Back in the 1990s Mayor Sonny Bono put a stop to spring break in Palm Springs, driving away boisterous college students to make it a friendlier, sleepier vacation town for families, honeymooners and retirees. But since the start of Coachella Fest in 1999, a new generation of youngs is discovering the desert and local businesses are taking notice.
If you're heading to the Coachella Valley this spring for a festival, or just a weekend away from the city, check out this handpicked guide to the seven best bars in the desert -- a mix of new and old. The best part? Not one is like the other. Here they are in alphabetical order.
The Amigo Room at The Ace: Refreshing Drinks and Hammocks
Summer camp but with booze! If you've been to Palm Springs in the last five years you've probably heard of The Ace Hotel and Swim Club. I try to avoid using this word, but there's no getting around it -- this place is hip. I even saw a French Bulldog wearing Ray-Bans here once. Until just recently, The Ace housed the only hip bar in Palm Springs and served as generation Y's gateway into the desert.
"We welcome and embrace all the growth that's been happening in the area since we opened and are excited for the future of Palm Springs," food and beverage manager Erin Earhart says. "I'm glad to see new places welcoming young people in the Coachella Valley. Not only is it great financially for our community, but with the new bars, restaurants and hotels it feels like a new chapter of life in Palm Springs and I'm thrilled that the Ace could kick-start that revitalization."
I order a Desert Facial, a muddled mix of vodka, mint, cucumber and pineapple juice and take a seat at a wooden picnic table on the Moroccan Patio. Here drinks are served in plastic cups or cans to accommodate all the bare feet and hammocks. The cocktail is highly refreshing and cools down my entire body -- obviously ideal in this part of the world. I watch guests play ping pong against the panoramic view of the San Jacinto Mountains. It's easy to have a "life is good" moment here.
While the Desert Facial is one of The Amigo Room's most popular drinks, they offer a large, rotating selection of craft beers. Plus, the menu changes seasonally, and that includes festival season.
"As far as Coachella goes, we always do a special menu. Last year we featured a handcrafted cocktail menu for the two weeks. All the cocktails were made with fresh fruit purées and infused organic herb syrups. We made lavender syrup, rosemary syrup and a basil syrup, to name a few. One of the drinks, called Weeds, is on our menu currently. It's made up of dandelion greens, pink grapefruit soda, white peach puree and vodka," Erin says.
Visit The Ace for an easy-going time in a sharp-looking place. A revamped Howard Johnson, the design is one of a kind, and the small details are the cherry on top: Walking sticks in the guest rooms, paper cones for water, and circular sun shades, to name a few. Plus, dinner and late-night food!
701 E Palm Canyon Dr
Palm Springs, CA 92264
Bar: Bourbon, Beer Cocktails and Tunes
Creative cocktails and Shazam-worthy music are what you'll find at Palm Springs' newest bar, Bar. Officially open since February 1, 2013, the dark, sharp and unceremonious tavern offers a unique selection of drinks ranging from refined Old Fashioneds to fizzy beer cocktails that pack a punch. But don't try ordering an AMF or Washington Apple shot here -- you'll be politely declined and offered a craft alternative.
"It's really considered a bourbon bar. We have all other liquors, but our specialty is really bourbon. And we have beer cocktails, which are really unique too," says owner Joe Funkey.
While Bar is brand-spanking-new and unlike anything you'll see in Palm Springs, Joe is no stranger to the desert restaurant industry.
"We have two other restaurants, Giuseppe's. One in Smoke Tree [Village Shopping Center] and the original is in Cathedral City, so that's our first one and we've had it for five years," Joe says. "Bar is kind of a family place. This is my son Donovan's concept, I really let him come up with the whole thing, I'm super proud of him. Everything I think he envisioned is happening."
Said vision is apparent in Bar's two focal points. The bar itself is a sight to see: Custom-designed from top to bottom with Aztec-inspired shelving and a row of eerie, hand-painted faces along the base. Then there's the Redwood Stage, where eclectic bands and DJs play several times a week. Two smoking patios, and plenty of booths and tables, are available for seating, but odds are you'll be on your feet dancing -- or swaying, depending on the artist they booked that night.
