The smiling man in the crisp tuxedo welcomes us with a firm handshake, “We’ve been expecting you,” he says. “I put a table aside for you but people keep moving around.” They sure do.
Past the long bar, where they line up two deep behind the stools, couples trip the light fantastic on the small mirror-lined dance floor in front of the band. Women in vintage Pucci dresses – one of them wearing a fascinator hat – sing along to their favourites. Low tables cram all the open floor space and even the baby grand piano has bar seats around its curved edges. It’s Sunday night at Melvyn’s in 2015, but it might as well be a Friday night in 1975.
Famous dishes to feed the famous people who have eaten here over the years, everyone from Liza Minelli and Gerry Lewis to Barry Manilow and Cher
Little has changed at this Palm Springs landmark in 40 years, back when Sinatra used to raise his Jack Daniels flag to let the neighbours know the party was on. Brian, the dapper Maitre’d who welcomed us, has worked there since then. So has the bartender, David Shunick. He can make you a JD on the rocks just like he did for Ol’ Blue Eyes, when he was a regular who would sometimes hop up on the stage to belt out a couple of tunes with the house band.
The dining room menu evokes a time when every restaurant had the same dishes, and those dishes had proper names: Crepes Suzette, Oysters Rockefeller, Steak Diane. Famous dishes to feed the famous people who have eaten here over the years, everyone from Liza Minelli, Dinah Shore and Gerry Lewis to David Hasselhoff, Barry Manilow and Cher.
Alright, maybe those aren’t the hottest celebrities of the moment, and crepes suzette might not be the cutting edge of the culinary zeitgeist, but that doesn’t mean Palm Springs is a dusty time capsule. In fact, it just might be thriving—the rare time when a once-hip city can be made essential again. It’s not entirely about new restaurants opening, or about nostalgia. It’s about both. I’m visiting some of those classic places, seeing how they’ve stayed relevant today, but while I’m tracing the steps of 70s celebrities, I’m also discovering the new spots that are brining fresh ideas to the desert city.
My base of operations is The Parker Palm Springs Hotel, a gorgeous, garden-filled property that itself has a long, proud history and a decidedly modern outlook. Built in 1958 as California’s first Holiday [what is that?], singing Cowbow Gene Autry later turned the property into his own private ranch. In the late 90’s Merv Griffin purchased the land and opened Merv Griffin’s Resort and Givenchy Spa. Thankfully, the Parker group took over in 2004 and injected a bit of cool back into the property.
Yesterday the bocce court was crammed with a camera crew and models from German Vogue, and this morning a table of starlets prep for their photo shoot over bowls of chilled yogurt on Norma’s restaurant patio. They say nothing tastes better than being skinny feels, but my banana-macadamia nut flap jacks with, “whipped banana brown sugar butter,” confirms that ‘they’ don’t know what they’re talking about. I’ll only imagine what the lobster frittata tastes like: at $1,000.00 a dish – with 10oz of Sevruga caviar – I imagine it’s a bit rich.
Norma’s is fun and delicious, but the real action happens at night past the psychedelic door and beyond the velvet curtains in the hotel’s dark Mister Parker’s restaurant. Barry White drips out of the speakers as I settle into a corner banquette amid walls filled with vintage erotic paintings. In one of them a classic California blondesmoulders in a leather belted white bikini, sporting a Mona Lisa smile. A pair of porcelain lions guard the entrance to a private room in the back that comes complete with its own private bar.
The room seems to have drawn its inspiration from an imagined Burt Reynold’s man cave, circa the Gator/Semi-Tough period
The room seems to have drawn its inspiration from an imagined Burt Reynold’s man cave, circa the Gator/Semi-Tough period. Even chef Herve Glin’s menu seems to acknowledge that era, updating it in clever ways. Where you might expect shrimp cocktail there’s Tuna Tartare, the shrimp cocktail of the 21st century, that comes not with cocktail sauce, but yuzu crème fraîche, mango chutney, crispy potatoes and wasabi tobiko. Similarly, red wine braised Wagyu short ribs with sweet potato and creamed watercress are the steak au poivre of our age, a nearly ubiquitous and always delicious menu staple. There’s also steak au poivre.
Wine pairing is made easy thanks to a list that divides choices into Crazy, Sexy and Cool categories. After dinner, retire to the lobby, where the six seat, green marble lined Mini Bar makes a mean grasshopper, and see where the evening takes you. Back in the day that could have meant just about anything – when the hotel was the Givenchy, Robert Downey Jr. Was arrested for heroin possession in room 311, now though, things are as PG as the latest Iron Man movie.
If the party carries on back to your villa, and the evening turns to morning, it might be a good time to seek breakfast off the property. The line moves quickly at Cheeky’s where the workout gear clad crowds queue to indulge in a little pre or post tennis carbo-loading. This is the first restaurant in a growing restaurant empire from chef Tara Lazar and her partner Marco Rosetti that includes the Italian influenced Birba.
At Cheeky’s, though, the emphasis is on the flavours of Mexico, not surprising for a town just 200km from the border. Rich, soft scrambled eggs spill out of the corners of a spicy breakfast quesadilla, a savoury base of fried masa is topped with tender strips of steak, pickled onions, refried beans, fresh cheese and diced cactus paddles in an exemplary huaraches. While not strictly Mexican, the renowned bacon flight – five varieties of artisanal bacon on one plate – is as necessary an order as a reviving bloody mary. Bacon flights might not seem very California spa food friendly, but as anyone who’s tasted the Thai sweet chili bacon can attest, diet rules are made to be broken.
There’s a kind of devout adherence to using local ingredients that extends beyond the menu to the cocktail list
If there’s one restaurant that best sums up the current Palm Springs culinary mood of redefinition, it’s the sleek new Workshop Kitchen + Bar. It’s housed in a Spanish Colonial heritage building that dates back to the 1920s, but the restaurant’s interior is decidedly contemporary. Resembling a kind of brutalist temple to gastronomy, the room, with its 27-foot high peaked ceiling is built around poured concrete surfaces including a vast communal table that bisects the room. Intimate booths flank both sides and the whole space is illuminated by bare bulbs hung from long, black cords. Old school and new, together in one place.
Aside from the architecture there’s a kind of devout adherence to using local ingredients that extends beyond the menu to the imaginative cocktail list. Pureed avocados are mixed with rum and pineapple juice in the creamy, intense Emerald Star. Local citrus is squeezed both for its juice and its oils while farmer’s market carrots are juiced to be blended with Scotch, ginger and lemon in the Carrot Penicillin.
Heirloom carrots also appear on the dinner menu paired with dates, goat cheese, walnuts and a spicy chermoula sauce alongside baby market beets in an arugula and sliced apple salad with herring and dill crème fraiche. California’s incredible produce is put to further good use in an enchilada stuffed with poblanos, roasted peppers, spaghetti squash and kale in a smoky grilled tomatillo salsa.
The menu’s not all vegetable based, though, as a massive 22oz. Iron House Ranch rib-eye can attest. Cooked sous-vide before being grilled over a wood fire and served with creamed kale and a pearl onion ragu it’s a dish from another time, before red meat was verboten, only you know updated.
It’s impossible to know what Sinatra would order today in Palm Springs—whether he’d cling to the classics, or allow himself to be swept up in the spirit of redefinition, singing My Way, with one hand clasped around some carrot-infused cocktail. And while that might not be easy to picture, the truth is that the beauty of Palm Springs is not having to make that disctinction between old school and new. You can have it both ways, without any regrets.