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Desert Cool

Palm Springs, Sinatra's playground, is swinging again. If Frank came back tonight, where would he go for dinner?

SINATRA'S HOUSE IN PALM SPRINGS IS UP FOR SALE. NOT THE HOUSE OF the latter-day Republican with the I, Claudius haircut but the house Frank built in 1947 when he was transforming from a skinny teen idol into "Sinatra"; the house where he lived with Ava Gardner; where he rested his head at night when he recorded "All of Me" and "Night and Day." To me, this was exciting news. I called the broker, who hooked me up with Marc Sanders, the current owner.

Sanders was kind enough to show me around. I heard music playing when I walked across the patio, past the piano-shaped swimming pool. A tremor went through me as I realized I was hearing Sinatra's voice. This overture was part of Sanders's selling technique, which extended to dressing the house itself like a movie set. In the master bedroom a fedora and an old-fashioned folding camera sat atop a pile of heavy vintage suitcases and hatboxes, as if Frank and Ava had just flown in from the coast. And, as cheesy as this sounds, when I ran my hand over the stacked Arizona flagstone walls, time turned back. Suddenly I was in the mythic Palm Springs, that oasis in the Mojave Desert, the most glamorous watering hole on earth.

Sanders is part of a Palm Springs industry--selling the past while at the same time preserving it as much as possible. As anyone who reads Architectural Digest knows, in the Nineties a group of relatively young style setters began to buy up the surviving artifacts of the Sinatra era: dozens of low-slung, midcentury modernist homes built as havens for the Hollywood elite. These people--who include Jim Moore, GQ's creative director; Doug Keeve, director of the Isaac Mizrahi documentary, Unzipped; artist Jim Isermann; and interior designer Brad Dunning--completely revitalized this California town, whose population had grown so elderly that it was known as God's Waiting Room.

red meat and white shoes
I came to visit Palm Springs for the same reason the other newcomers did: to find a piece of the lost era. I certainly did not come for the food. But as I would learn, short of buying a Richard Neutra house, eating out may be the best way to commune with the elusive spirit of this town. Like Sinatra's home as reimagined by Marc Sanders, the restaurants here are perched between the old and the new, between remnants of the real thing and self-conscious attempts to sell bottled Sinatra to the next generation of swingers.

Take steak houses. They still abound in Palm Springs, both as relics of the Rat Pack era and as a nod to the current vogue for high-protein, low-carb diets. Lyons English Grille is the most hidebound of the bunch. "Dine in the atmosphere of 18th-century England," the menu reads, which sounds vaguely like a threat. Suits of armor stand at the entry, and inside the walls are lined with big Toby mugs with the faces of Beefeaters. The most desirable seats are the red leather half-moon booths, and the best thing to eat is the filet mignon. ("They still have the same chef they did when MacArthur landed at Leyte," says the writer Larry Gelbart, a longtime local homeowner.) At the piano is what most of the retired men in white shoes who eat here would surely call a girl player, and they fill her tip glass up to the top. She brilliantly alternates her roles--temptress, daughter and sidekick--playing anything they ask, even if it's "Memory" or, more pointedly, "My Heart Belongs to Daddy."

the name-dropping waitress
Elsewhere in Palm Springs, restaurateurs are starting to respond to the flush of young wealth and ushering the town out of the tackiness of its middle years. At LG's Prime Steakhouse, which opened in 1997, faux Deco wall sconces cast a soothing, pale yellow glow and running water cascades behind a sheet of glass on one wall. The look may be up-to-date, but the menu clings to the devil-may-care Sinatra tradition, announcing: "Our steaks are presented with sizzling butter unless customer specifies no butter." Everything here is à la carte. If you go for the 20-ounce prime porterhouse, you'll shell out $40--and pay extra for béarnaise or the tasty peppercorn sauce. (There's no charge for butter, of course.) There were no stars in sight when we visited, although the young woman who assembled our Caesar salad told us she had just worked a party for Jane Wyman. This is the kind of information that people here offer without prompting, the way Iowans tell you about the year's corn yield.

I was staying at Korakia Pensione, a beautiful Moroccan-style villa that has attracted Laura Dern, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., and k.d. lang. The owner, Doug Smith, recommended that we have dinner at St. James at the Vineyard. Smith said he once saw a stylish woman there who was at least 80 merrily sipping martinis. "She tipped way back on her barstool, fell over onto her back and didn't spill a drop of her martini," he recalled, with obvious civic pride. The St. James is both cozy and elegant, with adobe walls and warm ruby lights. The kitchen showed more modern leanings than I'd come to expect. An Asian-influenced bouillabaisse was wonderfully complex, with coconut milk, ginger, pineapple, lime juice, lotus root and cardamom. Even better was an appetizer of tuna sashimi shaped like a little pink pillbox hat with watercress leaves sticking out of the top like feathers.

liza's hangout
The newcomers agree with the old-timers on several points. They both say their favorite lunch place, and perhaps the best burger stand on earth, is Tyler's, where sweat-suited men in their seventies sit at the counter happily munching french fries while their wives shop across the street in a store called Oh My Gauze. They both send out-of-towners to Melvyn's, a popular, so-square-it's-hip restaurant and lounge where Liza Minnelli has been known to take the mike and belt out a few when she's in town.

And they generally concur that Le Vallauris is the best restaurant in Palm Springs. Located in the former house of the Robersons, a vaunted local family, Le Vallauris is stately, solid and old-fashioned, with a graceful outdoor courtyard. The owners stopped by every table and were gracious even to a middle-aged couple who had seen fit to wear shorts to dinner, a reminder that for every visitor here who thinks the embodiment of Palm Springs style was Sinatra, there are 10 who think it was Sonny Bono. The escargots and the rack of lamb in a red wine reduction were sublime and made me recall a beautiful meal I had had in the garden of a restaurant in Provence. To my left and right people were discussing real estate, including the news that Marc Sanders was asking $1.5 million for Sinatra's house. They talked about posing as buyers just to see it. Shocking.

Muriel's Supper Club may not have been on the scene as long as Le Vallauris, but it takes the old ways very seriously--or tries to. Opened last April by Internet entrepreneur Douglas Ahlers, who put $2 million into the redesign of this former art gallery, Muriel's is an homage to classic Palm Springs modernism, from its space-age logo to its amoeba-shaped dance floor. Near the bar, a dramatically lit, semicircular island, older couples glided around the old-fashioned way, executing actual steps, while the younger dancers just swayed impulsively. They looked wrong. Somehow, I didn't want Muriel's to be part of the same world in which people learned to dance to Loggins & Messina. But it is, of course. Ahlers even hopes to take Muriel's nationwide,with branches in several major cities.

Outside Muriel's, a man stood peering into a Plexiglass column filled with water. "Where are the fish?" he said, to no one in particular. I knew how he felt. I kept expecting to see something in Palm Springs that I never really saw. I found the shorts-to-dinner crowd, the 1970s-slow-dance crew, and wherever I went, people just like me, but I never found the Palm Springs of my imagination. I'll keep searching, though, because I want to believe that it's still there. And if it's not, there's always a good steak.

Laurie Winer lives in Los Angeles, where she irritates her friends and family by playing Sinatra records during her dinner parties.

Published March 2000
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