I order a Kentucky Rose from one of the scruffy, beanie-clad bar tenders. Served in a tall glass, the whisky and muddled raspberry is lightly sweet and easy to drink. I also sample the Alison, a beer cocktail made with rye, St-Germain and Crème Yvette. It's tasty, strong, a little flowery and unlike anything I've tried before. I double fist my drinks (for research) and Lord Huron plays in the background. I scour one of the food menus -- a repurposed old book, a small yet very important touch -- and order the Tijuana Dog: A bacon-wrapped hot dog topped with apple pico de gallo, herb sour cream and avocado, served with fries and house aioli on the side. The flavor stands up to L.A.'s dirty dogs, but with half the grease.
Interesting music, facial hair, skinny jeans and delicious cocktails abound at Bar (admittedly my new favorite in Palm Springs). Plus, Coachella-goers, keep tabs via Facebook and Instagram for performances during festival season -- you never know who might turn up.
Lastly: Joe says he's got plans to open another establishment in the desert, effectively turning Palm Springs into -- wait for it --Funkey Town.
(I couldn't not.)
340 N. Palm Canyon Drive
Palm Springs, CA 92262
760 537 733
Las Casuelas Terraza: Tequila
If you're into agave spirits, Las Casuelas Terraza, one of the desert's oldest restaurants, remains its tried and true tequila bar. Open since 1978, the family-owned chain's largest location offers more than 100 types of tequila and according to Vice President of Operations John Shay, not one gathers dust on the shelf.
The restaurant is a massive compound of winding rooms and patios, and I sit at an outdoor bar shaded by a large palapa. Blenders whirring, shot glasses clanking and shakers shaking set the tone. Bartender Gerardo sets a basket of chips and salsa on the mosaic bartop and I order a house margarita on the rocks with salt --it's a kicker. But if you're really into loosening up, try the Top Shelf, which comes in a glass bigger than your face. John says the Top Shelf calls for more of a "free pour," so if you order one it might be best to clear your schedule for the day. The menu indicates a limit of three per guest and I wish I could have witnessed the incident that inspired that rule. If you feel like shots, they've got cheaper tequilas for a quick fix, but if you're classy and like to sip it neat, high-end varieties are available as well.
While this location's been open since the '70s, the family's fourth generation of ownership sees that the menu stays up to date. Skinny margs? You got it. Organic? Definitely. Coconut-water-infused tequila? A thing.
"Even though we're one of the oldest bars around, we're trying to add new things. Some people have been here longer than the furniture, but we want everyone to feel welcome," John says.
After a recent visit to Tequila, Mexico, the Las Casuelas team is rolling out a new drink, The Paloma -- Mexico's most popular tequila cocktail. Made with El Jimador Blanco, lime and grapefruit soda, it goes down as smooth and refreshing as a can of Squirt (which is another excellent Paloma ingredient). Delicious and dangerous.
If tequila and a vibrant atmosphere are calling your name, this is the place. Plus, live music, outdoor seating and an enormous dinner menu every single night. But take heed -- there's often a long wait. If you're in a rush, you can visit the slightly less busy original location just up Palm Canyon, as well as their three other desert locations. Yes, you'll find lots of tourists and bachelorette parties here. No, it's not some secret hideaway for locals only. But if you want tequila, this is your best shot in town.
222 S Palm Canyon Dr
Palm Springs, CA 92262
760 325 2794
Melvyn's: Double Jack on the Rocks ... and Make it Classy
Change out of your shorts and "cock your hat -- angles are attitude," as Frank Sinatra once said. Do Palm Springs "Ol' Blue Eyes"-style and head toward the mountains to the Ingleside Inn, one of Palm Springs' oldest hotels. Originally a family estate built in the 1920s, the structure was turned into an exclusive inn in the '30s. If your appearance wasn't up to snuff, the owner would simply say "no room at the inn." Socialites rubbed shoulders here often, and through several ownerships and reservations, it's maintained its classy, Rat Pack ambiance.
"No jeans," says maître d' Brian Ellis, who's run the place for 38 years. He quickly carries on with what he's doing.
I sit at the bar and a staff of distinguished men wearing three-piece suits bustle around me, some with silver platters, others with white towels draped over their arms. Quiet piano plays softly in the background as they call to each other from across the room in short, gruff and efficient commands. A wedding party is coming in and everything must be perfect. The lighting is dim, and black and white photos of the greats line the walls. Ceiling fans turn slowly and the feeling is very calm. It's like a scene from "Mad Men," but without the cigarette smoke. I order Frank's favorite, a double Jack on the rocks served with a cocktail napkin emblazoned with his face. The legendary singer married Barbara Marx here and his favorite table still stands in the main dining room.
