What’s New in… Palm Springs, California

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by Joseph Schmitt

I recently spent a few hours watching vintage promotional videos of Palm Springs, California on YouTube. It was so heartwarming to see how little about this desert oasis has changed over 60-plus years. The palm-filled sacred canyons dotted with waterfalls at the city’s edge are still a popular attraction for hiking. The mid-century signature architecture has not only been preserved, it’s become a huge draw for design and architecture connoisseurs from around the globe. And of course, the sun-filled vacation setting still boasts manicured green lawns, sparkling pools, and relaxed attitudes, all of which drew me to become a year-round resident.

Whether viewed in historical videos online or seen in vintage photographs around town, it’s easy to tell that this desert retreat has long been known for a distinctive blend of retro-kitsch, Hollywood glam, and southwestern hospitality. While much of vintage Palm Springs still remains, visually and culturally, what has changed greatly is an overall increase in quality, diversity, and yearlong popularity.

After nearly two decades languishing in the middle of downtown’s picturesque Palm Canyon Drive, the defunct Desert Fashion Plaza is scheduled for demolition. In its place will be a new pedestrian-friendly urban village. Residents have heard promises before about revitalization projects, but this time it seems to be a reality. A voter-approved 1% increase in sales tax will help fund the city’s portion of the cost, while private developers have begun touting artist renditions of the purported new look. As recently as a few months ago a wrecking ball was in use downtown and a corner building was leveled. In its place now stands, of all things, a 34,000-pound statue of Marilyn Monroe.

The 26-foot “Forever Marilyn” statue became an overnight crowd-pleaser and landed Palm Springs on multiple national news outlets. The work was created by American artist John Seward Johnson, and represents one of our country’s most iconic personalities, in what’s surely her most famous pose from The Seven Year Itch. While Marilyn Monroe was reportedly discovered in 1949 at Charlie Farrell’s Racquet Club in Palm Springs, her larger-than-life likeness won’t be sticking around forever. You’ll have to stop by the corner of Palm Canyon Drive and Tahquitz before July 2013, for what’s sure to be the biggest celeb sighting of your life.

As local businesses eagerly await the downtown revitalization project, there are plentiful new restaurants and hotels to be discovered. A bright new addition to the south end of downtown is the hugely popular Lulu California Bistro (200 S. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs. Tel: 760-327-5858. www.lulupalmsprings.com). Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Lulu California Bistro has breathed new life back into this busy downtown intersection, with bright-white interiors, colorful bold accent designs, and a happy hour menu at the bar that goes from open to close. I’m personally more excited about the interiors than I am the food, but the affordable prices and fun environment are enough to satisfy my inner critic.

Where I do get excited about the food and ambience is at any of Tara Lazar’s three restaurants. Since returning home to Palm Springs from a long culinary stint in San Francisco, Lazar has brought with her a much-welcomed approach to fresh product. Her first restaurant, Cheeky’s (622 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs. Tel: 760-327-7595. www.cheekysps.com), became an overnight sensation for its made-from-scratch breakfast and lunch dishes. In keeping with her “100 mile” philosophy, she supports local farmers and ranchers, and eschews restaurant industry supply trucks. This same philosophy has served her well at her second eatery, the Italian-inspired, Birba (622 North Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs. Tel: 760-327-5678. www.birbaps.com) that’s adjacent to Cheeky’s. In the past year, Lazar’s lifestyle empire at the corner of Palm Canyon Drive and Granvia Valmonte expanded with the addition of Alcazar (622 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs. Tel: 760-318-9850. www.alcazarpalmsprings.com), a boutique hotel in a Spanish Colonial setting with modernist accents. Here guests can soak in her personal love for relaxed luxury, community, and creativity. The lush patio setting at Birba that connects all three establishments is heavily utilized during peak weekends including Modernism Week, Coachella Fest, and Greater Palm Springs LGBT Pride, for outdoor cocktail parties with live DJs and exciting performers.

If you’ve ever found yourself in Palm Springs wondering… “Where’s the great Asian food?” You are not alone. Just on the heels of opening her hotel, Lazar jumped on an available restaurant space across the street to satisfy her own cravings. JIAO (515 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs. Tel: 760-321-1424. www.facebook.com/jiaops or www.jiaops.com) is now serving Asian-fusion with the same commitment to quality product as her other restaurants, with equally sublime outdoor seating. Most of the dishes, from small to large, are good to share family style, and the lemongrass pork noodle bowl is not to be missed.

The two newest, noteworthy eateries in central Palm Springs are found at opposite ends of Palm Canyon Drive. To the north, in the Uptown Design District, Workshop Kitchen and Bar (800 N. Palm Canyon Dr., Palm Springs. Tel: 760-459-3451. www.workshoppalmsprings.com) is promising a continually updated menu that reflects seasonal foods from local farmers and ranchers. A wood-fired grill and pizza oven support a broad range of menu items and cooking styles. The stark, urban interior sets a sophisticated tone, and interesting dishes like octopus carpaccio and an oxtail shephards pie almost steal the thunder from the artisanal bar. In addition to hard-to-find apéritifs and liqueurs, original cocktails use surprising ingredients like peppercorn syrup, cinnamon-infused sweet vermouth, and a house-made agave cordial.

