The chap is handsome in a hawkish way, his hair quiffed away from his face, his clothing leather for someone of his mature years. He looks at me beadily: ‘The reason people come to Palm Springs,’ he growls, ‘is to party.’ We’re in Melvyn’s, the brooding lounge in the historic Inglenook Hotel, a bar that has served vast, frosty martinis to everyone from Liza Minnelli to Liberace. The barmen have seen it all. Legend has it that owner Mel Haber dictated that the bar stay open till 2am every morning, customers or no customers; it’s the definition of louche.
Palm Springs welcomes everyone: a huge gay constituency, ‘snowbirds’ looking for the curative properties of the dry desert air, and the cool kids, drawn for the Coachella Festival. It’s the Coachella babies you’ll find having pool parties at the Ace Hotel, or lounging at the Hacienda Cantina and Beach Club. We love the guacamole and tortilla chips and zingy fish tacos at Hacienda; and pretend we’re indie rock stars at the Ace’s King’s Avenue, a re-purposed Denny’s diner of almost Twin Peaks-esque allure. All around us, the lithe and tanned frolic in their swimwear; you can bet they haven’t just polished off a stack of spicy corn-fritters with slow-baked tomatoes and runny egg like I have. At the Hacienda, they’ll be ordering their juicy achiote al pastor with pineapple-ginger marmalade ‘protein-style’: with lettuce wrap instead of corn tacos. But where’s the fun in that? Me, I just avoid bikinis.
More beautiful people at the Parker hotel, a glamour-puss set in sprawling gardens that used to belong to Gene Autry, ‘the singing cowboy’. Its ‘5 star diner’, Norma’s, is the place for breakfast: a million luxurious ways with egg; cinnamon-sprinkled beignets with lemon curd and jammy blueberries; habañero-spiced crab cakes with light, frilly onion rings. For breakfast? Why the hell not. Ditto for rum-laced fruit smoothies.
Workshop Kitchen and Bar is the new kid in town, winner of a prestigious James Beard award for its all-concrete interior. It’s an austerely beautiful departure from the city’s acid-hued, mid-century modern aesthetic. The menu is as bracing as a slap around the chops with an heirloom carrot: salads of kale with cherries, pecans and verjus; Korobuta pork loin and belly with barrel-aged maple syrup; the new wave of American cheeses and charcuterie. Chef Michael Beckman has a light touch with local ingredients and the effect is a breath of fresh, desert-scented air.
But Palm Springs isn’t just one city: Greater Palm Springs is a cartographic necklace of nine, all marvellously monikered: La Quinta, Indio, Desert Hot Springs and – my favourite name – Rancho Mirage. We land up-Valley at the Hyatt Regency Indian Wells.
Apart from having awe-inspiring views of palm-fringed mountains and more swimming pools than an Olympic village, it’s handy for the area’s main upscale shopping district, El Paseo, Palm Springs’ answer to Rodeo Drive. It’s here we find Tommy Bahama; though part of an upscale chain, it’s hard not to be seduced by its airy terrace, tacos and tequila cocktails– we have plenty of both, the former vibrant and fresh, the latter sweet and very strong.
At La Quinta’s Cork and Fork there’s small-plates modernity from chef Andie Hubka, plus a sensational wine list. This is contemporary US-style farm-to-fork cuisine, more urbane than many of Palm Springs’ kitschy favourites. Sake-cured salmon crudo jostles with plates of local dates with Point Reyes blue cheese, pizzas from the wood oven and Korean bossam-style pork lettuce wraps. The toasted aged cheddar sandwich, oozing vinous braised short-rib, is a gooey blast.
We take to Route 111 in search of Shield’s Date Garden. This is Valley history: an original diner complete with wooden booths and constantly-playing film The Romance and Sex Life of the Dates. We eat date-topped pancakes and slurp thick, caramelly date shakes made from the fruits of the trees around us.
Back to the city, dreaming of Rat Packers and sundowners. Fancying some great Mexican, we wind up in the original Las Casuelas, with its bizarre, gaudy interior (which I love) and its muddy-tasting, clammy food (which I don’t). Much better is cool so-Cal bistro Jake’s, with its gorgeous sheltered courtyard, zingy salads and tacos, sandwiches and wraps (seared Ahi tuna with ponzu vinaigrette, please). And heavenly cakes. The coconut with cream cheese frosting has justifiably been on the menu since Day 1.
We pound pavements in search of ‘happy hour’ culture, hitting paydirt with Tropicale, the campest joint in a city where camp is the norm. Sitting under palms and fairy lights are a jolly band of Hawaiian-shirted silver foxes, furnished with huge martinis and bacon-wrapped plums. But for proper Palm Springs nostalgia it has to be The Purple Room, one of the original Rat Pack hangouts. We eat an old-school dinner, all duck and cherries and surf ’n’ turf, serenaded by the Michael Holmes trio. A lugubrious man tells me: ‘I came out here to write, but all I do is drink.’
My favourite restaurant is a blissful collision of old and new: Mr Lyons, a stalwart since the 1940s. Now reborn under the aegis of the clever people behind the city’s Birba’s and Cheeky’s, it’s a chic steakhouse for our times. The food is faaahbulous: fat steaks fed on corn for sweetness, then finished on grass for bite; knowing winks to the past (iceberg wedge with ranch dressing) and new-wave favourites (charred brussels sprouts). Testament to the magical qualities of the dry desert heat, the original Mr Lyons is celebrating his 101st birthday in the moody, wood-panelled bar.
It takes a couple of days to attune to Palm Springs, to click into its tangerine, lime and turquoise aesthetic, its mid-century modern design, its tiki fetish (we love Tonga Hut and Bootlegger Tiki). But when it does click, it’s bewitching.
MARINA O’LOUGHLIN is The Guardian’s restaurant critic, and both the Fortnum & Mason and Guild of Food Writers Restaurant Reviewer of the Year. Seven night holidays in Palm Springs cost from £1,369 per person at the Ace Hotel, including flights from Heathrow to Los Angeles and eight days car hire, or from £999 at the Hyatt Regency Indian Wells Resort & Spa on the same basis (travelbag.co.uk). More info: visitpalmsprings.com
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