hats sit on the chairs, looking out to the mountains. Queer couples sip glasses of Scribe Winery’s rosé in the slivers of shade, where there’s almost always a good dog under its owner’s chair next to a plastic quart container full of water. Locals run into one another in the parking lot, stopping to gossip. The wait might be 15 minutes or 50 for a table, and the host is hesitant to quote an exact time. (If you lose patience, there aren’t many other options around.)
Not everything at La Copine hits the bar that its best dishes set: The warm, sugar-dredged beignets can be on the tough side, with a too-tight crumb. And the banh mi was, on one visit, heavily oversalted. These missteps may be overlooked when you’re seated in such an effusive environment.
“Papas a la plancha-aaaaa,” a server sang out operatically as she placed the potatoes on the table. “If I say this wine is apple-forward,” said another, leaning in with a wink, “does that make it sound like I know what I’m talking about?”
Ms. Wadsworth’s dining room staff seems powered by a charming, almost goofy energy. And La Copine isn’t one of those restaurants on a mission to educate diners, or tell them what to like — at least not overtly.
Every restaurant can be an instrument of persuasion, and La Copine isn’t just a destination for late lunch in the desert. It’s a model for outsiders putting down roots in the places where they find beauty, changing and complicating a community as they become an essential part of it.