A Month of Martinis: The Madness in Palm Springs

thefallswangs2wangschriscitronps2We spent June in Palm Springs. If you know the California desert at that time of year, that turned out to be not such a hot idea. Take two. It was a very hot idea. The day it hit 114 made us wonder what had possessed us to do it.

It had seemed brilliant back in April. Coming up in L.A. was cool, often overcast June. It’s called “June Gloom” in these parts. Renting a place for a month in the desert, where it is reliably warmer but just 100 or so miles away, seemed like a smart move. Besides, the rates in the desert then are their lowest of the year.

It was a two-bedroom, two-bath condo at a small, almost-new complex called Villorrio. It was just a couple blocks from the center of Palm Springs. There was a 55-foot swimming pool steps from the front door and a rooftop patio with great views of the mountains. We invited friends, who came in waves from Seattle and San Francisco, flying right into the Palm Springs airport a five-minute drive away.

At first it was fine. Then the thermometer gradually began creeping up. The pool, big as it was, turned tepid. The air conditioning had a hard time keeping ahead of the heat. That rooftop patio became too hot to use, even at night.

Naturally, we turned for succor to the many of Palm Springs’ happy hours.

Now, “happy hour” in June in Palm Springs, which in some notorious cases begins at 11 in the morning and ends until last call, involves full-blown martinis for as little as $3. Maybe you don’t get top-shelf gin (Seagram’s seems to be the plonk of choice), but it’s decent.  It’s like getting an engraved invitation to AA.  Such serendipity is best approached carefully and with the understanding that the gates of hell are never far away.lulumartin2

Nonetheless, all involved threw themselves with enthusiasm into the effort, with mixed and still-uncertain results that may await the return of liver tests. The winners in our combined estimation included the happy hours held at Tropicale, Lulu, Kaiser Grill, The Falls and Frida’s. Wang’s in the Desert was thronged and cheap but, shall we say, a bit too…fevered. And when the fascination of a bustling happy hour waned, we went to quieter places like Citron at the Viceroy hotel. We never did get to some of the more corporate happy hours at Roy’s and Fleming’s. They were too far away in Rancho Mirage, and we had so many choices in our own back yard.riviera ps

The gates of hell were beginning to clank open when we decided to leave Palm Springs a few days before the end of our rental.  A high of 115 was predicted. Two hours later we were home in the Hollywood Hills, cool again at last, with no happy hours nearby.


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pattiandchef Robb Lucaspattiandrichatkoi

Sometimes I think that I just don’t understand drinking any more.  This is despite vast experience in the matter, mind you.  What often passes for a cocktail today sounds more to me like an experiment in organic farming.  We have entered the age of Cocktails Gone Wild, and I don’t like it.


For the record, what you see here is a proper cocktail—a straight-up Bombay Sapphire martini—immediately pre-consumption at Koi in Los Angeles.  It’s a restaurant that has done many things well for more years than is usual in L.A., cocktails among them. Here are some scenes of the scene there, with the tasty kobe beef crispy rice and an unidentified local pawing chef Robb Lucas.


But back to those silly drinks.  Let me give a random example of CGW found while thumbing through a print publication called The Tasting Panel, which for some reason (fine, I know which reason) shows up in my snail mailbox regularly.  Smokin’ Irishman, reportedly served at a Manhattan Beach, California, establishment called American Farmhouse Tavern, is said to contain Jameson Irish whisky, peach nectar and elderberry liqueur; it is garnished with a bacon-wrapped spear of sugarcane; and finally it is “spritzed” with Glenlivet Scotch.

Huh? It sounds to me like something Gordon Ramsey should be reducing to tears.

There are more.  Oh, are there ever more, and they are not only confined to the stranger parts of the U.S.  The same magazine credited above reported on a place called Ruby in Copenhagen that muddles a cocktail using leafy green carrot tops.  No, not kidding.  The place also makes a daiquiri with rhubarb jam and an apple-celery margarita.  Another Copenhagen bar called The Union, also cited in the article, makes drinks using lemon curd, local weeds and (wait for it) edible gunpowder.

Yes, gunpowder.  It gives an entirely new meaning to shooting one’s mouth off.

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Yesterday was Easter and we were at home with a turkey slowly smoking over hickory chips in the back yard.  IMG_4742Indolence naturally ensued.  With a doff of the fedora to the fussy grammarian at the center of the late Lawrence Sanders’ Archy McNally novels, one do get thirsty at times like this. (Please, no gear-grinding over this construction, just take it like a person.)  So I stirred up what you see here.bulleit2

Yes, I know if you can’t see through it, it isn’t a martini.  Get over it.  This is a manhattan.  Life is full of surprises and serendipity.  Besides, it was time to see if anything could taste as good as gin and dry vermouth massaged over ice of a late afternoon.

Allow me to blame this excursion on Chris, another of my martini-swilling pals. Sure, he lives in San Francisco, so what can he know about real cocktailing? Still, he had recently turned me on to the forbidden pleasure of top-shelf Bulleit bourbon in a manhattan made with the brown stuff down the hill at Spoonful.  Lordy, was it ever tasty.

