Lisa Dahl Has Created A Culinary Empire In Sedona. Here’s How She Became The Restaurateur To Beat.

Lisa DahlPhoto Credit: Scott Yates

Everyone in the mystical, magical city of Sedona knows Chef Lisa Dahl — she’s the queen bee of Sedona, after all, with a culinary empire that can’t be bested. Dahl is the executive chef and CEO of five outstanding restaurants in Northern Arizona’s red rock country where she has earned international acclaim for Dahl & Di Luca Ristorante Italiano, Cucina Rustica, Pisa Lisa, Mariposa Latin Inspired Grill and her newest, most buzzed-about addition, Butterfly Burger, A Couture Burger Lounge (how haute!).

After shedding her life in the Bay Area and a career in the fashion industry following the loss of her son Justin, Dahl sought healing and moved to Sedona, a town famous for its spiritual energy and restorative powers. Once settled, she unearthed her long-held passion for cooking, one that she and Justin shared. Honoring Justin’s memory is part of each of her restaurants.

Along with being a two-time James Beard House-featured chef, Dahl is widely credited for Sedona’s emergence as a national “foodie destination”. A self-taught chef, her cooking styles are diverse and includes high-end traditional Italian cuisine, rustic Mediterranean fare, South American-inspired dishes, indulgent and inventive burgers and wood-fired pizza, considered among the best in Arizona. She’s also a grill master whose burgers reigned supreme three years in a row at Scottsdale’s Burger Battle, which garnered her the attention of celebrity Chef Bobby Flay who challenged Dahl to go head-to-head on an episode of Food Network’s “Beat Bobby Flay”.

Here, we talk to this culinary queen, who has penned two cookbooks, including the most recent A Romance with Food: Latin Infusion Cooking, on how she built her empire.

Lisa DahlPhoto Credit: Scott Yates

You have been very open about your desire to move to a new location and heal after the tragic loss of your son? Why were you drawn to Sedona?

I had been there for a few days with a friend years before. At the time, I lived in Marin County a gorgeous place in and of itself, but I needed to get away from the day-to-day memory that was unbearable and I reflected on the time I had been to Sedona and thought of it as such an incredibly spiritual experience with so much magnified beauty and nature. I felt it would be a really good place to start my life over.

Was it difficult to leave your fashion career and transition into becoming a chef and restaurateur?

It came somewhat naturally because I’ve loved cooking since I was a teenager. I always embraced the opportunity to cook for others and thrived in bringing joy to people through food. My passion for fashion melded into a devotion to cooking and became a metaphor for healing by giving service. Feeding others helped take my mind off of my own missing piece. Fashion always remained a big part of my life and is now a personal interest rather than a career. You can take the girl out of fashion, but you can’t take the fashion out of the girl.

How do you honor your son Justin in in your current work and restaurants?

Justin is the foundation for all my restaurants starting with Dahl & DiLuca–my first and my favorite restaurant because I call it “the shrine to the divine.” I felt his Angelic presence when I launched it, and I still do every time I enter the building. With that being said, I love all of the restaurants. They’re part of my heart of hearts. Each one of them has a symbolism whether it’s hidden in a corner or a special notation on the menu for those who seek healing in their own lives. They will always feel a presence that makes sense of something difficult to comprehend. Also, some menu items are named after him. In fact, all my menus have a dedication to Justin and my mother and my father. At Pisa Lisa, specific pizzas are named after my family memories and I find it cathartic when I make pizza or I hear the name being called out, I’m always touched. Subliminally just knowing that Justin might be listening warms my heart. It’s beautiful. I feel him.

Lisa Dahl
 Dahl & Di Luca

Photo Credit: Scott Yates

Can you describe what makes the restaurants in your group unique?

They are all unique and different from each other. Dahl & DiLuca was my first restaurant and I refer to it as a shrine to the divine. It has an almost religious feeling. While it has a refinement similar to NYC restaurants, it also has a delicate and angelic touch to the food. Although it has the smallest kitchen in my group, it does tremendous business and after twenty-six years it keeps getting stronger and stronger every day.

Cucina Rustica

Cucina Rustica was designed to be bigger and bolder with more room to spread out than its sister. With hauntingly, beautiful rooms each has its own flare and personality that suits where guests might want to either dine or celebrate a magical special occasion. People always return because of its unique warmth which was truly a labor of love on my part. It is eighteen years old, and I was able to really spread my wings in in the design by working with a with a special effect painter to add wall textures and treatments. It’s as if you’ve taken a trip and landed in a villa in Tuscany. Guests enter through antique doors and gates, signaling a journey, as we are all traveling upon one. It was created to let people experience a past life, or a past travel, from their own imagination.

Pisa Lisa

Pisa Lisa is my way to give everyone an excuse to feel like a kid again. It’s delicious, it’s unique and incorporates the style of artists and artisans. I love pizza, but its menu is friendly for everyone. When people start with our signature Tuscan tomato soup, or one of our big delicious organic salads or Tapas plate, they know it’s not just a place to go for pizza. There’s an enthusiastic vibration from the minute you enter and hear the upbeat music, and when you leave with one of our Heavenly gelatos, you feel like a little kid. It’s just plan good old-fashioned fun.


Mariposa was the biggest undertaking and it’s magnetism was so strong. There was so much anticipation as it was being built that when we opened our doors we served 100,000 guests during the first year. The grandiosity of its surroundings made me feel like a little ant. My book A Romance With Food has a section called the miracle of Mariposa which personifies the energy required to make it a success combined with the spiritual Vortex that Sedona is known for. Mariposa taught me so much and made me realize that we are aligned with the purpose. It is symbolic of healing and transformation, and it’s personally very rewarding to be able to share that with others.

