The outdoor patio at Eight4Nine is spacious and seats more than 100 guests.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY NATE ABBOTT
Editor's Note: Before you head out to a restaurant, check the website as some are currently closed or in the process of reopening following the latest shutdown.
In a candid, grainy photo captured in 1918, a couple of men and women lounge against boulders near the stream running through Palm Canyon. An assortment of cups, dishes, napkins, and other servingware are perched across nearby rocks acting as a makeshift tabletop. The group’s casual body language and elaborate place settings suggest they are in the midst of a delightful picnic.
A group of unidentified diners enjoy a picnic in Palm Canyon in 1918 in this image from the Palm Springs Historical Society.
While everyone is eating outside more these days, the Coachella Valley has always enjoyed a history of snacking, sipping, socializing, and feasting in the open air. With an average 350 days of sunshine a year, as well as a culture that wholeheartedly embraces taking it easy, it’s no surprise how beloved outdoor dining continues to be in Greater Palm Springs.
From the tranquil, fairy-grove-like terraces at such iconic institutions as Spencer’s Restaurant and Le Vallarius to the sweeping patios overlooking golf courses at spots like Bellatrix and Escena Lounge & Grill, the desert offers many options. Whether you’re craving an omkase tasting menu (Sandfish Sushi & Whiskey), German pancakes (Elmer’s Restaurant), pastrami on rye (Sherman’s Deli & Bakery), or a pizza topped with apples and Gorgonzola (Birba), you can enjoy it underneath the sky.
Kimpton Rowan's rooftop dining experience in downtown Palm Springs.
“We need to do it right and we need to do it big.”
When restaurant industry veteran Willie Rhine founded Eight4Nine in Palm Springs’ Uptown Design Distract five years ago, one of his goals was to equip his posh, gallery-like eatery with the city’s largest dining patio. “I said, ‘If we’re going to do this,’” he recalls, “‘we need to do it right — and we need to do it big.’”
The undulating outdoor space can seat more than 100 guests — even with social distancing restrictions in place — at tables decked out in signature fuchsia and white. Rhine drew the hues from furniture he spotted at an estate sale. “I called my life partner Albert [Gonzalez] and said, ‘I’m buying a table and chairs. I have no idea where we’re going to put it for now, but it’s going in our new restaurant,’” Rhine recalls. “The entire restaurant was designed around that table and chairs.” They brought the color scheme to other pre-loved dinette sets by spray-painting them white and adding deep-pink cushions.
Rhine’s brand of elegant sustainability extends to the cuisine. “It’s fresh, clean food with integrity,” says Gonzalez, who leads the kitchen. They switch up the offerings seasonally: The summer menu stars grilled meats and fresh tomatoes and fall and winter selections include spiced and roasted root veggies, such as parsnips and yams. Gonzalez sees seasonal bounties as “a blank canvas. I just let inspiration run.”
Dining scenes from La Quinta Cliffhouse.
In downtown Palm Springs at the Kimpton Rowan hotel, a moment of similar inspiration aided rooftop eatery 4 Saints in creating an inventive — and exquisite — open-air experience (please note the restaurant is closed, but the hotel plans to resume it's rooftop dining experience in late February). Rowan general manager Peggy Trott was out with friends, discussing pandemic-related restrictions, when she thought, “What if we moved all of the pool furniture off the pool deck and we turned it into outdoor dining?”
Now, once a week, the staff swaps lounge chairs and umbrellas for tables and toasty heaters in preparation for a three-course dining extravaganza atop the tallest building in Palm Springs. With views of the San Jacinto Mountains on one side, the twinkling lights of the Coachella Valley on the other, and the stars shining overhead, the atmosphere is magical.
For executive chef Dan Grubeck, the dinners offer him a chance to flex his imagination. “The menu changes every week,” he says. “We [build] around the fresh ingredients we get from the farmers around the area.” Guests typically have a choice between locally sourced, line-caught seafood, poultry or game meat (a recent lineup featured elk meatballs), or beef from boutique Washington cattle company Double R Ranch. Vegetarian, vegan, or gluten-free? Fear not. The chef and his team work directly with diners on special diets to craft a personalized dish.
La Quinta Cliffhouse has three patios tucked beside the mountain face.
And even after years leading La Quinta Cliffhouse, general manager Dave Grovey says the location still takes his breath away. The establishment’s three patios all tucked beside the mountain face that gives the Cliffhouse its name. “You’re eating dinner right up against the cliff with our waterfall splashing down the mountain,” he says, describing how the water settles into a pool beside the recently added ground-floor dining area, where tables are set on bright green turf.