At the far south end of Downtown, Chef-owner, Victoriano Rodriguez, invites you to sample some of his closely guarded family recipes that he says have been handed down through generations. The “Artisan Latino Cuisine” created at Casa de Frida (450 S. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs. Tel: 760-459-1681. www.casadefrida.com) reflects his multicultural genealogy and upbringing, taking the diner on a culinary tour through Latin America and the Caribbean. Fresh seafood, chile rellenos, and specialty margaritas are all prepared in multiple fashions and served in a folkloric setting.

When it comes to accommodations, The Saguaro Hotel (1800 E. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs. Tel: 760-323-1711. www.jdvhotels.com) is without a doubt the most colorful new offering in Palm Springs. Formerly a drab-green Holiday Inn, the kaleidoscopic color splash of 14 bold colors at the corner of Sunrise Way and East Palm Canyon Drive will surely grab your attention. Personally, I adore and respect the daring design that is carried throughout the property and into the guest rooms. I also love the affordable pricing of the rooms, starting around $99, low season. Look for The Saguaro Hotel to be the happening place during major weekend events like Jeffrey Sanker’s White Party, various GLBT benefit events, and upcoming monthly t-dance pool parties.

Where my love starts to fade at The Saguaro Hotel is at Chef Jose Garces’ (of Iron Chef fame) restaurant, Tinto (Tel: 760- 323-1711. www.garcesgroup.com/restaurants). After several attempts at this Northern Spanish tapas menu, I was left with a hefty tab and a lingering appetite. I’ve had better luck at his smaller onsite eatery, El Jefe (Tel: 760-323-1711), a festive cantina offering Mexico City grub, like interesting ceviches and tacos, and a zesty house margarita made with grapefruit soda. In defense of Tinto, they have recently begun offering a prix fixe and happy hour menu that brings prices a little more in line with the hotel. A charcuterie and cheese plate at Tinto’s bar with a glass of wine makes for a deliciously light start to the night.

One terrific aspect about Palm Springs has always been a focus on independently owned businesses. You wont find many chain restaurants, big-box stores, or mega-resorts here, which helps the city maintain its distinct personality. There are dozens of independently owned boutique hotels catering to the gay community in Palm Springs, and a new men’s resort will see its first high season this fall. Bearfoot Inn (888 N. Indian Canyon Drive, Palm Springs. Tel: 855-438-0414. www.bearfootinn.com) is located in the historic Movie Colony. The new owners have been faithfully restoring the mid-century inn and are promising a “casual and elegant, yet masculine” environment. The paint here is barely dry, but this men’s hotel promises to be fully up and running for the 2013 winter high season.

Even if you’re a frequent visitor to Palm Springs, chances are you’ve walked past or driven by some titillating history without even knowing it. During Hollywood’s ‘Golden Era’ a two-hour policy often mandated stars remain within driving distance of the studios during shooting and postproduction. This helped to make Palm Springs a Hollywood playground, a distinctive honor it still holds today. The Palm Springs Historical Society (221 S. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs. Tel: 760-323-8297. www.pshistoricalsociety.org) maintains a small museum and collaborates with local businesses and government to highlight the area’s unique history. Their new walking tour, ‘Inns, Glamour and Architecture Tour’ is docent-led, and focuses on the history of some of Palm Springs’ most famous holiday landmarks, including the Palm Springs Tennis District, Ingleside Inn, Viceroy Hotel, and the Del Marcos Hotel. Check online for current times, rates and other tours, and be sure to visit the Historical Society at its museum headquarters.

The Edwards Harris Center for Architecture and Design won’t likely be open until 2014, but it’ll surely be worth the wait for architecture and design lovers. The Palm Springs Art Museum recently purchased a 1960’s building that is currently being restored to its original specifications. The new annex will house the museum’s growing collection of architecture and design-related pieces. The Palm Springs Modern Committee is collaborating with Palm Springs Life magazine to launch a Mid-Century Architecture Tours App to be available for $5.99 from the App Store and Android Market. The application is promising three tours of over 80 architecturally significant modern homes and commercial buildings throughout the greater Palm Springs area, and in-depth profiles of 12 leading modern architects that helped shape the Palm Springs architectural landscape.

One of the most exciting new cultural attractions, and certainly the largest, is found in nearby Rancho Mirage, California. Hidden behind a massive, mid-century, pink block wall is a 200-acre estate that has intrigued locals and visitors for decades. Sunnylands (37977 Bob Hope Drive, Rancho Mirage. Tel: 760-328-2829. www.sunnylands.org) was the winter home of Walter Annenberg (founder of TV Guide and one-time Ambassador to the Court of St James’s) and his wife Leonore. It’s reported that their vision for the estate had always been for it to become a public space, both as a museum and a retreat that would foster international relations and world peace. The list of famous visitors to Sunnylands over the decades is staggering: Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles, numerous US presidents, and some of Hollywood’s most recognizable names from back in the day, including Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Ginger Rodgers, and Fred Astaire.

The newly constructed Sunnylands Center is a free public attraction with multi-media kiosks, films, and lectures, where visitors learn about the history of Sunnylands and the Annenberg’s commitment to philanthropy. Visitors also enjoy selections of art from the Annenberg private collection, stroll through expansive desert gardens and relax at a small café or museum shop. You can delve deeper into the history of the mid-century modern estate by purchasing tickets for the 90-minute Annenberg Estate Tour ($35) that are only available online. Tickets are released two weeks in advance, on the 1st and 15th of every month at 9 A.M. (PDT), except July 15 and August 1, since Sunnylands is closed the month of August. A visit to Sunnylands is more than just a peek inside the world of the super-rich, it actually highlights much of what brings us all together… art, architecture, history, philanthropy, and, of course, a common future.

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