Bar Cecil's signature burger is branded with the restaurant's name and served in a paper box.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY AUSTIN HARGRAVE
The longer you look around the new Bar Cecil in South Palm Springs, the more you notice all of the juxtapositions. Yes, it’s a gorgeous and glam restaurant and lounge, but it’s also meant to be a comfy neighborhood haunt. Pop art — including an original Warhol — dots the interior walls, while murals by local street artist Tysen Knight cover the exterior. The towering back bar, which anchors the room, displays everything from sculpture to barware, including books and that famous photo of Sophia Loren giving Jayne Mansfield’s bountiful bosom some serious side-eye.
It’s all a fitting tribute to the restaurant’s namesake, Cecil Beaton, a British Renaissance man who photographed World War II battles as well as celebrities, and also worked as an oil painter, illustrator, and Academy Award-winning costume designer. And, perhaps most important, he loved the good life.
“Bar Cecil was put together by people from different backgrounds with different styles,” says partner and general manager Nate VanDeventer. “That definitely reflects in the design of the space. There’s a hodgepodge of colors and textures. It’s a lot, but it’s not overwhelming. You walk in and think, ‘This is different.’ And that’s the theme with everything, including Gabe’s menu. It’s his own take on classics.”
Indeed, Bar Cecil was conceived, first and foremost, to showcase executive chef and partner Gabriel Woo’s mix of contemporary bistro-style dishes. Think golden-yolked deviled eggs sprinkled with delicate chervil and house-pickled mustard seeds; a tart of puff pastry layered with French onion-esque caramelized onions and nutty goat cheese; and a smoked bone-in pork chop plated with rich au gratin potatoes and bright broccolini. “We always keep in mind simplicity,” Woo explains, “dishes you can identify with that are just done really well with local ingredients and the best product we can get.
” If this were a little more a year ago, you’d have likely found Woo in the kitchen at either Holiday House or Sparrows Lodge — the boutique hotels where he spent five years as executive chef and gained a following (and a months-long waitlist) for his seasonally inspired weekly communal dinners. Diners would pass platters of his fabled roasted chicken on Wednesdays or steak on Saturdays, all while starting up conversations with the strangers seated next to them.
The owners named the ecclectic bar — and a juicy burger — for the British artist Cecil Beaton.
“It wasn’t just a dinner, it was a meeting place for people all over the globe,” Woo says of the series that the pandemic ended in March 2020. “The mix of locals and guests just made it very memorable.” The hotels’ owners, Richard Crisman and Jeff Brock, introduced executive chef Carlos Arciniega as Woo’s successor, allowing them to create a standalone restaurant for Woo.
When the space that formerly housed the longstanding Kiyosaku sushi restaurant came available last fall, the team — which also includes John Janulis, owner of Portland-based hospitality group Lighting Bar Collective and Palm Springs’ Villa Royale hotel — grabbed it. And the pandemic shutdown gave them time to create what they wanted, expanding capacity by taking over an adjacent space, setting up a good-sized outdoor dining area, and commissioning custom pieces like the massive beam of giant globe lights high above the bar.
“It was such a positive thing to dive into a project and not to have anything else pulling at you,” VanDeventer says. “And, by doing that, we kind of learned each other’s personalities and skill sets.
” The latest stay-at-home order gave the crew an opportunity to obsess over everything from china to coasters to the color of the walk-in refrigerator door. “By the end, we were passing around straws like, ‘Do we like these straws?’ ” VanDeventer says, laughing. “We are so fortunate that we are going to have, who knows, maybe a three-or-four-month soft opening where we can really dial in our service.” (At press time, Riverside County moved to allow indoor dining with limited-capacity.)
For his part, Woo used the time to create a menu that blends his culinary experience — he’s held positions in several local restaurant kitchens along with staging stints at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon and Ad Hoc — with everything he learned during his years growing the hotels’ dining program. “Richard and Jeff have taken me under their wing and opened my eyes to new experiences,” says the 36 year old. “Their attention to detail is something they’ve ingrained into my mind when I think about dishes.”
Bar Cecil serves up The Fifty Dollar Martini with Beluga vodka, deviled egg, and sunchoke chips.
That attention is what prompted him to join forces with Townie Bagels to come up with a bun with just the right consistency for the restaurant’s signature burger; invent a proprietary pepper blend to infuse more of a French feel into recipes; and test different mustards to create the perfect aioli to pair with fresh-cut fries and grilled artichokes. He has also revamped familiar favorites, including that roasted chicken, still sourced from Riverside’s Gonestraw Farms. “It’s similar, but I’m tweaking it to draw a little bit of a line and to start fresh here,” Woo says of the dish he’s now serving with green beans and “ridiculously good” potatoes from Kern County’s Weiser Family Farms.
Just like the space, the menu is filled with whimsy and winks, like the burger that’s branded with the restaurant’s name and served in a paper box. Or the Fifty Dollar Martini, made with Russian-imported Beluga vodka and served on a silver tray beside a miniature food dome covering a caviar-and-sunchoke-chip-topped deviled egg. The term “Steaks + Frites” was initially a typo that everyone found funny enough to stick with and it’s now printed on both the menu and the restaurant’s signage. “It’s like an ongoing joke,” Woo says. “We put it on everything.”
Tasty bites like the Caramelized Onion Tart with chive and Midnight Moon.
The Colossal Shrimp Cocktail at Bar Cecil in Palm Springs.
For those looking to experience a mix of signature dishes, special off-menu items, and over-the-top extravagance, the Beaton Experience offers a 10-course dinner with wine pairings limited to one group a night and priced at $300 a person.
But the core concept behind Bar Cecil is that you could just as easily come in for that celebratory splurge of a dinner as you could for a drink at the bar. The beverage program centers around classic cocktails, low-proof refreshers like Aperol spritzes, and an extensive offering of Amaro, all complemented by eye-catching glassware — including leopard-print coupes and gold-rimmed goblets — selected by Brock and Crisman. “We want to get a drink in people’s hands as soon as they arrive,” VanDeventer says. “And I see this patio just being so perfect for staying for another two cocktails after your dinner.”
The team also hopes you’ll become one of a burgeoning community of Bar Cecil regulars. “We want to create the vibe from the time that you’re walking up to the host stand that it’s a neighborhood place. We know what kind of wine you like. Hopefully, you say hi to a few people you know. That’s what I see,” Woo says. “People having fun, smiling. We want it to feel like you’re at a friend’s house.”