You would be forgiven if you thought of Palm Springs as a fossilized moment in mid-twentieth century celebrity history. It is true that the luxe desert mecca was a hotspot for celluloid and vinyl celebs such as Frank Sinatra, Liberace and Loretta Young. Those luminaries are long gone, though many of their old homes and old haunts are still standing.
But there is a new Palm Springs too. This revamped desert destination still cherishes its very special mid-century architecture and its showbiz history, but there is a breezier kind of cool in Palm Springs these days, most notably in the food scene. Here are some of the most talked about eateries in the Palm Springs’ restaurant roster, including updated old favorite dining rooms and brand spanking new watering holes.
A roadside diner revamped for today
Grapefruit, dates, cactus and a hard-to-find Mexican delicacy, huitlacoche, are some of the secret ingredients in dishes guests might find at Kings Highway at the Ace Hotel. The hip roadside diner’s mashup menu of American-Mexican-Southern Californian cuisine started out as the brainchild of Carlos Salgado (a semi-finalist of the James Beard Best Chef West Award), and though the chef has since moved on, the quality eats remain. Offerings include out-of-left field riffs on classic Mexican-American tacos such as the orange carnitas with confit Duroc pork, smoky beans, desert cactus salsa, and cilantro. There are also burger adventures to be had such as Salgado’s celebrated ‘Cortez the Killer” burger loaded with Wagyu beef, fried onions and Spanish idiazabal cheese on a brioche bun. Mid-century modern architecture buffs will also be thrilled with the refreshed design of what was formerly a Denny’s, America’s decade’s old pancake house.
Family-style dining… in an orange grove
Back in the 1950s the now boho-chic Sparrows Lodge was the discreet getaway resort for Hollywood types. Today the 20-room rustic style lodge is not only one of Palm Springs coolest hotels; it also hosts family-style dinners at The Barn Kitchen, a twice-a-week, reservations only, under-the-radar restaurant “for select guests”. Dinners are served outdoors at a long table in an orange grove (or in the case of inclement weather, the lodge barn) on Wednesdays and Saturdays only. The fixed menu of home-style cooking includes items such as lemon and herb roasted chicken served with white beans and rainbow chard, or coffee-crusted steak with broccoli and smoked yam.
Inventive eats with hi-rise views
The fresh face of downtown Palm Springs includes the recently opened Kimpton Rowan with its new restaurant, 4 Saints, where cool sophistication hits the stratosphere. The sexy rooftop venue can brag it is the tallest restaurant in town. That means (except for the mediocre grab- and- go eats at top of the city’s aerial tramway) the swanky 4 Saints rooftop perch has the best views of the mountains and surrounding Coachella Valley. With Chef Stephen Wambach (formerly executive chef at Chicago’s Four Seasons) at the helm, 4 Saints’ global menu features dishes with as far reach as Tempura Eggplant with pear, chanterelle, and walnut to Dungeness Crab with avocado, snap pea, and poppy seeds. Leave room for dessert—ideally the Jasmine Cheesecake, a confection that includes mango, matcha, and elderflower.
Sushi with a side of whiskey
Yet another new restaurant on the desert-dining scene may be a drop in altitude from 4 Saints, but not in cool factor. Sandfish is the culinary creation of Chef Engin Onural and design inspiration of architect, Chris Pardo. Sushi and whiskey may sound like a reach, but much-admired sushi chef Onural thinks pairing whiskey, particularly Japanese ones, with his raw fish menu is a winning combination. We know for sure Chef Onural has the sushi part down since he is considered one of the top 30 sushi chefs in the world after qualifying for the World Sushi Cup in Japan. With an excellent selection of Japanese whiskeys in-house, Sushi and shots are sure to become a “thing”.
Asian street food with street cred
The tiny Rooster and the Pig eatery is stashed away in a nondescript strip mall next to a hair salon but is well worth the long wait to get in. The Vietnamese-American menu is proudly a mix of Viet classics and chef-owner Tai Spendley’s innovative spins on other Asian flavors as well. Locals who are surprisingly cheery waiting in line for a table will tell you not to miss Spendley’s superstar panko-crusted chicken-stuffed rice ball on a bed of coconut yellow curry. The dinner menu changes often so if the Bò Lúc Lắc (marinated beef, pickled red onion, mizuna, and tomato) isn’t there after your long wait, don’t fret. You’ll love the little restaurant’s signature pork belly fried rice at least as much.
Serious old-school pedigree
Once one of Palm Springs’ most nostalgic rendezvous, the notorious and naughty hangout Melvyn’s, was once home to old Hollywood royalty and a few mobster kingpins. If you need an evening’s break from all the nouveau cool of Palm Springs, make your way to old blue eyes’ favorite. A lovingly done recent facelift honored the past and has brought the restaurant into the 21st century (sort of). The photos of the famous, Lucille Ball, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope et al still hang on the wall and the menu still offers the classics, like steaks cooked tableside including New York steak à la Sinatra and comforting chicken pot pie. With some advance planning, you might even be able to snag Sinatra’s favorite table.
It’s not just the fabulous, photogenic and shareable tapas-style plates with their crossover Mex and Mediterranean flavors that so intrigue diners at hotel restaurant Azúcar. Chef Garret van de Water’s inventive menu with the likes of shrimp and scallop ceviche with cucumber, Serrano chile, red onion, and lime or his falafel salad with sheep’s feta, tzatziki, and oven roasted tomato are already smash hits with both vegetarians and carnivores. The restaurant, in the uber-chic La Serena Villas, is also a magnet for interior design mavens. The luscious turquoise festive-patterned walls, tile floors and multiple framed homages to Mexican painter, Frida Kahlo are as much a draw as the food. The small restaurant is only open to the public on weekends (guests of the hotel all other days), so make sure you reserve in advance.
Fine French dining, white tablecloths included
Another white tablecloth, dining fixture in Palm Springs is the sophisticated and romantic French throwback, Le Vallauris. With a dash of overheated imagination guests who are lucky enough to be seated outdoors in the restaurant’s leafy garden courtyard might think they are in the South of France. Specialties on the always handwritten menu are the classics such as Poulet au Citron and Dover Sole Meunière and, of course, as it should be, there are plenty of pâtés, terrines and caviars served by handsome tuxedoed waiters.
A local brunch favorite
Judging by the crowd for weekend brunch, the decade-old community gathering place, Jake’s, seems to be a Palm Springs’ institution for shaking off that morning after feeling. Dine al fresco in the courtyard on hearty dishes like “Eggs in Purgatory”, which at Jake’s means sunny side eggs over a bed of baked tomatoes, onions, cheese, olives and homemade breakfast sausage, served with breakfast potatoes or eggs with olives and sausage. Other highlights include chocolate chip waffles washed down with a peach ginger Bellini. And if you travel with your pooch, note bene, diners with dogs are more than welcome.
Celebrity sightings galore, and good food besides
Shhhh. We ordinary mortals are not supposed to know that there are whispers of Spielberg and DiCaprio spottings at SO•PA, the restaurant of the luxe resort for high-income creatives, L’Horizon. We are, however, certainly supposed to know that Mediterranean SO•PA was the creation of Michelin-starred, Italian chef Giacomo Pettinari. Guests gather alfresco around the fire pit and dine on muhammara, a red pepper and walnut mezze and entrées where SoCal meets Syria, like the grass-fed lamb chops with grilled eggplant mousseline, piquillo piperade, and salsa verde.
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Photos: Bianca Simonian for Rooster and The Pig; King’s Highway; 4 Saints;