Michael Botello says there isn’t a bad table in the house at Wally’s Desert Turtle, his French-influenced fine-dining restaurant in Rancho Mirage that’s been serving the Coachella Valley for more than four decades. But he concedes there’s a most coveted table: “People still say, ‘We want the Fords’ table.’ The Fords used to come all the time and sit at the table right in front of the atrium,” he says of the late former president and first lady Gerald and Betty Ford, longtime Rancho Mirage residents. “That’s one of the most popular places in the restaurant. You’ve got the plants behind you, and you can see the whole dining room and can be seen. And everybody wants to be seen, right?”
Well, for many, a visit to Wally’s is less about being seen and more about seeing the restaurant’s grand, Old World design created by the late, legendary designer Steve Chase, who became a local icon both for his career and humanitarian accomplishments, including his work with the nonprofit Desert AIDS Project.
Much of what Chase created when the 10,000-square-foot building was constructed in 1978 remains today: soaring ceilings covered in beveled mirrors, faux finishes, ornate light fixtures, etched glass dividers, commissioned wall murals, and the grand sunken dining room flanked by that skylight-topped atrium lined with planters of live greenery and leafy trees.
“It cost millions, and that was back in 1978,” says Botello, whose father, Wally Botello, opened the restaurant. The younger Botello, who has been operating the restaurant for the last 30 years, has kept the vision alive — until now. He’s calling this year “the farewell season” as he looks for a buyer for the restaurant.