A Feasting Week in Palm Springs, California

If you are acquainted with any budding mid-century Desert Modernism Architectural Enthusiasts

or Retro Hipster Rat Pack followers than chances are you have heard about the many charms of Palm Springs. Rated one of Frommers Travel Top 10 Destinations for 2014 and also Travel + Leisure’s Best Places to Travel in 2015, Palm Springs is quickly exchanging its tawdry golf-and-nap reputation for a hip new, ‘destination’ image. It has been over 15 years since my husband and I last visited Palm Springs, and much has changed in this desert town, just down the road from LA. Our annual, pre-Christmas vacation present to each other is a return visit to this desert oasis and a reuniting with good friends and to gobble up some fabulous restaurant experiences. 

Some Old and New Palm Springs

The familiar and welcomed sun-blasted desert glare greets our early morning tarmac arrival in PSP and we saunter through the outdoor, palm-lined arrival gates and are quickly through our car rental agreement and soon on our way to our hotel.  A slew of trendy new hotels (the Ace, the Hard Rock) have opened in the past few years, and rumour had it that the Mondrian was to open on South Palm Canyon, formerly an upscale shopping complex, gloriously anchored by Saks Fifth Avenue, now an empty, boarded up desert of a deserted lot. But alas, it was not to be.  Keep heading down Highway 111 and onto the aptly named and retro Frank Sinatra Drive in Rancho Mirage, where the Ritz-Carlton has refurbished the former Four Seasons.  Those mid-century architectural Motel designs, once met with sarcastic Lucille eye-Ball rolls, and until 10 years ago relatively derelict, have now been revived with a spritz of modernism and a twist of kitsch, attracting a stylish, new clientele. Yet there’s still affordability to all this coolness—the newly arriving hipsters haven’t yet priced out the city’s private motel resorts, and some motels have gone semi-hip (like the Monroe, starting as low as $119, the legendary Del Marcos, 2 guests, 2 nights at $498) without getting too expensive.

Blame Canada

Where the city was once the playground mostly of weekending Southern Californians, an increasing number of Canadians are choosing Palm Springs as both a vacation spot and investment option.  As there is no real industry in Palm Springs, the gay (and straight, for that matter) Canadian dollar kept the city alive since the up and down recession of 2007 took hold. Canadians investing in real estate, tourism and restaurants have added to the resurgence of this desert wellspring and now find magazines, real estate agents and the Tourism Board pushing their products to the visiting Snow Birds. Then there is the peace of the desert right outside the city limits with hiking, walking and exploring Joshua Tree National Park or a picnic lunch and climb through Indian Canyons. And for the Duffers among us, there are a slew of obligatory Golf Courses a short putt away.

Here is a run-down on our fabulous feasting week in Palm Springs:

First Night Dinner at TRIO

Listed as a Zagat 2015 “local favourite’, TRIO Restaurant, located in the heart of the newly- hip Uptown Design District, is ‘where Palm Springs eats & drinks’. Operating partner Tony Marchese and Executive Chef/co-owner Mark Van Laanen, have invested in their dream restaurant, offering us their take on American Contemporary Comfort food. Open just over a year, the menu covers everything from steak, shepherd’s pie, burgers, that ‘apparently on every Palm Springs menu’, Iceberg Wedge Salad to Lamb Shanks, Yankee Pot Roast and a Mac ‘n 5 Cheese ‘a la TRIO’. The bar is hopping when we arrive; 10 to 15 young-ish revelers are waiting for their Bachelor Party table to be ready and are quaffing martinis and other fancy drinks. Once seated, server Terrance runs us through the evening’s specials. John starts with a Roasted Baby Beet Salad with mixed greens, pecans, and blue cheese, citrus sections topped with citrus balsamic vinaigrette. His main is a simple Bowtie Pasta Primavera, served to abundance with snow peas, tri-colour peppers, zucchini, yellow squash, and onions in a light garlic butter herb sauce. I dig into the one of the evening’s specials: pan roasted Mahi Mahi ‘Cajun Style’ with hints of lemon brandy glaze and smoky paprika and toasted cumin. We wash this down with a lovely Malbec ‘Las Nubes’ from Argentina. Welcome to Palm Springs!

