Butterfly Burger: Letting it Fly with Lisa Dahl
Writer Amanda Christmann
Photography Courtesy of Scott Yates
It has been said that life is about reinventing one’s self.
When one of Arizona’s most renowned woman chefs, Lisa Dahl, first told me she was opening a burger restaurant in the then-less-than-swanky former Outlets at Oak Creek, I have to confess that my initial thought was that Dahl was morphing into something so out of character that I wasn’t entirely sure even this queen of couture could pull it off.
After all, Dahl is responsible for some of the most iconic upscale restaurants in Sedona. Dahl & Diluca, Cucina Rustica and Mariposa have put the once-sleepy culinary scene of Sedona on the international map.
Even her more casual Pisa Lisa provided a new twist on an old theme that brought a heightened level of class and elegance—Dahl’s signature.
But burgers? I wasn’t sure.
If there is one thing I have learned about Lisa Dahl, however, it is that one should never underestimate her ability to breathe life into the most unlikely, yet most wonderful dreams.
In Butterfly Burger, which opened Sept. 18 on National Cheeseburger Day, not only has she created what’s likely the most hip and splashy burger restaurant in the state (country?), she’s built a menu that turns the boring old burger into a gourmet meal built with layer upon layer of fabulous flavors.
What’s more, with the low-light glamour of a speakeasy, intimate seating and Dahl’s trademark world-class servers, chef and staff, she’s infused her latest restaurant with a je ne sais quoi that goes well beyond great menu selections.
Diners may come for the burgers, bourbon and boozy shakes, but what they get is an unmatched dining experience that brings them back time and again.
“People come up to Sedona, and when they come to our restaurants they expect something different. This is not just about the burger, but the burger must speak.
“Butterfly Burger is a burger place that catches everyone off guard. When they come here, they are prepared to have a fabulous burger, but they don’t realize that they are walking into the Cartier of burger places.
“It’s all about the layering of every element, but it starts with the best quality of ingredients that we can find. We’ve pushed the envelope on all the elements that are needed to pull that off: fantastic meat, cheese, our selection of buns and the sauce combination that makes us extremely unique.”
A Winning Beginning
It was the Scottsdale Burger Battle that made Dahl’s wheels begin to turn. She first entered in 2016, not long after she opened the doors of Mariposa Latin-Inspired Grill.
She’d never entered a burger battle; in fact, she’d never even seen one, yet the concept of a comfort zone does not seem to exist for Dahl. She threw her name in the hat and did what she does best.
“The first burger battle was held at the Valley Ho,” she said. “I’d never been there and I’d never even seen one of those concepts. It sounded like fun, and I thought it would be a fun way to promote our lunch opening at Mariposa.
“I’d created my very first burger for the menu at Mariposa called the Gringo Burger. I had no premeditation of what people were going to be cooking up, so I took what I thought was going to be one of the most spell-binding, delicious burgers I could make.
“The Gringo is a Latin twist on an American classic. It’s not trendy or different, it’s just mastery of all the components being right.”
Not only did she impress at the competition, she won. The following year, she was the runner up, and in 2017 and 2018, she again took the title.
“I was the only woman chef, but I was also doing certain things that the others didn’t. When I won People’s Choice, I thought, ‘This ain’t so bad! Maybe we’ve got something!’
“It was the stepping stones that made me go, hey, people like these burgers,” she said.
Emerging from a Chrysalis
Those who have followed Dahl know how deeply personal her attachments to her restaurants are.
Lisa’s son, Justin Wesley Jones, was senselessly murdered at the age of 23 when he tried to break up a robbery in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district.
The two of them had been inseparable, and making great food together was often at the center of their love. They talked about opening a restaurant someday to share the recipes they’d come to love through the years.
When Justin died, Dahl packed up her belongings and moved to Sedona, where she felt embraced by the energy of the red rocks. She opened up the restaurant of her dreams, then another, then another.
Her fourth restaurant, Mariposa, which means butterfly in Spanish, is a monument to the beauty and depth of their relationship.
