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Apr 19, 2010 08:29 AM

Review: El Chorro Lodge (Paradise Valley, AZ)

Before we go any further, let’s just get one thing out of the way. The newly renovated and re-tooled El Chorro Lodge is a beautiful restaurant. The interior design is a tasteful update of a venerable classic, and the setting is spectacular. It exudes an “old Arizona” charm without being kitschy, and I wouldn’t mind passing considerable amounts of time sipping a drink outside at El Chorro while watching the sun set behind the hills of Paradise Valley.

I just wish I hadn’t stayed for dinner.

If this review was just about the architecture and interior design, I’d stop here and say “It’s really beautiful, take the architectural tour.” But El Chorro Lodge is a restaurant, and instead of serving food that befits the setting, the kitchen is doling out lackluster renditions of boring classics with such an amazing lack of pride that it might as well be banquet food at a substandard resort. It’s not just bad, it’s embarrassing and I know they can do better. But banquet food is often bad because they're putting out huge quantities of food and lack the time for detail, which is exactly what's going on here.

But, really, I should have known. All the recent publicity surrounding the re-opening has been about the appearance. People knock Scottsdale for being about style over substance, but El Chorro Lodge wins the award. Nary a word has been mentioned about the food which is actually quite surprising considering that several industry friends of mine have had very positive things to say about Chef Charles Kassels’ abilities. But so much is wrong with the food that it’s hard not to think that someone was too busy at design meetings to spend time thinking about food and service. Or, even worse, did they think that the setting, alone, would be enough to keep the tables full? Maybe.

Sadly, it appears that El Chorro’s culture of mediocrity is doing nothing to deter throngs of gray-haired diners from bringing-in their three generations of offspring for a celebratory dinner. Seriously, the place is like God’s Waiting Room. Each serving area ought to be fitted with an automated defibrillator, and they should offer colostomy bag changing stations instead of diaper changing tables in the restrooms. Get your walker tuned-up while you eat. The customer profile at El Chorro Lodge is about as vivacious as the nursing home intake office, with a similar menu to boot. I expected to see guys in leisure suits prowling the parking area, covertly dealing doses of Viagra, Lipitor, and liver spot creams. Jack Kevorkian would have a heyday here. Okay, I’m being ridiculous and excessive. But, seriously, the age difference between me and the next youngest diner was so wide that I almost felt like some sort of pervert...and I’m pushing the big four-oh.

Trust me – I appreciate a classic. I absolutely loved The Other Place which was way over-the-hill and reeked of mothballs, but still served awesome king crab legs, a delicious old-school table-side salad presentation, and a killer prime rib. (No pun intended, as a server at The Other Place once told me that she had seen several patrons die in the restaurant over the years.) And I dig the Rat Pack vibe at Durant’s, which has also stood the test of time and several different owners. But being “classic” doesn’t give you carte-blanche to skimp on the important things like food quality, technique, presentation and service.

Case in point: my Prime Rib served with creamed spinach and au gratin potatoes, one of the night’s specials. Instead of medium-rare, as I requested, this flavorless hunk of beef was three different shades of gray inside but, oddly, pink on the outside. The horseradish cream, plopped on the same plate as my spinach and potatoes, clearly came straight from the jar and had zero punch whatsoever, not to mention a thick “skin” on top that came from sitting pre-prepared in a refrigerator prior to serving. The spinach and potatoes were commendable only in that they didn’t suck. At nearly $40 this entrée was downright insulting. If you want good prime rib, go to Don & Charlie’s.

Yes, as bad as it was, I think I had the best entree of our group. Two people ordered the Pan Seared Duck, consisting of a confit leg and pan-seared breast. Instead of a crispy exterior, the breast was greasy and the skin was soggy and it appeared to have been prepared earlier and simply re-heated prior to serving. The Forest Mushroom Ravioli in a mushroom broth was described as “bland,” and I think she was just trying to be polite.

Although pricey, all the entrees at El Chorro Lodge come with a basket of Sticky Buns, a relish tray (think buffalo wings with carrots and celery, minus the buffalo wings), and your choice of soup (in this case, Steak and Onion or Gazpacho) or salad. I opted for a Caesar Salad which was probably the highlight of the whole night for me. Whole leaves were lightly dressed, and had a lemon tanginess that was nicely offset in flavor and texture by the coarsely ground black pepper.

