Famed for the firmament of movie stars who made this desert resort town their playground over the last century, Palm Springs remains a legendary destination with thousands of stories to tell. Just a few hours from Los Angeles, the area enjoys an alchemy of natural beauty, mid-century modern design and Old Hollywood glamour that’s hard to match. Today, it’s home to not only the juggernaut Coachella music festival, but also a new generation of aesthetes and artists. With them, a wave of chic hotels and resorts have cropped up, as well as some of the finest cuisine in Southern California. Here, we tap three locals—an artist, a chef and an architecture expert—to show us the ins and outs of this extraordinary place.
Executive Chef Sandfish Sushi & Whiskey
Finding International Flavors in the Valley
Engin Onural insists that I visit his restaurant without him present. “You won’t need me there,” the 36-year-old chef tells me confidently over the phone. “It’s not necessary.”
Following this directive, I grab a table inside Sandfish Sushi & Whiskey, his Scandinavian-inspired Uptown restaurant decorated in a clean palette of concrete and wood, a host of rare Japanese whiskeys gleaming behind the brass bar.
The first course of Onural’s trademark tasting menu arrives: a genre-bending deep-fried gyoza “tostada” topped with spicy tuna, teriyaki sauce, chives, microgreens and, most curiously, feta cheese. The mélange works its magic. Next comes grilled Iberian octopus, then yuzu scallops, duck liver mousse and a spate of fresh nigiri.
Each dish spans continents and traditions, which also serves as an apt description of Onural himself. The Turkish sushi chef and sake sommelier grew up in the capital city of Ankara and left for the States in 2005 to study under master sushi chef Andy Matsuda in Los Angeles. He then decamped in 2006 to run the sushi bar at the JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa, in ritzy Palm Desert. After four years, he opened his first restaurant, The Venue Sushi Bar & Sake Lounge, just south of Palm Springs. It has since won a slew of awards and the admiration of locals and critics for its melding of Japanese classics with Turkish flourishes—thus the feta on spicy tuna. In 2017, he was named one of the top 30 sushi chefs in the world.
After polishing off nine deliciously baffling courses and a flight of Suntory whiskey, I head downtown to meet Onural at the Avalon Hotel and Bungalows. As I walk in, the restored Spanish-mission-style buildings and manicured lawns bring to mind an old-world estate somewhere along the Mediterranean.
Onural is seated at a poolside table, poised like a magician resting backstage after pulling more than a few rabbits out of his hat. As I approach, he cracks an impish grin.
“First things first,” I say, “That spicy tuna tostada blew my mind.”
“The tostada has become bigger than me!” he says, chuckling. “I find all my ideas while traveling—that’s when I push my boundaries,” he says. “I’ll remember an ingredient I had five years ago, halfway across the world, and start to experiment with it.”
It wasn’t until visiting Norway five years ago that he fell for Scandinavian culture and thought up the Sandfish concept, cherry-picking some of his favorite traditions and methods from Nordic, European and Japanese cuisine. “I can’t tell you why I’m drawn to those cultures,” he says. “I took a DNA test, and I have no Viking or Japanese blood.” In Palm Springs, as with his cultural muses, he recognizes the same appreciation of nature, high design and cuisine. “I knew it was an international city with a sophisticated palate,” he says, taking in the Avalon’s scene of quiet groups sipping Vesper martinis by candlelight. “That’s ultimately why I decided to plant my roots here.”
We throw back the rest of our Woodford Reserve (one of Onural’s favorite American whiskeys for an old-fashioned) and make plans to reconvene tomorrow.
The next morning, I drive east toward Indio, a rapidly growing purlieu of Palm Desert that’s home to the sprawling Empire Polo Club, which hosts the Coachella music festival each year. Onural wants to show me some of his favorite regional Mexican food at El Mexicali Cafe, a narrow roadside shack that backs up to the railroad and a local favorite for over 40 years.
Between planning a new location in Phoenix and running his two existing ones, days off have been increasingly rare for Onural. Given the chance, he’ll stop at chef Michael Beckman’s Workshop Kitchen + Bar for the wood-grilled rib eye or the black cod simmered in corn bouillon, and then Truss & Twine next door for an old-fashioned. But most days he only has time for a couple of takeaway tacos and a Mexican Coke.
“There’s just as much to learn from a classic place like this,” he says as we sit down and he orders for us. Not surprisingly, he knows his way around Mexican cuisine. His fiancée happens to be Mexican-American, from the Coachella Valley, “and her family can hold their own in the kitchen,” he says.
We dig into a plate of steaming chiles gueritos—a regional specialty of yellow peppers stuffed with crispy grilled shrimp and served with mayonnaise and soy sauce. The surprising harmony of disparate ingredients and textures strikes me as exactly the type of thing Onural might concoct. I mention this to him.
