OLD STANDARDS AND NEW FAVORITES FOR EATING AND DRINKING IN THE DESERT
by Lesley Balla for Zagat
Weekend jaunts to the desert are an Angeleno's rite of passage. Sometimes they're planned, other times it's just on a whim: "Let's get out of town. Now." Fall and winter are great times to take in the area's sites and indulge in leisurely spa treatments, while spring brings that craziness that is festival season with Coachella and Stagecoach. But thanks to Palm Spring's constantly evolving food scene, any time is right to explore the city's many great places to eat and drink.
Some of the culinary push in Palm Springs comes from a hotel resurgence, which only boosts the culinary options; after all, with hotels come restaurants and bars vying to become the next hot spot. Look for new offerings at several places around town, including at the luxe Arrive in the hip Uptown Design District (Ezra Callahan, Facebook’s sixth employee, is one investor); at L'Horizon Hotel, a fabulous refurbished 1950s icon that reopened with all the glamour one would expect from designer Steve Hermann; and at the tony Ritz-Carlton Rancho Mirage, which has some of the best service and best views in the valley, among others.
The fall brings events like Palm Springs Pride (November 1–6) and the Desert Arts Festival (November 25–27) and lots of snow birds returning to their vacation homes and resorts. In high season, which begins during the holidays and runs right through important happenings like the Palm Springs International Film Festival(January), Modernism Week (February) and Palm Desert Food & Wine (March), the hotels and restaurants are bustling. If you’re going to Coachella (April 14–16 and 21–23) or Stagecoach (April 28–30), plan on being overrun everywhere in town, even during the week — people need a place to crash and play between the two weekends, after all. Whatever the game plan, here are newcomers and perennial favorites for sustenance.
Kings Highway and the Amigo Room
The Ace Hotel's all-day diner got a recent refresh from chef Carlos Salgado of Costa Mesa's Taco Maria, who has injected the menu with Cal-Mexican flavors. Drawing inspiration from Coachella Valley, Baja and Tex-Mex cooking, you'll see things like mushroom "chorizo" and potato tacos, big cheesy, egg-filled burritos and chilaquiles at breakfast and lunch; and a Tijuana Caesar salad, steak frites "Mexicaine" and vegetable pozole at dinner. The Amigo Room bar still has craft cocktails and beers, but now there are things like the Cortez the Killer, a three-patty Wagyu burger with Idiazabal cheese, fried onions, dates and oxtail jus, which can be enjoyed while checking out the DJs, live bands, comedians and performance artists lined up on the bar's calendar.
701 E. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-325-9900
Truss & Twine
The team behind Workshop Kitchen + Bar finally debuted their sophomore effort, a swank desert-inspired restaurant and cocktail bar in the historic El Paseo building. Designed to be a companion to Workshop, the dark, industrial vibe is in stark contrast to the bright, sun-drenched surroundings. On the menu, classic cocktails are broken down by era , and food is geared toward snacking, like sliced-to-order California cheeses and jamón Iberico.
800 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-459-3451
A part of the Arrive hotel complex, this is one of the more stylish gastropubs you'll come across in the desert (or anywhere). With a roll-up garage door, an expansive patio, foosball and giant Jenga, there's ambiance galore in the open, airy space. The menu runs the gamut from short-rib poutine to baked chicken wings, chopped Brussels sprouts salad, burgers, pot pie and fish 'n' chips, plus a full roster of craft brews, wines and cocktails.
1501 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-507-1644
Dead or Alive Bar
Everything about this place seems to be the anti-Palm Springs: The location in an off-the-beaten-track strip mall; the lack of sign (but there is an orb light out front); the oddball website; the faux glowing sunlike light illuminating the small bar; and especially the very eclectic beer and wine selection. All of that is exactly what makes this place such a great find, as well, especially for desert hipsters.
150 E. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-864-7193
The incredible Parker Palm Springs underwent a top-to-bottom renovation, which included adding this stylish hidden wine bar (find it tucked behind the resort's main restaurant, Norma's). Designed by Jonathan Adler, the petite spot features more wines by the glass than seats, and has a menu full of snacks and small plates to go with them. Think halloumi and avocado tartine with Iberico ham, Santa Barbara sea urchin escabèche and foie gras macarons.