Dessert was a yawn, consisting of predictable offerings like Crème Brulee, Sticky Bun Bread Pudding, Chocolate Cake and Gelato. Somehow, our server had to ask what flavors of gelato were available that night, as they change daily. Maybe the other nights are more exciting, but on this night we had a choice of chocolate, vanilla, strawberry and orange. Orange Gelato was about as unconventional as the night got, and ordering it would probably have turned just as many heads as arriving at the El Chorro Lodge valet parking stand with an Obama sticker on your Prius, instead of a “Drill Baby Drill” sticker on your Bentley. You get the picture. The chocolate cake was good but otherwise unremarkable. It’s hard to suck when Valrhona chocolate is involved.

The list of other failures is long and undignified. My Sauvignon Blanc was served at red wine temperatures, and my Merlot was ice cold. Managers and bussers circled our table after we finished dessert like sharks in a feeding frenzy and I felt pressure, whether perceived or real, to give up our table as quickly as possible. No one thanked us on the way out. If the teenagers working at Chili’s can get these details right, so can the sizable management team at El Chorro Lodge. These kinds of failures simply aren’t excusable at this price point.

If it sounds like El Chorro Lodge left a bad taste in my mouth, then you read correctly. Despite a knockout setting that makes me want to move in, the food is a complete afterthought. Although progressive food isn’t going to fly with the El Chorro Lodge demographic (can you just see the looks on their faces if they were served foams, dusts and gelees that weren’t aspic?), it doesn’t mean that the classics can’t be prepared well. Every restaurant deserves a second chance; everyone has an "off night." My first experience at Modern Steak was dreadful, but many of my complaints had been addressed on my second visit and it's someplace that I would definitely return to. I just hope that someone else is paying when I return to El Chorro Lodge.

So, my recommendation is this: go to El Chorro Lodge for a sunset cocktail and some sticky buns, but until they work out the kinks go somewhere else for dinner.

Photos of the meal can be found at

Don & Charlie's
7501 E. Camelback Road, Scottsdale, AZ 85251

El Chorro Lodge
5550 E Lincoln Dr, Paradise Valley, AZ 85253

Modern Steak
7014 E. Camelback Road, Scottsdale, AZ 85251

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  1. This has to be one the best written and most hilarious posts I've seen on CH... ever.
    Well done sir...well done.

    "Get your walker tuned-up while you eat!"

    1 Reply
    1. re: Mytah

      wow...thanks for the compliment!

    2. OUCH!!! Brunch used to be really good there... I wonder if they screwed that up too. We never went for dinner for many reasons under old management, now I know this one won't make the list. Yikes!

      1 Reply
      1. re: danieli10

        Danieli10 - I had been for brunch also, before they closed and remodeled. (Back in the late 80's, I think) My recollection was that the Eggs Benedict was incredibly good. I would certainly give it another shot for brunch, but was pretty disappointed by dinner as evidenced by my review.

        Sadly, the poor quality of the food and the arrogant service does not seem to be a deterrent to the throngs of "regulars" who keep the place full.

      2. This is too bad. When I had heard that Dick Durrance had taken over, and re-done El Charro, I held out hight hopes.

        We discovered El Charro on a board meeting "down" in Phoenix in the early '80s. It was a treat then. We moved to The Valley of the Sun, and were let down. It was then tired and offered nothing.

        Fast forward, and I had high hopes. You have saved me a disappointing evening. I am a student of R. Bucky Fuller, where form must follow function. Translated, that means that style MUST follow substance. Get the latter correct, and then work on the former. Without the food, I could care less about a "happening" place with a "vibe," and "pretty people" wishing to be seen. My tastes are not theirs, and theirs not mine.

        Sorry that El Charro did not work out, but too many restauranteurs lately have been focused on some sort of theme, and completely forgetting that a restaurant is about the food.


        3 Replies
        1. re: Bill Hunt

          Actually Bill, it is Jacquie Dorrance that bought it. She is the wife of Campbell's Soup heir Bennett Dorrance, a local philanthropist and PV resident. They are very nice people, but the restaurant management needs to get it together!

          1. re: ejs1492

            We have been to the "new" El Charro and this review is spot on. The food is ... almost airline food like, the view is great, and if you get there by 4:30 p.m. you can watch the 70 year olds bring their parents out for happy hour.

            1. re: ejs1492

              Thank you. Must have been tasting too much wine, as I knew Bennett Dorrance. Dick Durrance was an action ski cinematographer. Duh!

              Thanks for the gentle correction. Actually, Jacquie and my wife sit on some board together (Symphony?), so please do not share my faux pas - please...