It doesn't get any more timeless than Melvyn's.
200 West Ramon Road
Palm Springs, CA 92264
760 325 2323
Pappy and Harriet's: History, Music, and Nachos
Get ready to be won over. I could write 10 pages on this place, but that's for another time. Drive about 35 miles into the middle of the desert, past the Joshua trees and tumbleweeds, through the eerie rock formations and mountains reminiscent of "The Hills Have Eyes" and come upon Pioneer Town (population 350), and its only restaurant, Pappy and Harriet's, a rustic tavern originally built as part of a film set in 1946. At Pappy's you won't find muddled raspberries or artichoke liqueur; try a can of beer with a shot, the best nachos of your entire life, and music by the likes of Cold War Kids, The Arctic Monkeys, Rufus Wainwright and Gram Rabbit.
Now, driving out to (what's known as) an old biker bar in the middle of nowhere sounds like the beginning of a bad horror movie -- but co-owner Linda Krantz says "it's not that scary bar you expect." And it's really not. The saloon has a ton of character, covered in horseshoe hat racks, old license plates, beer bottle-shaped stained glass and band posters. Liquor bottles perch on two wagon wheels behind the main bar, and even the restrooms are painted with intricate murals. There's a stage in the middle, and the furniture looks like it's been there since the '70s. Outside, picnic tables stand beside two large, mesquite grills.
I take a table in the billiard room and order the Nachos Von Rabbit: Homemade tortilla chips with cheddar, jack, crumbled blue cheese, pico de gallo and sour cream. Note: I don't normally care for nachos, and I'm not sure what came over me. I'm just not a fan of the 30 plain chips hiding under the cheesy ones on top. It's a scam. But I rolled with it.
As I await my order, a family of dirt bikers plays pool in the billiards room. There's a whole lot of laughing and smiling, and the ladies who work the front of house are like your favorite aunts. Classic rock and country swirls out of the jukebox. Then, it was love at first sight when our server Stacy arrived with the Nachos Von Rabbit.
Warm, crunchy, fresh tortilla chips are topped with a tower of cheese, green onions and sour cream. No blanks! Every single chip gets a heaping scoop of creamy, tangy gloriousness. I ordered them twice.
I rave about them to Linda, a Joshua Tree transplant from New York City who's co-owned Pappy and Harriet's since 2003.
"Yes, the Von Rabbits. They were coined by Jesika von Rabbit from Gram Rabbit. She's our friend and neighbor and an amazing musician. She had us make these for her."
Rock star nachos. It's all coming together for me. But, the Nachos Von Rabbit are just the tip of the tumbleweed.
"It's a very unique space and it talks to all walks of life. It's historical and different and cavernous and has all these qualities that a normal restaurant doesn't have, and it's kind of amazing to see all the different types of people that come in from minute to minute. Dirt bikers from the trails, cowboys and cowgirls -- they can leave their horses on the corrals -- hipsters coming for the music because of social networking, they have all the access in the world to what's going on."
Pappy's is a music-lovers' paradise during Coachella season. Goldenvoice, the company that runs Coachella and Stagecoach, puts the tavern on hold between the festival weekends to book acts, and right now, they're top secret.
"We've got an incredible lineup for the next couple of months. And we definitely pay attention to that period of time because there are a lot of bands coming through," Linda adds. "We change our schedule as well. We tend to be closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, but we will be open during that time to accommodate the volume of people coming through here."
Though Pappy's is off the beaten path, it's completely worth the drive, and it's 15 degrees cooler than Palm Springs. Head up a little early and take a stroll in Pioneer Town, a row of old Western façades that make you feel a little bit like you're in the Twilight Zone. Then, head in to Pappy's for live music (country rock on most nights), a beer and the Nachos Von Rabbit.
