After a decade of visits to the California desert oasis, food critic Rick Nelson finally found restaurants worth writing home about.
Palm Springs, that nexus of sunshine, midcentury design and mediocre restaurants.
Scratch that last one. After making annual winter visits to this California desert resort city for more than a decade, I’m happy to report that my perennial grousing regarding the Palm Springs dining-out scene has subsided considerably.
This happy change in attitude comes by way of a critical mass of galleries, shops, hotels and, most important, restaurants that have materialized in the past several years, revitalizing a once veering-toward-derelict stretch of the city’s main thoroughfare. The area has become so trendy that it has, inevitably, spawned its own name: the Uptown Design District.
At the top of the list of those responsible for the transformation are restaurateurs Tara Lazar and Marco Rossetti. The spouses, who also own the stylish Alcazar hotel, have launched three of the Coachella Valley’s most appealing restaurants, all within a block of one another on North Palm Canyon Drive.
They began six years ago with Cheeky’s (622 N. Palm Canyon Dr., 1-760-327-7595, www.cheekysps.com), a breakfast-and-lunch destination where diners line up — literally, there’s almost always a wait — for delicate trout cakes paired with poached eggs and hollandaise, crisp savory waffles, golden blueberry-corn buttermilk flapjacks, artfully composed chilaquiles with tomatillos and zesty house-made chorizo, glorious croissant-cinnamon roll hybrids, refreshing agua frescas and juices from locally harvested blood oranges.
The mix changes weekly but the constant is a commitment to organic, regionally sourced ingredients (Palm Springs boasts a browsable Saturday morning farmers market, proof of the area’s emerging agricultural strength) and a creative approach to cooking that seamlessly segues into lunch’s well-crafted sandwiches, salads and sweets.
Birba (622 N. Palm Canyon Dr., 1-760-327-5678, www.birbaps.com) came along in 2011. The evening-only hangout — it’s part cabana, part patio — is prime people-watching territory, and a busy wood-burning oven turns out all manner of uncomplicated Italian-inspired fare, including slow-braised meats, scrupulously topped pizzas and roasted artichokes finished with shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano. The bar’s colorful cocktails are paired with a beguiling list of snacks and charcuterie.
Last year the couple debuted Jiao (515 N. Palm Canyon Dr., 1-760-321-1424, www.jiaops.com), their indoor/outdoor ode to Asian street fare.
Granted, the competition isn’t exactly stiff, but this newcomer is clearly the city’s best Asian restaurant, judging from the plump steamed dumplings filled with well-seasoned pork, the fried rice peppered with oxtail and braised daikon, the superb fried chicken and the wide assortment of creatively rendered condiments. Another draw? Sunday’s all-day dim sum spectacular.
A few blocks to the north, Workshop Kitchen + Bar (800 N. Palm Canyon Dr., 760-459-3451, www.workshoppalmsprings.com) impresses on many fronts. Starting with the minimalist setting, an effortlessly chic re-imagination of old and new that dramatically inserts sculptural concrete forms inside a soaring, meticulously restored 1920s Spanish Colonial landmark.
Slip into one of the intimate booths — better yet, take a seat at the 34-foot-long communal table — and revel in chef/co-owner Michael Beckman’s nuanced, seasonal fare, much of it prepared on a mesquite-burning grill (his signature dish, octopus carpaccio, is a must).
The bar — another stunner — is home to the city’s most inspired cocktails, and Sunday brunch is particularly pleasant; the memories of a roasted vegetable enchilada and a sandwich stacked with smoky roast pork and tangy grilled pineapple remain a happy souvenir.
I like pint-sized Jake’s (664 N. Palm Canyon Dr., 760-327-4400, www.jakespalmsprings.com) for its cozy courtyard patio and convivial outdoor bar, and for chef Mario Curci’s spirited takes on comfort-food classics: a modern spin on chicken Marsala, Sriracha-laced meatloaf paired with truffle-scented mac-and-cheese and a garlicky Caesar garnished with locally harvested dates.
The dessert case is lined with towering layer cakes — yes, an unabashed appreciation for carbs, deep in the heart of swimsuitland. As for Jake, he’s a cute West Highland terrier and belongs to co-owners Bruce Bloch and Chris Malm, the city’s dog-friendliest restaurateurs.
Finally, there’s the inaugural outlet of Koffi (515 N. Palm Canyon Dr., 760-416-2244, www.kofficoffee.com), the homegrown coffee chain and the neighborhood’s original crowd magnet. The cramped 12-year-old storefront looks its age, but it has a secret weapon that’s invisible from the street: a lovely back-yard garden. This welcome swath of green is ideal for caffeinating and enjoying the shop’s fruit-packed muffins or enormous fresh-baked cookies. And soaking up a hefty serving of Palm Springs’ greatest asset, sunshine.
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