CVIndependent

Sat11282020

Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

For more than a half-century, Lord Fletcher’s has stood as a landmark on Highway 111—so it was with great sadness that we learned in August that the restaurant would not reopen.

It was especially sad for me—because I worked there, and I had grown rather fond of the place.

Lord Fletcher’s had always closed for summer, but COVID-19 meant the closure happened extra-early this year, in March. The scheduled reopening in September seemed more and more unlikely the closer it got, but the expectation was still when rather than if.

Michael Fletcher, the owner, reached out to the staff a few days before the story hit the news. Around the restaurant, we’d heard quiet rumors that the family was open to offers. That made sense; Michael is in his 60s, and there was no apparent succession in place. He did mention a couple of factors privately, but I’ll just say that although the family could have weathered the financial effects of the pandemic, COVID-19 accelerated a decision which was likely imminent.

Opened by Michael’s father, Ron Fletcher, in 1966, the restaurant established itself as an intrinsic piece of local history. It was inspired by the countryside inns of his English homeland. At the time of its opening, it was a bold project, isolated and far from Palm Springs. However, it thrived, quickly attracting a wealthy and star-studded clientele.

The iconic exterior might seem a little dated, like a good, old English pub—and therein lies the charm. Inside, with its central fireplace, exposed brickwork, carpets and thick wooden tables, Lord Fletcher’s portrays warmth, comfort and authenticity. It is supplemented by a treasure trove of memorabilia that includes a grandfather clock, swords, lances, tapestries and centuries-old etchings. The expansive collections of Toby jugs and horse brass leave barely an inch of wall space uncovered. It’s a literal museum that brings a new discovery to even the most-frequent visitors.

Ironically, the portrait of Frank Sinatra, framed and mounted behind his favorite table, always attracted the most attention. Michael Fletcher has hundreds of stories to tell, but the most notable is about the night that Sinatra and Alan Shepard jumped behind the bar to perform a duet of “Fly Me to the Moon.” You get a sense of how deep the relationship ran when you learn that Ron and Michael were gifted front-row seats to a Sinatra show in London. Sinatra arrived onstage, halted the applause and then took a knee, telling the Fletchers that on this night, they were his guests. Frank was a regular for more than 30 years. Barbara Sinatra continued to return for many years with friends to reminisce.

Lord Fletcher’s golden era boasts an extensive list of celebrities. Lucille Ball had her own table, and other regulars included Bob Hope, Elizabeth Taylor, Kirk Douglas, Walter Annenberg, George Hamilton, Steve McQueen and Gerald Ford. More recently, Anthony Bourdain filmed an episode at the restaurant, accompanied by Josh Homme, of Queens of the Stone Age. We got the occasional celebrity in the restaurant during my time, but the golden era had faded to nostalgia.

While several remaining customers had been regulars since the opening, much of the clientele had passed away. There was revitalization and new life thanks to the modernism movement; as younger tourists flocked to the desert to witness its midcentury architecture, they also sought out the Sinatra experience. Therefore, the restaurant always remained profitable, but it wasn’t at the bustling levels of its heyday.

Just like the décor, the menu changed very little over the years. The salad, which was tossed tableside, got one small tweak about 40 years ago: The regular bacon bits were replaced by soy bacon bits. It was always amusing to hear newcomers convinced by their senior hosts when trying to modify the salad: “You take the salad the way it comes! It’s delicious!” There was Sinatra’s favorite, the delectable braised beef short ribs, as well as harder-to-find items like the chicken and dumplings, cooked in and served from the pot.

The main attraction, even more than Sinatra, was the prime rib. It was widely acknowledged as the best in the valley. I remember one party of late-night diners showing up unannounced. They’d told their cab driver they were going out for prime rib; the cab driver insisted on making a detour and brought them to Lord Fletcher’s. On another occasion, I waited on a couple in their 20s. They stood out, as it was rare that I had to ID someone for a drink. During our conversation, they informed me that they were prime rib afficionados. They made all their travel arrangements around prime rib restaurants, and they were in the Coachella Valley for the sole purpose of visiting Lord Fletcher’s. They left with the highest praise, putting Lord Fletcher’s ahead of renowned spots like Lawry’s and House of Prime Rib.

The bartender, “Sir” Andrew, had worked at Lord Fletcher’s for 17 years. He was only the third bartender in 54 years. He was noted for his skills and his ability to remember everyone’s regular libations. Such was the generosity of his pours that you never ordered a double, and rarely ordered a second. The signature Royal Brandy Ice had been the creation of the first bartender—a mixture of brandy, creme de cacao and praline ice cream. Sinatra had the recipe pinned on his fridge. If he couldn’t make it to the restaurant, his driver would swing by to pick up a tub of the ice cream.

Andy’s longevity behind the bar was exceeded by Chef Terry, who had worked in the kitchen since 1977. I also had the pleasure of working with an English waitress, Sam, who’d been at Lord Fletcher’s since 1972. Although officially retired, Sam still came in to help during the busiest shifts. Sam sadly passed away in 2019, making Sonny the longest-serving waitress. Sam trained Sonny when she first started in 1983.

While we employees could share his generosity and hospitality, Michael’s stories and memories were the real soul of the restaurant. That’s something that could never be replaced.

Modernization is inevitable. We’ve seen it with the passing of ownership at places like Mr. Lyon’s. At Lord Fletcher’s, the building has its own quirks and limitations that will necessitate a little renovation. Regardless, I hope that it sees a swift resumption of affairs, with a respect for its history and endearing charm. I’m sure that the rest of the Coachella Valley wishes the same.

Published in Features & Profiles