4200 E. Palm Dr.; 760-770-5000
This all-day destination dining room and glorious outdoor setting at L’Horizon Resort and Spa is almost entirely outdoors, with a fire pit, fountains, Lindsey Adelman chandeliers and a mix of intimate and communal tables for small luncheons or group dinners. The menu changes with the seasons, but you'll find globally inspired things like foie gras fries with chives; lebneh with grilled naan; braised oxtail with crispy polenta; and pan-seared filet of beef with bone marrow and bee-pollen beets.
1050 E. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-323-1858
A popular strip-mall pho joint is now a gleaming Vietnamese and Pan-Asian spot with a cocktail and spring roll bar. But don’t worry: There’s still flavorful, fragrant bowls of pho, plus other noodle dishes, salads and new spring rolls like ones made with collard and mustard greens, local lettuces and shaved apples; or spicy tuna with sliced mango, cucumber, lettuce and noodles. The cool stuff is just what you need when it’s boiling during the summer in the desert, with the soulful soups great during winter — even if it’s still 75 degrees.
1775 E. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-778-6595
The Colony Palms restaurant was inspired by the hotel’s original owner, bootlegger and Purple Gang member Al Wertheimer, who opened a casino in the desert in the 1930s. It’s said the property served as a hangout and clubhouse for the gang, where they had a speakeasy in the basement during Prohibition. While there’s still a dash of history throughout the property, the restaurant is keeping up with the times with chef Nick Tall, who’s revamped the menu and all-day offerings. Look for modern American fare with a few global touches from breakfast through dinner, plus cheeky cocktails at the bar. The room feels intimate and removed from the more ubiquitous midcentury-modern aesthetic of the desert, with a great poolside patio when it’s bearable to eat outside.
572 N. Indian Canyon Dr.; 760-969-1800
The fun and frolicking spot at the colorful Saguaro has always been a great stop for tequila, tacos and other Mexican-inspired street food. But with the larger restaurant closed during the week (it's open for weekend brunch only), El Jefe is the place to be for breakfast and lunch, along with its famous happy hour and long-running Taco Tuesday specials.
1800 E. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-322-1900
Elixir Pool Bar & Grill
While the V Palm Springs' full-scale restaurant, Solstice, finally debuted, bringing desert-inspired creations to a chic dining room, the poolside Elixir is the place to be for a little Polynesian-inspired fun. Cocktails and Pan-Asian dishes combine a little throwback vibe with contemporary panache, things like tuna tartare cigars, "bacon and egg" fried rice, frozen drinks and things served in coconuts. Paper umbrellas are de rigueur.
333 E. Palm Canyon Dr.; 877-544-4446
The stylish restaurant at the very hip Arrive Hotel is mostly open-air, modernist in design and has one stunning view of the mountains. Featuring contemporary Southern California cuisine, with dishes that are interesting enough to bring in non-guests, but mainstream enough so no one feels out of place, you'll find Benedict sopes, lemon-ricotta German pancakes and King’s Hawaiian French toast at breakfast; ceviche, tacos, big salads, Wagyu sliders and mahi mahi burgers at lunch; a selection of crudos, adobo Jidori chicken and grilled skirt steak with chimichurri at dinner. The bar is open every night until 2 AM.
1551 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-507-1640
Rooster and the Pig
Tucked into the back corner of a strip mall, this is not an easy restaurant to find — once you park, just look for the line; there’s almost always one. The casual, bustling little space has become a hot spot for chef Tai Spendley’s Southeast Asian fusion dishes, things like charred Brussels sprouts with sausage and garlic; Vietnamese crispy rice paper rolls with wood ear, cabbage and glass noodles; crispy whole snapper with pineapple, tomato and lotus stem; and shrimp poppers with mung bean and scallions. Get a few per person, share around the table, and don’t forget a cocktail or two.
356 S. Indian Canyon Dr.; 760-832-6691
The Barn Kitchen at Sparrows Lodge
The Sparrows is such a lovely getaway, an intimate boutique hotel filled with rustic-chic charm. Guests could always grab a bite from the complimentary continental breakfast offerings in the barn, but now there’s a lunch menu with a few sandwiches and salads on offer, plus a one-seating family-style feast on Wednesdays, which features chicken, and Saturdays, which features steak. The best news is that both lunch and dinner are open to the public (no reservations needed for lunch, but they are required for the dinners). The barn, which is central to the property, becomes a lovely communal space at night. Chef Gabriel Woo is at the helm; he’s even spent a little time training at Ad Hoc and The French Laundry (Thomas Keller is part of the hotel’s pool of investors).