The environs, coupled with sumptuous bites like flaky, honey-glazed Chilean sea bass, sugar-spiced salmon, and tender steaks, draw guests back. “People come into town once a year for a week, and they eat here three or four times,” Garvey says. “That’s the best compliment anyone can give us.”
The journey from the hostess stand, framed in bougainvillea and Bighorn sculptures, to the bustling patios is an almost therapeutic experience. “When you walk up the stairs to the Cliffhouse, it’s like your worries are just left down below,” Garvey says. “You come up and you’re in this whole other world.”
With pandemic travel restrictions, there’s a particular joy in offering a globetrotting escape, according to Didier Bloch, owner of Café des Beaux-Arts in Palm Desert. “The idea was to create a bistro, outdoor café atmosphere, like you would find on the Champs-Élysées in Paris,” he recalls of conceptualizing the restaurant more than 27 years ago. The bistro’s two patios and courtyard capture the City of Lights’ je ne sais quoi through live greenery and a relaxing French soundtrack. Guests charmed by the titular Beaux-Arts style on columns and walls can purchase the paintings and sculptures, which feature sweet-faced cows, abstract human figures, and more in muted colors that match the café’s airy exterior.
Naturally, the menu proffers Parisian standbys, from a classic quiche Lorraine for brunch to escargot bathed in fragrant garlic butter. Bloch is partial to the duck, roasted in orange glaze or baked medium rare and paired with a sweet fig sauce.
Roly China Fusion at The Twist’s pool.
Café des Beaux-Arts on El Paseo in Palm Desert.
Eight4Nine's patio has tables decked out in signature fuchsia and white.
Andres Delgado, who runs Las Casuelas Nuevas in Rancho Mirage, says his family also designed the eatery to transport diners. “We built the patio in 1983,” he says. “The goal was to create a Mexican ambiance.” Shade trees make it a comfortable spot to linger over lunch, and in the evenings, strung bulbs and elegant lanterns cast soft light over bouquet-topped tables and filigreed metal chairs.
Recipes for the restaurant’s combination plate picks date back 100 years to Delgado’s great-grandmother. Regulars particularly adore the chiles rellenos, mild green Anaheim chilis filled with melty Monterey jack.
Las Casuelas Nuevas head chef Ruben Ortiz also offers a twist on the old favorite: his relleno vaquero, a heftier poblano pepper packed with flavorful ground beef and fresh veggies and doused in spicy sauce. Ortiz also caters to health-conscious diners, cooking up dishes like quinoa enchiladas topped with crumbly cotija. “We still have our staples, but if you look at our menu 10, 20, 30 years ago, they’re very different each one of those times,” Delgado notes, “because we have to evolve to cater to our customers.”
Evolution was important for Roly China Fusion in the Uptown Design District. The restaurant shares a name with chef Chad Gardner’s husband, Roly Carvajal, an artist and graphic designer. “We designed the restaurant to be very much whimsical and a little sexy and something a little bit unique for Palm Springs — which describes my husband,” Gardner says. The pair decorated the interior with Carvajal’s vivid artwork (think: 3-D canvases and playful pop-culture nods) and relied on a buddy bar fronted by breakaway glass to serve as the nearest thing to an indoor-outdoor space.
When the pandemic struck and outdoor dining became de rigueur, it was time to be even more creative. The Twist hotel hugs the restaurant, and the owner approved of Gardner utilizing the pool as a dining space. They lined the deck with a dozen white tables and sets of citrus-hued chairs.
The expansion was such a hit that they later took over Twist’s rooftop. “We were able to make lemonade,” Gardner says, “out of lemons.” That’s not merely a metaphor. There’s citrus on the menu in the form of a tangy mandarin chicken. The dish’s zesty sauce features crispy red chilis and fresh oranges (and happens to be Carvajal’s fave). Gardner, however, fancies the whole red snapper for two. Tempura-coated, wok-fried, and accompanied by tamari fried rice and an array of house-made dipping sauces, the dish is perfect for date night.
The “fusion” part of the restaurant’s moniker shines through in the cocktail list, which takes on a distinctly global flair. From a tart blood orange margarita to a copper-cupped mule, all are perfect for sipping while watching big, swan-shaped floats bob serenely amid the color-changing lights of the pool.
“The best thing,” Gardner says, “is walking through the dining area and seeing people really enjoying [themselves], and knowing that we’re hosting a great party.” That’s the joy of the valley’s wondrous open-air options. The party always goes on.