A Chilly Cheeky’s Breakfast

Part of the Birba complex on North Palm Canyon, Cheeky’s is a must stop for breakfast, lunch or their fresh baked goods and is definitely a step above the diner-esque bacon ‘n eggs of retro Palm Springs. They change their mostly organic menu on a weekly basis and prep all of their batters, sauces, and dressings themselves. I tucked into some Custard Cheesy Scrambled Eggs, Maple Sage Sausage and one of Deb`s Famous Cheddar Scones for a very reasonable $9! Throw in some sides of herb ‘taters, a pancake, some freshly squeezed blood orange juice and a cup of java and the price climbs. Service is a bit rushed but hey, it is a small room, and when you can’t sit outside in the chilly December Palm Springs weather, you have to turn those tables!

Lunch + Takeaway at Palm Greens Cafe

We kept returning to this beautiful restaurant just off the downtown core that offers an organic menu that is high on flavour and low on price. Situated in a strip mall, it is easy to miss Palm Greens Cafe but those who are diligent about finding this little gem will be rewarded with a Vegan, Organic, Gluten-free, Vegetarian, ‘Wild caught’ fresh menu. I love that they ‘are a deep fat fry-free zone’! Breakfast, lunch, and dinner menus are available as well as ‘Healthy Libations’ including smoothies and fresh squeezed juices. We both savoured the Marvellous Mushroom Burger on our first visit that included a patty made from tons of mushrooms, onions, egg whites and mozzarella, gluten free grains topped with more mushrooms (sautéed this time), your choice of cheese, lettuce, and tomato all on a sunflower bun.  Excellent selection of wines and organic beers as well. Open seven days a week, we enjoyed Palm Greens several times during our stay: twice as takeaway by our hotel pool.

A Hustle, Bustle, People Watching Dinner at LuLu California Bistro.

Voted ‘Best of” in many categories by the readers of Desert Magazine and one of the ‘Top 100 Dining Hot Spots in the US by OpenTable, LuLu California Bistro  is a hopping hot spot for breakfast, lunch, a late Sunday brunch or dinner with a popular 12-hour Happy Hour as well. LuLu offers typical California Bistro fare covering everything from the seemingly menu-must, Iceberg Wedge to oysters, sandwiches, pizza (large gluten free options) burgers, pasta and traditional surf and turf.  We are greeted by Jason at Lulu’s front of house and sip a glass of chardonnay in their bustling, people watching front bar while our table is being prepped. Even for a Monday night this joint is jumping! The service, by Luis # 1 and Luis # 2, is wonderfully unhurried and well paced for a restaurant that nightly turns over 1000-1500 people in high season. I start with Chef Arturo’s wild mushroom soup with white truffle oil finish, garnished with slivers of spicy chives.  John chooses a Pear Salad with mixed baby greens, walnuts, dates and a scattering of blue cheese in a pear vinaigrette and balsamic glaze. Yearning for some comfort food, we both opt for the ‘Meatloaf a la LuLu’, a red glazed Angus beef meatloaf topped with a tangy tomato sauce with traditional sides of smashed red-skinned potatoes and seasonal vegetables.

Willie Rhine’s fabulous new venture Eight4Nine has just opened in the Uptown Design District, and soon to be a desert icon! 

A Surprising Lunch at Spencer’s Restaurant at the Mountain

I must admit I was sceptical of booking a table at such a traditional, ‘clubby’, Palm Springs restaurant but the name Spencer’s is synonymous with Palm Springs’ classic style, and its historically significant mid-century charm offers a stylish elegance and comfortable informality that apparently is not to be missed. Located in Old Palm Springs and situated at the foot of Mt. San Jacintoand rated ‘readers choice’ by Desert Magazine for Breakfast, Outdoor Dining, and Romantic Dinner, the summer air-cooled, and winter propane-heated, patio is legendary with the stunning surroundings matched by excellent food and unobtrusive yet attentive service. Spencer’s also offers an extensive and surprisingly not California-focused wine list that won’t disappoint. I start with a robust lentil soup that seemed befitting of the chilly, lunch time air and followed with a beautiful Ahi Tuna Nicoise Salad, grilled to perfection. I could barely get through the large portion!  John, feeling vegetarian, begins with a beautiful Beefsteak Tomato Tartare with shallots, tarragon, capers, ricotta and a lovely single parmesan crouton and moves to a wonderful Roasted Portobello Mushroom in a soy-ginger sauce and toasted sesame seeds nestled on some crisp garden vegetables. Perhaps our best meal in Palm Springs.