          2. I agree that that is one hilarious review. And from what I have heard, very accurate. I have heard through the grapevine that they are actually charging $10 a head to get a reservation on the patio, this is not mentioned when reservations are made. A friend of mines wife and 14 woman friends recently had this added to their bill and when they asked the server about it she was very perplexed and so they asked for the manager. A manager named Tim with a name tag that said, "managing partner" on it came to the table and made quite a scene, saying, "so your not going to pay you're tab", very loudly in front of other customers. A letter was written to the Dorrances who replied with a very standard reply, "we hope you try us again.....". I had heard that this practice was going on but could hardly believe it, but when my friend started in with the story I knew right where he was heading. Tim and Christy Moore owned Continental catering before selling it, catering and restaurants are completely different, but I have heard that it is being run with all the charm of a banquet hall. El Charro Lodge never had GREAT food, it had charm, which i believe has been ruined by that huge remodel, it is now a spot to have a wedding if your guest list is 1000 or more. Having a ton of money does not necessarily going to make you a restauranteur. just my opinion, I do have over 40 years in the restaurant business. I made 1 visit over to check it out, I went to the "old bar", asked for a glass of chardonnay, I was the only customer but the bartender never so much as gave me the time of day, I left my wine and left.

            3 Replies
            1. re: richardsonsnm1

              richardsonsnm1 wrote: "I have heard through the grapevine that they are actually charging $10 a head to get a reservation on the patio, this is not mentioned when reservations are made. A friend of mines wife and 14 woman friends recently had this added to their bill and when they asked the server about it she was very perplexed and so they asked for the manager. A manager named Tim with a name tag that said, "managing partner" on it came to the table and made quite a scene, saying, "so your not going to pay you're tab", very loudly in front of other customers."

              After reading your post, I called El Charro to question this practice of charging for patio reservations. The hostess, Cindy, who took my call said there is no truth to this rumor and it has never happened. She went on to say that the rumor/misinformation has been floating around for several months, is a complete fabrication and the restaurant would love to know how this got started.

              Even though the food has been described as "airline food" I don't think it is fair to trash a restaurant based on false information. You've been in the restaurant business for over 40 years so you know how damaging this kind of innuendo can be. Don't patronize El Charro because of the food or price or the "God's Waiting Room" clientele but leave the Urban Myth out of it.

              1. re: Sherri

                Now, now, Sherri. As an "artist", Richardson is to be granted some literary license


                He's like all passionate and stuff.

                1. re: hohokam

                  that's funny, even for 10 years old. the Matney article made me wince as well since I remember many great meals at Eddie's old location. Rich may have a love/hate relationship with his staff, but at least his food is worth the price, which El Chorro has yet to accomplish.

            2. El Chorro Lodge recently hired a new chef, so let's hope they can make the food as good as the setting.

              El Chorro Lodge
              5550 E Lincoln Dr, Paradise Valley, AZ 85253

              5 Replies
              1. re: ejs1492

                What I didn't understand about the AZ Republic story about hiring Patrick Boll as chef de cuisine is the implication that all of the sudden, we should expect an overhauled menu. The exec chef Charlie, who relocated out here with his family for the job, remains at the helm. Will the new chef de cuisine really have the authority and collaborative ability to work with Charlie to revamp the menu in the right ways? Only time will tell, I suppose.


                1. re: azhotdish

                  Has anyone been here lately or for brunch?

                  1. re: Dapuma

                    Haven't been for brunch, but did give it a try for restaraunt week. Dinner was quite pleasant and the food quality is definitely up from a couple of years ago when this thread started. Definite SW influence in the menu, though not overtly so. We had the RW week menu of Filet and Trout Almondine, bith of which were excellent, desert was nice with a Mexican chocolate silk pie with cherries. Excellent balance of sweet and spicy. We also tried a couple of sides, including an excellent green chile risotto. It's still a little pricey in my opinion but much improved. Let us know if you like the brunch

                    1. re: kmarg

                      Nice to know. While I wish them well, shortly after the reconstruction, we were less than impressed. Wife did two lunches, and continued to feel the same - lovely, but much better food elsewhere.

                      Glad that things might be on an upswing. Wish them the best.


                      1. re: kmarg

                        Ended up going there for lunch and got the filet eggs bendict, - which was solid and the area view around the restaurant was very nice

                        They did not cook the meat to order it was pretty thin and came out med to med rare, so not exactly was i was hoping for but everything was good but not great

                        They do have their bloody mary's that come with a HUGE jumbo prawn for $5 so that is pretty cool, the server was continuously trying to upsell us which was noticable to me, but he was friendly enough

                        For the price you can get a much better filet benedict at Dick's Hideaway

                        My verdict would be if you want fairly straightforward food (nothing out of the box) with a view, and don't mind paying for the view, not a bad place

                        I won't be back again because I think Daily Dose is better for less, and Dick's Hideaway is a lot better for the same price, but neither has the view or as nice of an outdoor patio