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Sedona, Ariz., surprises with destination dining

The desert town offers a completely unpretentious, refined, diverse and crave-worthy culinary landscape amid its signature gargantuan red rocks.
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Chef Lisa Dahl’s newest restaurant, Mariposa, is a Latin-inspired fine dining destination set amidst picturesque red rocks.  courtesy of Dahl Restaurant Group

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Mariposa’s menu ranges from Spanish-style tapas to Ecuadorian-style ceviche to Mexican tortilla soup and fried avocado. Argentinian handmade empanadas stuffed with mushrooms, corn and peppers, or beef, are a menu staple, served with homemade chimichurri.  courtesy of Dahl Restaurant Group

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At its heart, Mariposa is a steakhouse, serving up prime cuts like a tomahawk for two, New York strip and filet mignon, which can be boosted to a surf-and-turf combo and enjoyed with sides like triple queso macaroni and cheese and enormously flavorful black beans.  courtesy of Dahl Restaurant Group

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Dahl’s most casual project to date is Pisa Lisa, a wood-fired pizzeria (ironically housed in a former Pizza Hut) serving fired-to-order red and white pies, which are available gluten-free.  courtesy of Dahl Restaurant Group

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At Pisa Lisa (named after a childhood nickname from the chef’s father), pizzas, hand tossed in the corner, are spread with signature “Mother Sauce” and topped with ingredients like grilled eggplant, fior di latte mozzarella, Calabrese sausage, and many more Italian and regional ingredients.  courtesy of Dahl Restaurant Group

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In addition to a diverse pizza menu, Pisa Lisa serves a rotating roster of gelato flavors, ranging from strawberry cheesecake to hazelnut, perhaps best enjoyed as an affogato with espresso poured on top.  courtesy of Dahl Restaurant Group

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Sedona’s original fine dining restaurant, Dahl & Di Luca is still a white tablecloth dinner destination serving organic salads, daily made pastas and a vast assortment of Italian specialties.  courtesy of Dahl Restaurant Group

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After a long day of hiking, a steaming plate of pasta at Dahl & Di Luca is a preferred antidote to revive exhausted bodies. Combine the charm, romantic ambiance and soft music of the dining room, along with Dahl’s attentive staff, and the pasta-focused pampering can be seriously rejuvenating.  courtesy of Dahl Restaurant Group

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Beyond Dahl & Di Luca’s wide range of antipasti and pastas, are grilled and sautéed specialties starring chicken, veal and veggies, like eggplant parmesan and polenta with mushroom ragout.  courtesy of Dahl Restaurant Group

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At Che Ah Chi inside the lush Enchantment Resort, recently instated executive chef Franck Desplechin serves upscale and innovative New American fare in a dining room overlooking a surreal red rock landscape.  Grace Stufkosky

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Though Che Ah Chi’s menu draws from all over the USA and beyond, gourmet takes on regional dishes, like elote and ga’ivsa (that’s stone-ground corn) risotto offer a fresh approach to corn-centric Southwestern cuisine.  Grace Stufkosky

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Sedona’s original fine dining restaurant, Dahl & Di Luca is still a white tablecloth dinner destination serving organic salads, daily made pastas and a vast assortment of Italian specialties.(Photo: courtesy of Dahl Restaurant Group)

Sedona, Ariz. is an incredibly unlikely culinary destination. A two-hour drive from the Grand Canyon’s unremarkable cafeterias and just more than a four-hour road trip from the extravagant buffets of Las Vegas, Sedona is a vacation town worth dining in. Lacking a Zagat guide, falling far from Michelin’s starry scope and nearly absent from the national — not to mention international — media buzz and accolades (though one Sedona chef, Elote Café’s Jeff Smedstad earned a 2017 James Beard Award nomination), Sedona, with its mere population of just more than 10,000 residents, may not seem like a candidate for a food getaway. Yet, the desert town offers a completely unpretentious, refined, diverse and crave-worthy culinary landscape amid its signature gargantuan red rocks.

“Literally, there wasn’t a dining scene 20 years ago,” says Lisa Dahl, the chef and proprietor of four popular Sedona, Ariz., restaurants. “No one would come to Sedona for culinary, but it’s very gratifying now. What was never a dining scene has become a robust little community of almost 200 restaurants.”

Sedona, in many ways, is the perfect place to venture for food lovers — unlike a beach destination or lake getaway where sedentary days are broken up by dinner reservations, time in Sedona is best spent being active outdoors, whether that’s hiking, biking, rock climbing, playing a round of tennis or golf, or jogging through town. Working up an appetite is an inherent part of visiting Sedona, for outdoors buffs and food-focused travelers alike.

More: Chasing the sources in Tucson’s budding food scene

“What I’ve tried to create from the very beginning was a dining destination, not just a restaurant,” Dahl says of her restaurants’ continuing legacy. “[I] put fine dining on the map.”

In Sedona, Ariz., restaurants range from the upscale, white-tableclothed Dahl & Di Luca, an Italian restaurant that Dahl launched in 1995, to a cafeteria-style handmade tamale spot, where stopping by in hiking clothes to fuel up for another climb is more than acceptable. Dahl says this diversity of worthwhile places to eat is indicative of the “new Sedona” — an almost unrecognizably thriving culinary destination from the New Age, bohemian town she moved to more than two decades ago, when it was difficult to even procure a fresh tomato. International travelers and Americans who are becoming more well traveled and well versed in high-quality cuisine expect a range of impressive options when they visit a new place.

And though Dahl estimates that most people don’t come to Sedona exclusively for a culinary excursion, they leave impressed by the meals and overall dining experience, often returning to her restaurants on a repeat trip. “A culture of dining has caught up to us, we have sophisticated clientele beyond belief,” she says. “It can be hard to remember faces, but it touches my heart when repeat customers [tell me] they won’t miss a trip to Sedona, and coming to my restaurant.”

Browse the photos above for a sample of Sedona's local flavor, and see more from Arizona below.

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