A Former Opera Singer Serves Dinner at Workshop Kitchen + Bar

A surprising new entry into the PS dining scene, Workshop Kitchen + Bar pushes the foodie envelope with their Farm to Table approach. Owners Michael Beckman and Joseph Mourani have realized a contemporary, somewhat austere Modernist industrial design in a beautiful Colonial building with cathedral ceilings, pillars, trusses and 17′ high barn windows which offers a compelling staging point for their ‘Americana’ style of food, offering everything from wood-fired pizza, sous-vide offerings, duck rillettes, pan-roasted scallops, black truffle risotto, to Large Format Plates that are great for a ‘family service’ style evening of shared food and conversation. And this is exactly what we ordered: Whole Grilled Organic Chicken Diavolo served with two sides of Kabocha Squash and Red Sage Quinoa. Not understanding portion sizes, we include a Beet and Quinoa Salad with wild arugula, citrus and ricotta salata and craving some winter veggies, a shaved brussel sprout salad graced with toasted hazelnuts, persimmon and pomegranate, splashed with some aged balsamic and oil and a dusting of pecorino romano. We left feeling well fed with plenty left on the wooden groaning board if we chose to doggy bag it.

The Retro Rat Pack Supper Club Ambiance of Purple Room

The ghosts of Dean, Frank and Sammy are obviously present as we motor out East Palm Canyon to the former Rat Pack hang out/Supper Club of the Purple Room at Club Trinidad, which has been lovingly restored to its 1960’s glory by TRIO owners Tony Monsanto and Mark Van Laanen. This intimate, 140 seat room is no longer all purple but still maintains that secluded hide from the paparazzi look that made the original so attractive as a hangout for stars trying to escape a fan-crazed Hollywood. We choose a high-top table for full bar/dining room people watching and are serenaded by the beautiful Michael Holmes Trio while we scan the menu that includes both bar-type food and actual sit-down dinner fare. Craving a taste of the ’60’s, I opt for, wait for it, the 1000 Island Wedge Salad that comes perfectly chilled and crisp and adorned with Blue Cheese, Bacon, Tomato, Pine Nuts, Bread Crumbs and a splash of house-made 1000 Island Dressing. A perfect childhood salad-day memory revisited! My main is a marinated and grilled Skirt Steak with a piquant chimichurri sauce, served with crispy sweet potato fries. John, feeling New Zealand-ish orders the herb-crusted and roasted Rack of Lamb, adorned with ‘baby reds’ potatoes and seasonal root veggies. Rat-Pack Cats like Frank and Dino may have quaffed several dry martinis with their dinner, but we opt for a lovely 2012 Argentinean Malbec to compliment the meatiness of the meal.

The management of all three restaurants generously sponsored dinners at TRIO, LuLu’s and Purple Room. We’d also like to thank the Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism for their assistance with making several introductions and recommendations for our visit to Palm Springs.

Airlines, including WestJet, fly direct from Edmonton, Calgary, and Vancouver, so you no longer have to drive out from L.A. to live like Bob Hope.  United, as part of the Air Canada/ Star Alliance group, has connecting flights from Toronto and Montreal via Chicago, LA, and San Francisco.

If you like this followsummer itinerary, simply click on the Map below and let Travelabulous help you plan and book your next trip to Palm Springs!

Gotta Go?

TRIO Restaurant
707 N. Palm Canyon Drive,Palm Springs, CA 92262
Phone: 760.864.TRIO (8746)
FAX: 760.864.3211

622 N Palm Canyon Dr.Palm Springs, CA 92262
tel (760) 327-7595 fax (760) 327-7597

Palm Greens Cafe
611 S Palm Canyon Dr, Palm Springs, CA 92264
+1 760-864-9900

Lulu California Bistro 
200 S. Palm Canyon Drive Palm Springs, CA 92262
T: 760.327.LULU (5858)  F: 760.327.9898

Spencer’s Restaurant at the Mountain 
701 W Baristo Rd, Palm Springs, CA 92262
+1 760-327-3446

Workshop Kitchen + Bar
800 N Palm Canyon Dr, Palm Springs, CA 92262,
Phone:+1 760-459-3451

Purple Room Palm Springs 
1900 E. Palm Canyon Drive Palm Springs, CA 92264
Phone: 760.322.4422

Palm Springs and #TravelWell, my friends!

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