Sometime later, however, my muddled mind had turned to the manhattan and its origin in the city it is named after.  And it dawned, perhaps more slowly than in years past, that the original cocktail on its home turf invariably was made with rye whiskey—or at least a whiskey like Canadian Club that is distilled partly from rye.

That was then.  Now the super-premium spirits revolution has given us a handful of exalted rye whiskeys made entirely or almost so with that grain as the primary ingredient.  And Bulleit, wouldn’t you know, is one of them.  This remarkably smooth, rich whiskey is 95 percent rye, and man is it ever good in a manhattan.  Just employ a generous hand with the Angostura Bitters and a restrained one with the sweet vermouth (use one made with real sugar).  And find that little jar Maraschino cherries that you put in the refrigerator years ago somewhere in the back.

But now to answer the question surely on everyone’s lips, yes Bulleit rye has made it onto the top shelf of better saloons and retail establishments.   And like twice-named New York, New York, we have added a second picture of that Easter manhattan.bulleit

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Our martini-loving pal Glenn somehow manages to turn up when there’s the possibility of his favorite beverage being served.   He has an MBA.  He’s smart.

Glenn’s been with us here in the Hollywood Hills for more than a few home-made models and has come along for forays to various watering holes.  This is his martini at Watermarc in Laguna Beach.  And there’s mine without all volume-stealing olives. And there’s mine

without all volume-stealing olives.watermarc (2)



Last year we drove down to his Balboa Peninsula home in Newport Beach for an overnight stay.  Naturally, he mixed up a batch of martinis, poured it into a container, grabbed the glasses and appropriate garnishes, and we walked it all to an electric boat he had rented for a leisurely afternoon promenade on Newport Bay.  Here’s one displayed for your delectation as we buzzed past the houses and yachts of the swells.  Yes, buzzed. balboa glenn

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ImageWe ate lunch at the Palm in West Hollywood.  Again.  Couldn’t help ourselves.   We were back in L.A.  And It was Good Friday.

But, honestly, there was a good reason.  We received an e-mail while we were out of town that the Palm restaurants nationwide were in mid-March beginning a new lunch menu.

IMG_4722And get this: a martini—any real martini—would cost $8.37 (which, as Palmistos and Palmistas know, is the 2nd Avenue address of the original Palm in Manhattan).  Not a special.  Every day from now on.  Now that’s lunch.

That would be $8.37 for any top shelf martini—as long as it’s a classic martini and not a faux one like a cosmo or apple .  So naturally my eye went to the apex of the top shelf and Hendrick’s.  Yep, Hendrick’s included, the manly beverage (with couple drops of dry vermouth, I’m pretty sure) pictured here on the afternoon of Good Friday.

It went stupendously well with swordfish and cheesecake.  Was this a good idea?  Was it anti-religious? Was another ordered?  Were there consequences?  Only the next time will tell.

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IMG_0124MA31832121-0001We live in the Hollywood Hills, which means we have access to an endless number of top notch gin joints in Los Angeles.  This is your faithful writer at Esterel in the Sofitel Los Angeles, the standard bearer for things French in town.  (No, the French aren’t big on martinis, but neither do they hold back for cultural reasons if a franc is to be made.)

Naturally it’s difficult to pinpoint all the best martinis in L.A., so this is only a start. The frosty one here was served up at La Boheme in West Hollywood, which is not only a good hang but a spot locals know that nicely priced fine food can be found.

cafe boheme (2)

But I’ve saved one of the city’s most revered drinking destinations for last.  This martini was made by longtime barkeep Michael at Dan Tana’s, which is on Santa Monica Blvd. just shy of the Beverly Hills border.


The saloon serves New York-style Italian food to faithful throngs of locals, most of who are somehow involved in show business.  Largely a tourist-free zone, here is where you will see familiar faces at their ease.  Be aware that Tana’s is open only for dinner,  the bar itself is tiny and usually packed three deep, and be warned that in an expansive mood Michael will insist on pouring you a tot of his personal bottle of slivovitz.

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This martini was created of Bombay gin and a wash of dry vermouth at the Riviera Palm Springs’ Starlite Lounge well before the sun had disappeared to the west behind Mt. San Jacinto.

Palm Springs is a fine place to obtain a righteous martini.  The desert resort town has been floating on gin for years, stretching back to the Rat Pack days and before.  The vibe has been kept alive by restaurants like Mel’s, whose bar seems left over intact from the 1960s.  But none of the retro joints does the old days in the desert better than Riviera Palm Springs.

The Riviera was alive back in the day too, but it’s been updated to fold in the best of the new millennium with just enough of the old to foster authenticity without the reverting to slavish period reliance.  So you get a good gym and spa, a freeform resort swimming pool, nice rooms, and fine food in the Circa 59 restaurant.  Yes, this does refer to the hotel’s birthdate.

These two desert thirst-quenchers are from other towns in the toasty Coachella Valley.  One was made in the wonderful Morgan’s at La Quinta at the far eastern edge of the resort region.  The other showed up lagoon side at Rockwood Grill in the Marriott Desert Springs.  There are plenty more desert martinis to come when we explore desert happy hour in a future posting.  Stay tuned sots.



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