“Well done,” he says, and flashes that same clever smile from the night before.
“Every time I make a really big piece, something in my life changes,” Sofía Enríquez tells me, standing in front of a mural depicting vignettes from her life, which occupies an entire wall at her art studio in Palm Desert, 12 miles southeast of Palm Springs.
What had changed this time around was the quantum leap in her career, although she’s too self-effacing to say so herself. Last year, at 26 years old, Enríquez was a featured artist at the massive Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. Showing work to that large of an audience was surreal enough, but the fact that the event was in her hometown made it even more gratifying.
“The 16-year-old me would have never believed it,” she says. Her black, nape-length hair brushes the collar of her jacket, the same one she painted for Coachella as part of her installation, which was adapted from her clothing line, Mucho. The handmade, hand-painted garments have been worn by everyone from her local crew to Tan France from Queer Eye.
The jacket pops with images and themes that reappear throughout her work: women with minutely varying facial features, paisley ornaments, seemingly mundane household items—a mixture of San Francisco’s Mission School and Modigliani.
“The paisley design has been on my clothing and [a part of my] culture for my entire life,” she says. “It’s a very old pattern. There are variations in just about every culture since the beginning of time.”
We make the half-hour drive into Palm Springs in the midday sun, and she immediately suggests cooling off at one of her favorite pools in town, on the rooftop of the new Kimpton Rowan Hotel. I have to scramble to find my swim trunks.
“It’s Palm Springs—you’ve got to have a bathing suit on you at all times!” she chides. Once outfitted, we ease into the pool, ice-cold margaritas in hand, and soak up the scene: A smattering of locals and hip L.A. kids mill around the funky rooftop venue High Bar with Mount San Jacinto in the background.
A young man sheepishly approaches our corner of the pool. “I’m an aspiring muralist and such a huge fan!” he tells her. They commiserate about artistic self-doubt. “You just have to find that canvas and do it!” she says.
“Friend of yours?” I ask as he walks off.
“I swear I didn’t plan that!”
From the hotel it’s a quick stroll to the Palm Springs Art Museum, a brutalist structure with a rock facade connecting it, visually, with the adjoining mountains.
Across the street, on a low concrete wall, Enríquez points out the mural she painted with a class of middle-school students for a public arts initiative. Titled Con Tus Tías (With Your Aunts), it features more teardrop paisleys and women in profile, and pays homage to her Mexican-American roots as well as the female hospitality workers (including her own mother) who help keep this burgeoning resort town viable. “They have the craziest jobs, and they take care of us,” she says. “This was to make sure we don’t forget them.”
Inside the museum, alongside large-format works by superstars Anselm Kiefer and Ellsworth Kelly, there’s a mid-career retrospective from local Cahuilla artist Gerald Clarke, a trenchant critique of the current social and environmental issues facing Native Americans. “It’s so vibrant; the colors are amazing,” Enríquez says of a painting featuring a pattern of Cahuilla instruments called birdsong rattlers. “Native American art has been such an important aspect of the valley for thousands of years,” Enríquez says. “I’m glad we’re finally dedicating more space to it.”
Back in the car, we head south on Palm Canyon Drive. The main drag is crawling with indie bars, design shops and eclectic restaurants. Enríquez points out a few of her favorites: Dead or Alive (“they’ve got great organic wines and killer jazz music every Friday”) and Kreem, a modish ice cream parlor (“their lemon-meringue-pie ice cream is out-of-this-world good”).
For dinner, she’s decided on The Barn Kitchen at Sparrows Lodge, a rustic micro-resort with warm, oaken interiors and a big stone fireplace, making it feel like a hip alpine hideaway. “This place has such a mellow vibe—kind of unique and cozy for Palm Springs. I used to come here and curl up on the couch in the café with my sketch pad and draw all day.” Outside, flaneurs lounge under date palms by the pool. We settle at a long farmhouse table beneath an arbor festooned with creeping vines and fruit-heavy citrus trees.
Our Barn Burgers arrive smothered, patty-melt style, with molten Gruyère and topped with shoestring onions, bacon and avocado. Between bites, Enríquez extolls her decision to return to her hometown after art school in Los Angeles.
“I wanted to be more in touch with where I came from,” she says, indicating her Mexican-American roots. Life also moves at a slower pace in the desert, allowing her creative process to draw from the natural environment. “It’s truly a special place. When I drive around here, I just look out into the desert and I can visualize what I want to create.”