Butterfly Burger

Butterfly Burger is a couture burger lounge, it’s next level. From the minute you walk in the door, the subdued lighting shows that you’ve entered a place that is not typical for Sedona. People say it feels like they’re in New York, but it was inspired by the bars in Paris and Rome. I never cut any corners in making it feel sublime–from burgers, veggie burgers, Mahi lettuce wraps and tapas, it’s a delight and a treat causing people to come back often. The interior features bronze and copper setting a rich, decadent tone. The cocktails are over-the-top. The milkshakes knock you out whether they’re mixed with alcohol or non-alcoholic. It is dark, dusky and sexy.

Lisa Dahl

Photo Credit: Scott Yates

With five successful restaurant concepts, is it possible to choose a favorite?

Dahl & DiLuca will always be my favorite because it has European charm. I feel like I’m at home and I don’t have to cook. It’s a cuisine that I resonate with. Although I’m not Italian, I love Italian cuisine. The menu satisfies every mood, from a really delicate seafood pasta or a veal piccata to going all vegetarian. Sometimes I’m just in the mood to have a date with the grilled portobellos, arancini and simple angel hair makes me feel like a queen.

Mariposa life is often recognized as a special occasion, romantic dining experience. What makes it so popular?

I think romance is in the eye of the beholder. I had romance in mind when I created the ambiance and the menu. The view leaves people awestruck. I find that many restaurants famous for their views have pretty blasé food. I wanted to try to have the polarity of amazing food coupled with the view and we’ve worked hard to accomplish that. I think it’s wonderful that many people say Mariposa is the most romantic restaurant. We Believe in romance in every form.

Lisa Dahl
Butterfly Burger

Photo Credit: Scott Yates

How do you describe your clientele?

26 years has evolved dramatically needless to say, but because our restaurants are classics we will always hopefully attract people of ages and of all demographics as they evolve.

What inspired you to write your second cookbook, A Romance With Food?

I wrote the second cookbook over a period of about eight years from start to finish. I was inspired as a chef of the Italian cuisine to want to do something new so I focused on food from South America, specifically Argentina, with influences of Chile, Ecuador and Peru. When I took my travel journey with my romantic partner of many years, Scott Yates, who is also the photographer of A Romance With Food, we knew we were going to capture eye candy for a book. Little did I know that the soul of the book was to be a journey of my soul as a chef. It became the perfect sequel to my memoir The Elixir of Life. Both books are a spiritual journey.

When you’re not cooking or overseeing your restaurant empire, what do you enjoy doing?

Being out in nature because with the stresses of what I do on a daily basis, walking or cycling helps me clear my mind. God’s creation is cathartic for me and it lets me unwind. I love trying other restaurants, fashion, travel and getting away for a couple of days. It is nice to enjoy a glass of bubbly wherever I may be so fortunate to let my hair down and feel romantic with my partner who has had to put up with my obsession at the restaurant or home.

What is so unique about the Sedona culinary scene and how did you conquer it? When I came to Sedona in the early nineties, there were a few good restaurants, but it wasn’t a culinary destination. I was a foodie way before we called that and I couldn’t understand how a place so exotic was lacking dining options. I focused on offering what was missing and started with Dahl & DiLuca and I haven’t stopped. The farm-to-table, healthy and refined places to eat were a natural evolution for me. When people came in late, we would literally turn the lights back on the kitchen, make a soup of the day and a simple pasta for them. I didn’t set out to build an empire, it evolved from the depths of my heart to make every dish delicious and feed people’s hearts.

Lisa DahlPhoto Credit: Scott Yates

What is something visitors should know that’s unique about fine dining in Sedona?

Fine dining in Sedona ranges from resorts to our style of restaurant. I don’t really think of it as find fine dining per se. It’s not a button up type of fine dining. Many people still come in in casual wear and that can be a real downer to those that are dressed to really celebrate a special occasion. Needless to say, we take our cuisine extremely seriously, and we’ve come a long way baby.

Do you have expansion plans to other cities and where?

Butterfly Burger and Pisa Lisa are a perfect fit for Vegas and they would do fantastic in Scottsdale and in other major cities. We are currently developing the prototype for both concepts to expand. We have a great following and many of our guests come from around the country, in fact around the world, and people would welcome these concepts in their local community. Phoenix will probably be our first market to expand in because it is close to our base and it has a population enthusiastic for restaurants.

Lisa DahlPhoto Credit: Scott Yates

What part of the Dahl empire would you like to expand specifically?

That’s a blended question. Butterfly Burger and Pisa Lisa are both a natural fit for expansion and we are currently focused on bringing both concepts to new markets.

What, of every dish you make, is the one dish you’re eating consistently?

I’m a creature of habit and each restaurant has a favorite for me. I use the restaurants as an extension of my own home kitchen so I have my go-to salads, soups, and comfort food dishes that I eat to enjoy and also use as a training tool to help my staff to prepare the proper way.

What is the greatest luxury in life and why?

Freedom. Everyone should be free, whether politically or in their career choices. As a chef, I use freedom in my cuisine, style, design, décor, and the spaces that I worship. Freedom gives people the ability to express themselves and excel in their passion which is the greatest, greatest, greatest feeling.

Lisa DahlPhoto Credit: Scott Yates