Writer Amanda Christmann
Photography by Scott Yates
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t’s a Thursday night at Sedona’s swank Mariposa Latin-Inspired Grill, and the air is buzzing with gaiety. The sun is making a show of its exit stage left, and its glow across glass artwork elicits an almost visceral response among those of us fortunate to be in the moment.
It has been over two years since I’ve been in this space. My first visit, not long after owner Lisa Dahl celebrated the grand opening of this magnum opus and ultimate tribute to her son, Justin, who lost his life while being a good Samaritan in 1995. In the short months since, Mariposa has already stepped into stardom in the red rocks—and for good reason.
From its inception, every element of Mariposa has been intentionally and painstakingly conceived and executed. Fire, air, water and earth come together in profound yet simple ways inside and out.
Bubbling outdoor fountains are flanked by ablaze metal sculptures, and round, twig-like chandeliers illuminate airy ceilings. Butterflies, symbolic of Dahl’s own metamorphosis, provide the establishment’s namesake as well as an element of whimsy to its beauty.
There are few establishments developed as mindfully as Mariposa, but even its grandeur is secondary to the magnificent view of Mt. Wilson and the mystical Secret Mountain Wilderness framed by the restaurant’s walls of glass. The vista, the food, and the focus on the present moment: Mariposa catches the very essence of why people come to Sedona.
Conversations in several different languages fill the air, and behind me a couple is extolling the excellence of the days’ Pescado Paradiso. After tapas of perfectly balanced corn empanadas with pineapple criolla, then fabulous Ecuadorian-style Shrimp Ceviche with rock shrimp and house cocktail sauce savory enough to eat with a fork, I try the fish. They are right. It is wonderful.
For owner Lisa Dahl, every bit of it is by design.
Dahl has carved out her niche, planting a firm foothold at the very top of Sedona’s burgeoning restaurant scene. The number of annual visitors to Arizona’s famed red rock country has tripled in the last decade, turning this once-sleepy town of 10,000 into a crowded hotspot for spirituality and commerce, and nearly every one of those visitors is eager to explore local cuisine as part of their journey.
When her first restaurant, Dahl & DiLuca Ristorante Italiano, opened in 1995, it was a Sedona first; no other area restaurants offered its level of fine dining. Dahl came to Sedona to heal from her son’s death, but little did she know how much she had to offer. It became a rousing hit.
Her second endeavor, Cucina Rustica Rustic Tuscan Grill, gave diners an equally delicious yet entirely different option. Still refined, but more masculine with its heavy woods and rich colors, Cucina Rustica, too, quickly became an area favorite for those wanting something more upscale.
Pisa Lisa, which opened in 2013, was the rambunctious little sister to the refined elegance of Dahl’s first two restaurants. That “little sister” has grown to quite the accomplished young lady, however; Dahl manages to take pizza—everyone’s American favorite—to an entirely new level with perfectly crisp, wood-fired crusts, her homemade “mother sauce,” and fresh, fantastic toppings like spicy prawns, Nova Scotia smoked salmon, fiore di latte mozzarella and more.
For many, owning and operating a single restaurant to the most minute of details, as Dahl is known for, would be exhausting. Not so for this tiny dynamo. In fact, as her empire of award-winning dining destinations grows, she appears to become more confident. In fact, I can’t help but notice a new radiance in her eyes as we catch up over dinner.
Mariposa Latin-Inspired Grill may be the latest in Dahl Restaurant Group’s Sedona unique restaurants, but it won’t be the last. In April, she made the announcement that she’s opening not one, but two more restaurants in the Village of Oak Creek in a new retail space, called Sedona Vista Village, being renovated from the old outlet mall that once thrived there. Her latest creations are ambitiously slated to open in fall 2018.
The first, another Pisa Lisa, will offer the same popular wood-fired pizzas, tapas, paninis, hand-tossed salad and luscious desserts as its Sedona location a few miles away.
The second, Butterfly Burger, she’s conceived as a “couture burger lounge.” The idea came from a 2016 Scottsdale Burger Battle victory in which her Gringo Burger took the People’s Choice Award. She will essentially be doing the same magic to burgers that she’s done to spice up her pizza.
“I’ve watched burger concepts coming up and know I have a particular concept and methodology that’s original,” she explained. Of course, this comes as no surprise for anyone who has seen her self-taught culinary genius at work.
As she speaks, she portrays the vision she’s so close to realizing. “I want to focus on quality sourcing of meats with emphasis on special sauces, and with equal emphasis on the vegetables and fabulous sides to go with those burgers and sauces.” Craft beers, bourbon and novelty shakes will also be on the menu.
“I see it as a kind of fashion-y lounge. This is not the burger you stand in line to get as quickly as you can and get out,”—as if I or anyone else would expect anything different from Lisa Dahl.
“I have a good feeling about it,” she continued, as she sat across from me beneath the lights at Mariposa. “Instead of doing it for emotional reasons, which is what this place really has been,” she said, encompassing the dining rooms with a sweep of her arm, “I want to build two more restaurants because it makes more sense. There is so much demand for great stuff in that area, yet there is so little of it.”
Developers of Sedona Vista Village plan to anchor the retail center with the area’s first Westin hotel. The three-story, 120-room lodge will open the area to become a gateway to Sedona. Dahl’s restaurants will serve as cornerstones to the retail development.
Located across from Cucina Rustica and an increasing number of galleries and shops, Sedona Vista Village will prime the Village of Oak Creek to absorb some of the overflow from Sedona’s busy tourist corridor. Dahl foresees the area becoming its own destination, and though time will tell, she could just be spot on.
“The Village of Oak Creek is such a beautiful area. I feel secure pioneering a more casual element out there.”
Like everything else she does, Dahl’s ideas are grandiose but firmly anchored in reality. She has embraced what would be overwhelming for most people and stepped into her own power to create not one, but several labors of love.
“I feel especially honored in where I am now in what I’ve realized has been part of my responsibility to be a mentor to other women.”
She takes a sip of her drink and adds with a smile, “It’s a whole new world, and I’m part of a revolution.”