Pioneertown, CA 92268
760 365 5956
Woody's: Beer and a Burger
From Indian Canyon, Woody's looks like an itty-bitty burger counter. Formerly a bus station, what shows to the street was probably the ticket window, but walk through the door and you'll discover a big blue dining room with a stage, a disco ball and jazz art on the walls. Take a seat at one of the black tables topped with those red and yellow condiment bottles from your childhood and stay for karaoke or a live jazz show. Voted Best Burger four times over by Palm Springs Life, Woody's Burgers requires reservations most nights.
Owner and desert native Wayne Woodliff opened Woody's about a year and a half ago and calls it a "learning tool." He must be a great student since his second location recently opened in San Diego.
"It kills me! This is a burger joint, and in my head, I'd never done a restaurant or anything before. This is my first venture into this arena. You unlock the doors and don't know what's going to happen, but it's kind of neat because we get packed. Every chair is reserved before the music even starts."
I order the Woody's Favorite Blue Burger with fries and a Stella. The beef has a distinct, peppery seasoning and it's covered in a mountain of blue cheese crumbles, lettuce, tomato and onion on a white bun. It's big and messy just like a burger should be. The fries are fresh and the beer is cold.
Woody's casual and kitschy ambiance is not what you'd expect of a jazz club. It takes the stuffiness out of the stereotype and adds Wayne's personality -- outgoing, engaging, fun.
"I have a full liquor license; we can do shots of Patron, it's all good," he says.
Coachella-goers: Add yourself to Woody's mailing list for Coachella wristband specials. (After all, a beer and a burger is the best way to nurse a hangover.)
317 N Indian Canyon Dr.
Palm Springs, CA 92262
760 230 0188
Workshop: Craft Cocktails and Urban Ambiance
Opened in September 2012, Workshop is one of Palm Spring's newest and most unique editions. I'll get to the craft cocktails later, but first thing's first -- the design. Walk through the glass doors and everything is concrete and steel, lit by dripping white bulbs. To your right is a long, narrow room with a grand table stretching almost the entire length of the floor. Two rows of booths secluded by soaring pillars line the walls. Look past the dining room to the bar where the bold colors of liquor bottles are illuminated from beneath and a team of bartenders in black t-shirts are pouring frothy cocktails. The restaurant calls it "industrial-chic," but it requires a visit to wrap your head completely around this place.
"It was designed by Soma Architects from New York," says owner Michael Beckman. "This place has an amazing history: built in '26, it was originally a gallery, then in the '40s a city council building; then in the '50s and '60s a movie theater. We were thrilled to find this place."
Michael sets me up at a steel barstool and bartender Javier recommends the Ward 8, a Prohibition-style cocktail made with rye whiskey, grenadine and citrus juices. He also insists on the Cynar Sour, an off-menu selection made with Cynar, an Italian artichoke-based liqueur. I twist around to catch another glimpse of the place -- I did this a lot. The buzz of conversation, clanking whiskey glasses and slow, electronic music makes me feel like I'm in Manhattan.
Javier presents me with the two carefully designed cocktails, both topped with froth, one garnished with an orange rind, and the other with two small cucumber slices. The presentations are impressively neat and detailed. The Ward 8 is light and sweet, and the whiskey comes through pleasantly. The Cynar Sour is a whole different ball game; it's green and slightly sweet in the beginning, but fascinatingly bitter at the end. That's where the artichoke happens. I'd never tasted anything like it and I'd order it again.
Workshop calls itself a whiskey bar, but if you're not a huge fan of brown liquor, they folded and created the Palm Springer, their only original vodka cocktail.
"We don't have anything against vodka, but whiskey is better. It's just, for us, there is no flavor, there is no color, there's nothing that makes it stand out," Javier says. "We drink for the flavor not just for the effect. It's just something magical when you have a cocktail that actually takes you somewhere. The Cynar Sour, you'll remember that."
They also offer beer, wine and traditional drinks, but do them their own way.
"Sure, we'll make a margarita, but there's no triple sec. We hand-squeeze all our juices, we make all our own sugars. Traditional sour mix? Yeah, we don't do that here. At the end of the day, we're cocktail nerds."
There may be a bunch of nerds behind the bar, but you definitely won't feel like one sitting down in this great hall of urban sophistication. If you're a high-end drinker --and diner -- Workshop's the place for you. And if you're not, try it at least once for the experience alone. Lastly, go for dinner; the design stands out best at night.
800 N Palm Canyon Dr
Palm Springs, CA 92262
760 459 3451