1330 E. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-327-2300
The Edge Steakhouse and State Fare Bar & Kitchen
The two restaurants inside the slammin’ Ritz-Carlton Rancho Mirage are close enough to Palm Springs proper to add to any itinerary. They both have a killer view of the valley below, clear across the Coachella Valley and the Little San Bernardino Mountains. The newest is Edge, a classic steakhouse with modern twists, where tony locals and hotel guests are going for huge dry-aged steaks, bone-marrow flan, grilled lobster, pork chops, decadent side dishes and a solid wine list. Prices are as steep as the edge of the mountain it’s perched on, but it feels worth it. State Fare is the all-day restaurant with a fabulous patio, a good burger and other comfort staples, and a great breakfast buffet (for $28) on the weekends.
68900 Frank Sinatra Dr.; 760-321-8282
Workshop Kitchen + Bar
Since debuting in the summer of 2012, this stunning spot has been heralded as much for its approachable seasonal menu as for its high design. It has everything that would make a homesick Angeleno proud: octopus carpaccio, housemade pickles, wood-fired pizzas and huge shareable bone-in rib eyes. Dishes not to miss include venison-neck shepherd’s pie; shaved Brussels sprouts with pomegranate and pecorino; and glazed black cod. Brunch is extremely popular for dishes like frittatas with walnut pesto and arugula; blue crab eggs Benedict; and duck huevos rancheros (served on Sundays from 10 AM–2 PM).
800 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-459-3451
This felt like one of the first new Palm Springs restaurants to cater to what we all love: seasonal ingredients and bacon. The menu changes weekly, but there’s always a bacon sampler available in flavors like ginger-sesame, jalapeño and apple-cinnamon. The Uptown Design District spot bustles with locals and visitors taking up every translucent orange chair in the place. Staples like smoked salmon soft scrambles; frittatas with egg whites, greens and feta; and buttermilk and fresh corn pancakes are reasons to go. While breakfast is served all day, a lunch menu kicks in at 11:30 AM, adding dishes like fried chicken sandwiches with bacon, slaw and fried onions, and green goddess salads with tuna conserva, potatoes, green beans and avocado.
622 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-327-7595
From the folks behind favorite breakfast and brunch spot Cheeky’s comes this small space, which is sleek and modern with long couches and fire pits on the garden patio and has a small bar and fresh, seasonal global eats. The menu changes regularly, but the bresola and farro; egg, panchetta and spring onion pizza; short rib and celery root ravioli with brown butter; braised lamb shepherd's pie; and swordfish conserva are all hits. The owners also turned the aged Pepper Tree Inn into a chic boutique hotel, Alcazar, with sleek all-white rooms befitting the Design District. Both Cheeky's and Birba are adjacent to the property.
622 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-327-5678
uper-small but fun to find in the Uptown Design District — just look for the tiki torches — this is an all-out tiki experience with sweet, fruity and very boozy cocktails. Located in the same space as the original Don the Beachcomber restaurant that opened in 1953, it's a modern take on the classic with thatched palm walls, blowfish light fixtures and some racy "aloha" art. Happy hour has half-priced drinks, 4–6 PM. The tiki bar is owned by the duo behind the adjacent Ernest Coffee shop (if you need your Stumptown fix, get it there). The two spots share a patio, and when the tiki bar opens at 4 PM, the coffee shop transitions into a beer and wine bar with charcuterie plates and more.
1101 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-318-4154
It might not be as hip and cool as many of the newer places on this list, but when the moment strikes for a simple, classic good American burger, this longstanding favorite is where to go. In fact, it's where everyone goes, from the locals to families to just about every tourist who passes through. Set in a historic building in the heart of downtown, the small counter fills up fast, as do the seats on the shaded patio. Greatest hits on the no-frills menu includes cheeseburgers, sliders, fries and near legendary coleslaw and potato salad.
149 S. Indian Canyon Dr.; 760-325-2990