Those who have had the pleasure of tasting some of the most indulgently satisfying flavors imaginable while taking in the restaurant’s breathtaking views and dramatically fantastic décor know just how special Mariposa is.
Many thought four restaurants would be the entirety of her work. After all, each has become wildly successful in its own right, and Dahl herself has earned one award and recognition after another, including hosting two James Beard house performances in New York City.
As it happened, however, Dahl’s story has not yet ended, nor has her ability to express each chapter in a new iteration of culinary accomplishment.
Once again, death has solidified itself as a metaphor in one of Dahl’s restaurants—not as a tragedy, but as a celebration.
In November, Lisa’s mother Dorothy, whose fashionable flair and kind yet determined presence were clearly influential to her daughter, passed away just a few days shy of her 95th birthday. Though her death was not unexpected, it did elicit a tremendous sense of loss—and, like a butterfly, of rebirth.
“Through the whole thing was an amazing closeness,” Dahl said. “In many respects, it was as perfect as anything so sad can be. You know your parents are eventually going to die of old age, but there were many, many blessings that were so stunning during the process.
“Mom was a huge force. Everyone around here knew her because of her persona. My mother represented her love of fashion and décor in her own incredibly sweet, humble, non-ego-driven way for over a decade here.”
As she spoke, I smiled at my own memory of Dorothy. Though she was a tiny woman—much like her daughter—she entered a room with quiet elegance. Her outfits were always perfectly coordinated with her hats, and she never seemed to wear the same combination twice.
Not one for fanfare or pomposity, Dorothy likely wouldn’t have wanted much to-do to be made over her life, but because she’d managed to touch an impressive number of lives, quite a few people showed up to pay their respects, and to hear Frank Sinatra sing “Come Fly with Me” one last time in Dorothy’s honor.
“We all felt that we did what she would have wanted. We were lucky to have her for 95 years,” Dahl said.
And so, once again, food is a source for love, sustenance and comfort, and it represents love, loss and all of the delicious beauty of life itself.
Setting It Free
As I’ve watched her vision unfold, I’ve realized that, for Dahl, life is not so much about reinventing herself; it’s about peeling away layers to expose and embrace beautiful parts of herself that were previously hidden.
Butterfly Burger isn’t shy about its smooth, sultry vibe. Seating is intimate and decidedly grown-up. Cell phones are discouraged, and there is a dress code (no tank tops, flip flops or provocative clothing allowed). Also, parents are discouraged from bringing small children because, frankly, it’s just not that kind of place.
What Butterfly Burger does so well is envelope its guests in rich warmth. It invites them to sit down, enjoy a killer cocktail, spend quality time with friends and loved ones and reimagine all they knew about burgers.
“I think it’s a great concept,” said Dahl. “I like the fact that the unique envelope or canvas that it sits in is also an equal part of that experience.
“We want you to hang out feel its arms around you. I want you to love it!”
Though she’s poured no less of herself into the creation of Butterfly Burger than she has building the rest of her small restaurant empire, this particular concept is different.
Unlike Dahl & Diluca, Mariposa, Cucina Rustica and Pisa Lisa, which she built to be constantly nurtured and groomed, Butterfly Burger was built to fly.
Each of her restaurants is like one of her children, and Butterfly Burger is the first restaurant she’s developed that can soar without her.
“It’s huge for me to say this for the first time,” she said. “It was designed to be a prototype for future restaurants that would not require me to be their mother hen for the rest of their life. It’s a very different thing because the other four restaurants were meant to be little worlds of constant nurturing that were literally like my kids.
“It’s not that I don’t feel a strong sense of love for this restaurant, because I really do. I also feel like I kind of want something that would have its own wings and could start to fly out into the world in a bigger way.”
Butterfly burger represents the new paradigm for Dahl.
“It is the only restaurant that I ever felt this way about. I love it, I adore it, but I don’t feel like I have to live in it. I want one in all kinds of hip cities. This is part of that metamorphosis that is coming.
“There is a healthy attachment. There was a different feeling I had when I was dreaming it up, and seeing it manifest, I know that it is a transitional new way of looking at myself as a restaurateur.”
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