Owner, Palm Springs Mod Squad architecture tours
High Design in the Desert
Kurt Cyr greets me underneath the jutting porte cochere of the Saguaro Palm Springs wearing a pressed short-sleeve oxford, khaki shorts and a powder-blue ascot. It’s early, and the chiseled peak of Mount San Jacinto, which presides over the city of Palm Springs like a patron saint, blazes red in angled light. Cyr notices that I’m taken by the scene. “The light is particularly beautiful on the mountains and the buildings in the morning,” he says. “That’s why I like to get an early start.”
We’re embarking on one of Cyr’s famed architecture tours, which weaves through Palm Springs’ concentration of desert modernism, an aesthetic style developed by a band of postwar architects who were spellbound by the landscape. Cyr, who also has an interior design practice, settled here by way of Los Angeles in 2010, though he has been renovating homes in the area since the late 1990s. He’s also had an active role in Modernism Week, the city’s annual festival exploring mid-century design, since its inception in 2006.
We first visit Deepwell, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, where Cyr points out ingenious design elements: Low-slung cantilevered roofs hover over bands of clerestory windows, letting in light but not heat. “There are four features of desert modernism: the cantilever, clerestory windows, an elegant sunshade called a brise-soleil and embossed block walls that cast interesting shadows.” He also notes that the homes are all single-story. “That’s so you can’t shadow your neighbor’s pool, and it won’t take more than a pair of platform shoes to have a scenic mountain view.”
Our next stop is The Desert Star, a seven-unit extended-stay hotel designed by Howard Lapham in 1956. “Look at that roofline,” he says, noting that the roof is segmented, with one section diving underneath the other, mimicking the tectonic plates underlying Palm Springs.
Owner Deborah Hovel, who lives in the two-bedroom master suite year-round with her husband, Richard, greets us at the front door. The interior is brimming with sunlight and smartly furnished with vibrant textiles and artwork, orange-leather hairpin benches and Eames Shell chairs. A glass wall looks out onto the pool—an essential feature of any Palm Springs dwelling, evoking the lifestyle of leisure, simplicity and elegance that has become synonymous with this corner of the Sonoran Desert. The rest of the units (available as vacation rentals on Airbnb) are well-appointed studios updated with sleek kitchenettes, Herman Miller furniture and art from the Hovels’ personal collection expertly preserving the mid-century aesthetic. “When people come to stay, a long weekend usually isn’t enough,” Deborah says.
After a pit stop at Koffi for a locally roasted brew, Cyr squires us north through the quaint storefronts of downtown towards the Old Las Palmas neighborhood in the shadow of Mount San Jacinto. “Palm Springs began as a resort city, so the architecture could be daring,” he explains. But the experiment would have been fruitless if the architects hadn’t found a willing clientele in the Old Hollywood beau monde. In Las Palmas, the tour is like a game of celebrity-home bingo—we pass the former residences of William Holden, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Elvis Presley—but it’s a far cry from the vapid diversion of a Hollywood star map, with Cyr’s ebullient commentary. The fortress-front Piazza de Liberace, built by the inimitable showman, is still flanked by statues of Roman youths. Nearby is the Roman Catholic church Our Lady of Solitude, where Liberace is said to have had his own pew: “bedazzled, of course,” Cyr clarifies. “And that’s where Sinatra worshipped,” he says, pointing to the legendary tiki bar Don the Beachcomber, which is now an indie coffee shop. Although the Don has since left Palm Springs, the tiki torch has been passed on to new-wave Polynesian-inspired haunts like Tonga Hut and Bootlegger Tiki, two of Cyr’s mainstays.
“Everywhere you look there’s important architecture, but the fact that it’s unadulterated is the remarkable part,” says Cyr, explaining that the town experienced a slump after Hollywood’s Golden Age. “It became a time capsule,” he says. “It was preservation through neglect.” That changed when a younger cohort of designers returned to the Coachella Valley in the 1990s and started buying up old homes and rehabilitating them. “This is really what brought Palm Springs back to life.”
As we backtrack through town on Palm Canyon Drive, Cyr points out a bevy of new and renovated hotels and resorts. The Tony Ace Hotel & Swim Club, occupying the shell of a tumbledown Howard Johnson, typifies that sea change—a clean, approachably avant-garde aesthetic buttressed by handmade wooden furniture and screen-printed duvet covers. Their King’s Highway restaurant serves elevated diner food next to The Amigo Room bar, known for its frozen mezcal palomas.
Back at the Saguaro, we grab a table on the patio at El Jefe, the hotel’s desert cantina, and dig into a shrimp ceviche with pickled serrano. It’s midday and the light has gone flat, offering the mountains no shadow or depth against the cornflower-blue sky, as if part of a movie set. “I’ve never lived in a place where the built environment and the natural environment are comparable to one another in their beauty,” Cyr says. “But it’s all about the light—the light is so important.”