Back to the Future

In reimagining his perennially popular restaurant Kaiser Grille, owner Lee Morcus is on a mission to recapture the soul of an iconic building designed by architect E. Stewart Williams.

Lawrence Karol Modernism, Restaurants

Architect E. Stewart Williams designed the building circa 1956 for Haggarty’s, a high-end women’s clothing store.

It sometimes seems like every building in downtown Palm Springs is harboring a secret past that’s just waiting to be discovered.

Kaiser Grille has been a popular culinary destination for locals and tourists since 1998, but few diners — even all those locals — are aware that the restaurant is located in an historic building that was designed by renowned midcentury architect E. Stewart Williams.

And while the restaurant has been renovated from the inside out, once majorly, and has had a couple of minor refreshes, Lee Morcus, owner of The Kaiser Restaurant Group, says he’s never been 100 percent pleased with the overall result.

“It’s beautiful and we get tremendous guest feedback that’s positive, but I never felt that we’ve truly captured the real soul of this building and this corner in a Palm Springs way. So I’ve been thinking about [restoring] it for a couple of years,” he says. “Sometimes you don’t pick the time, the time picks you.”

Williams designed the building circa 1956 for Haggarty’s, a high-end women’s clothing store. It later housed another women’s clothing shop, Draper and Damon’s, before being transformed into the casual, buffet restaurant Harry’s Hofbrau, and finally Kaiser Grille.

The entrance to Kaiser Grille is currently in the center of two outdoor dining areas with a wall around them.

Morcus’ vision is to take the beautiful, historical elements of the building and not just preserve and highlight them but connect them to today and link them to tomorrow. “So the design challenges I’ve been giving [to architects] is the soul, the essence of this building has to be showcased, preserved, and you have to think about if Williams was alive doing this building again today — you want to capture that same sense of purity, and the sense of beauty and simplicity here,” he says.

Morcus notes that all of the original steel and glass structure is still in place and he’s going to expose the original tongue and groove ceilings that he recently discovered are underneath the current ceiling structure. He also plans to take down the wall around the front patio and remove the existing canopy.

“In the original building there was no wall around the exterior,” says Morcus. “They had this beautiful arched canopy that went all the way to the sidewalk — it was just graceful and clean. So one of the things we’ve designed is a structure that’s open. We’ll have a sheer outdoor fabric that we can pull back and open up — again, more in keeping with true midcentury design because there weren’t big chunky things back then, they were sleeker and thin, more organic. We’re in the middle of Palm Springs. It’s invigorating, it’s alive, and I want to capitalize [on that] and be relevant to that spirit.”

Morcus is also contemplating moving the entrance of the restaurant from Palm Canyon Drive to Arenas Road. “If we capture the entire front patio it gives us more flexibility, more seating, more continuity of space,” he says. “From a logistic sense, people [entering on Arenas] would immediately have a choice of going to the big beautiful, bustling indoor/outdoor bar area on the corner of Palm Canyon, to front of restaurant, or come to the back which will provide a quieter, more romantic dining experience.”

This close-up photo notes the now bargain construction price for the building — just $63,000.

“It’s also a dining spirit that’s changing and evolving too,” he adds. “So a lot of this is about how you reposition the restaurant, maintain the core of our concept and brand and preserve them while making it more relevant for today’s diner and an expanded demographic and psychographic profile, and more relevant for the future diner too.”

“We want to preserve what we have that’s wonderful and working, but try to capture some of the supper club dining elements from the 1940s, 50s, and 60s,” says Morcus. “Try to create some elements of that without making it stiff, or formal, or stuffy [and] also giving the younger generations a taste of history but making it relevant for the way we eat today.”

One dramatic change that owner Lee Morcus is considering is the idea of relocating the restaurant’s entrance to Arenas Road.

But at the top of the list is making sure the spirit of Williams’ original design is once again front and center. “There’s a beautiful, stunning simplicity to this place,” says Morcus. “It’s austere without being cold, it’s simple without being aloof.”

“What I like about his work, not only is there a real purity to it but to me it occurs that there’s a warmth and an intimacy to what he did that may not be as apparent in some of the other great architects/designers of the midcentury modern era,” adds Morcus. “So here we have this beautiful corner right in the middle of downtown. It’s been a retail building since he designed it and I want to bring that spirit out.”

Kaiser Grille, 205 South Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs, 760-323-1003; www.kaisergrille.com

The new wide-open floor plan would make the space feel less chopped up and highlight its indoor/outdoor dining experience. A large bar area would occupy the corner along Arenas Road and Palm Canyon Drive and the restaurant’s exhibition kitchen would be visible to diners as soon as they walked in.