Even during its down years starting in the 1970’s when development moved elsewhere in the Coachella Valley, Palm Springs always had physical beauty going for it—the Sonora desert accented with palm trees and flanked by the chiseled San Jacinto Mountains which glow purplish blue at sunset. It had the history of Hollywood glamour from its days as a nearby (two-hour drive from Los Angeles) getaway for stars in the 30’s and later for Sinatra’s Rat Pack in the 50’s and 60’s. And from that latter era it had all of that distinctive Mid- Century Modern architecture. Now, though, with a continuing hotel boom with recent and upcoming openings, partly of new builds, partly of hip transformations, and the proliferation of creative, multicultural, top level restaurants, this desert retreat is a hotspot again.
For those interested in high energy social scenes, Arrive, which opened in February, is one of the most active, both at the centerpiece pool which is open to non-guests and its farm to table California cuisine restaurant Reservoir. Otherwise, the design is sleek-newly constructed in Mid-Century Modern style. And the tone is so low key that it doesn’t have a reception desk—you check in at the bar—or room phones: you communicate with the staff by text. V Palm Springs, an upscaled motel transformation that also opened in February and is co-owned by celebrity lawyer Mark Geragos, operates along similar lines with an active pool scene and minimalist, slightly Southwestern, decor.
The top choice, though, is L’Horizon Resort & Spa which opened last year in a 25 cottage enclave designed in 1952 by Mid Century master William F. Cody and in this incarnation, redesigned by LA residential designer Steve Hermann. It’s calm instead of frenzied, private (the pool isn’t open to non-guests), designed in a mix of industrial chic and vintage, and with a small spa attached, more sybaritic especially when combined with straight on views of the mountains. The restaurant So.Pa is also exceptional, helmed by Jason Niederkorn, formerly of Aspen’s Hotel Jerome with standout dishes such as roasted octopus with squid ink, potatoes, parsley pesto, dried tomatoes and crispy garlic and crispy skin sea bass with turmeric, lemongrass shitake broth, raw vegetables, cilantro and Thai basil. It’s also al fresco which is fine during the area’s 350 sunny days a year but the occasional rain washes it out and heat lamps are in evidence on winter nights.
Also emblematic of the now first rate food scene in town is Workshop Kitchen+ Bar. Located in a 90-year-old former movie theater in the fashionable Uptown Design District north of the city, the four-year-old restaurant has a spare, low-lit industrial chic design that would fit right in in much edgier urban spots like New York’s Lower East Side. The menu serves vibrant versions of deceptively simple sounding dishes such as Little Gem Caesar salad, 10 oz Mesquite Grilled Pork Chop with pickled plums and shallot bacon marmalade and lemon pie. If I could, I’d eat there every night.
Other restaurants worth knowing about: Cheeky’s Palm Springs which is famous for its encyclopedic breakfast menu and long lines (they don’t take reservations.) If the line is too long, King’s Highway at the Ace Hotel is a solid alternative. Creative, perfectly executed spins on classic Vietnamese dishes are the hallmark of Pho 533, a restaurant started by Anh ho Rock, a Vietnamese immigrant who named it after the number painted on the side of the U.S. support tanker that rescued her family after the fall of Saigon. New owner Chad Gardner has kept most of her menu intact with a few additions from his catering venture. There’s plenty of Mexican food around town but a particularly good spot for creative tacos, tortas, ceviches and larger plates such as grilled flat iron steak as well as tequila, is El Jefe in the Saguaro Hotel.
Even though I’d been to Palm Springs several times I’d never taken an official architecture tour until my most recent visit. It’s extremely rewarding particularly if you go with Michael Stern, author of the book Julius Shulman: Palm Springs.” In his two and a half hour Modern Tour, he dispatches local trivia (when Frank Sinatra held a party, he’d hoist a Jack Daniels flag above his house so his friends in the Movie Colony section would see it and come over), shows off local eccentricity (artist Kenny Irwin Jr.’s demonic, technicolor robot sculptures composed of scavenged materials surrounding his house) as well as the homes of the stars both past (Sinatra, William Holden) and present (Leonardo DiCaprio whose house designed by Donald Wexler and formerly owned by Dinah Shore can be rented for $4500 a night.) And in his detailed descriptions of the projects of the modern master architects such as Richard Neutra, William F. Cody and Albert Frey you learn about the area’s history as well as the architectural achievements. He also brings you into several friends’ houses to show the interiors…and they’re jealousy-inducing in their design.
Before the architecture became a draw, the desert climate and surrounding hot springs first brought visitors to the area. Visitors can still experience them by soaking in the newly enlarged pool at Two Bunch Palms in nearby Desert Hot Springs. Or they can indulge in the area’s favorite sport, golf, and do the entire resort experience at the recently renovated La Quinta Resort & Club, a Waldorf Astoria Resort with its five golf courses and desert-inspired treatments in the spa.
How to get there: Travelers from the East Coast now have an easier time getting to Palm Springs with the resumption of JetBlue’s daily nonstop flights from New York’s JFK Airport through the winter season