We’re finally getting into the swing of things again and emerging from the vacation mindset which, based on the last date I posted here, clearly kept me in the stranglehold of a blogging-banished haze. This past break was just short of being brutal, but I’ll withhold any further complaining since come mid-December, hundreds of thousands of families in the L.A. area faced down a full three-week hiatus. While we mostly kicked around town this past winter “vacation” — also because we can’t abandon our longstanding Christmas Eve tradition, albeit with a modification this year — we got out of Dodge for our annual December desert escape.
I somehow managed to grow up in Southern California with only having gone to the region’s best known desert resort town for one day, sometime around 1978. That unfamiliarity with the whole Palm Springs deal lasted all the way until the early aughts, and since then we’ve gone every year. But unless a wedding or a special occasion requires we go other seasons, we are strictly desert in winter ONLY people. The snow-capped mountains, super chilly nights, temperate days. Not having to send your body into shock every time you reenter the arctic blast of an insanely AC’d building after spending some hang time by the pool. In other words, as long as you’re not camping, the desert is at its best this time of year. (Sadly, Palm Springs also lost one of its most beloved residents this week.)
And wouldn’t you know, after all this time, what almost seemed like the impossible has started to happen: the food situation is truly improving. Here are a few stops we made around town, and thankfully we haven’t exhausted the possibilities, both old school and new, to save for future trips.
We always find some deal and plotz ourselves at the Parker Palm Springs, not overtly the most kid-friendly place (e.g. the bigger rooms/suites don’t have bathtubs, the lovely fire pits), and since just about everything regarding the grounds and Jonathan Adler-designed interiors is incredibly awesome (except for the un eco-friendly lawns; what is UP with the grass-in-the-desert fixation???), my goal is generally fairly simple: to leave the hotel as little as possible. In past years the boys will go off with their dad and grandfather to the fascinating Air Museum and the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway.
But this year we hung together as a group for almost every activity, ignoring our family vacation motto that needs to be uttered every now and then. Namely, F&%$ family time. Despite that nagging, impractical sense of obligation to do EVERYTHING as a unit whenever we spend the night someplace that’s not our own home, too much togetherness is NOT always a great thing. Sometimes fewer personalities just makes for easier breathing. And definitely more relaxed eating out. Not like we ever manage to do that in smaller blocs, alas.
Because the portions are enormous with dollar amounts to match at Norma’s, the Parker’s more casual “diner” with very unlike diner prices, we’ve got of a system down. Basically order one main dish for every two people. Say, a waffle and omelette for a family of four. Maybe a side order of potato pancakes just in case. (Also because they’re really good.) Norma’s is hard to beat for service and décor, both inside and out. It’s really all about breakfast and maybe lunch sometime; dinner is uninspired. Regardless, it’s ideal to try and nab the Glutton’s Delight package, which includes a food voucher bundled with the cost of the room. Although now thanks to better restaurants in town, we’re a little more eager to leave campus in search of grub.
King’s Highway down the road gives Norma’s friendly competition in the aesthetics department, since it’s the apogee of a Googie style roadside motel and family restaurant preserved and updated by the too-groovy-for-its-own-good OR, more honestly, the I’m-too-old-for-this Ace Hotel group and Commune Design. When it comes to service, um, well, the compliments stop. You better love spending time in this dining room, because chances are a meal will take a nice, long while. There also used to be a time (or maybe it was just our luck) when a stop at King’s Highway meant a good cup of Stumptown coffee or an espresso drink. Now crimes against cappuccino are being committed within those rock walls. Quick advice: go to Espresso Cielo, where us insufferable coffee jerks are tolerated, maybe even welcomed. Third wave standards and all that. Hallelujah! Props to King’s Highway, however, for the well-priced kid’s menu (especially compared to Norma’s) and many veg-friendly dishes, like the kale, mushroom, and tomato fritatta.
When it comes to food, the Mountain Station at the top of the aerial tram isn’t a culinary dream. I actually can’t really vouch for a whole meal, because we’re more focused getting on hot chocolate and tea we get after snow play. But you know what? WHO CARES? You’re eating and drinking on top of a MOUNTAIN PEAK at 8,500 feet crowned with a post-and-beam mid-century building created by some of the desert region’s best architects, which while worn around the edges a little, is still bursting with pride at this magnificent technical accomplishment, and full of those perfect classic kitschy chandeliers. A slick Swiss engineered tram deposited you here, in this building, and in a different climate zone, all within the span of a few brief minutes. That is a MIRACLE I’d like to enjoy the hell out of. Whatever we’re eating and drinking is just icing on the cake.
One of the best parts of our Palm Springs trip is the fact that it’s a multigenerational tradition. Translation: we have built-in babysitters. Thanks to the grandparents’ largess, successful avoidance of 5:30 group dinners meant adult meals at Workshop Kitchen + Bar, and Tinto at the Saguaro Hotel. (Well-behaved kids might enjoy both places.) Because of the austere yet warm, utilitarian named Workshop, built within a 1920s era-Spanish Colonial Revival brick building that once held a Jurgensen’s grocery store (a serious blast from the SoCal past!) and elements that suggest a monastic cocktailian lair, Palm Springs can rightfully claim to offer superb drinks along with the town’s well-established design culture. One should never be left without the other, right? And besides, farms aren’t all THAT much farther from tables in the desert than in L.A.; that climate is making more of an appearance, too.
As for an eating to-do list, we’ve still got Jake’s, Cheeky’s, Sherman’s Deli, Tyler’s, Jiao, and we’ll see what gems are still there, and what else pops up in the next year. Like I said, things are definitely looking up in Palm Springs.
Update: For those interested in a slightly warmer late spring excursion, Palm Springs Desert Resorts Restaurant Week is scheduled for May 31- June 16th. Specials are available at almost every restaurant in the region.