CVIndependent

Thu10012020

Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

In April, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the creation of the Great Plates Delivered program, which had two goals in the midst of the COVID-19 shut-down order: feeding local seniors in need, and keeping restaurant workers employed.

Since then, the program has done both of those things. According to Riverside County spokesman Jose Arballo Jr., as of July 9, some 2,899 people have received 302,046 meals—three per day, seven days per week—from 51 restaurants employing 897 staffers countywide (not counting the cities of Perris, Moreno Valley and Rancho Mirage, which are administering the program themselves).

In the Coachella Valley (except for Rancho Mirage), Arballo said, 859 participants have received meals from 19 restaurants. In Rancho Mirage, 168 seniors from at least nine restaurants were receiving meals as of June 10, according to the city.

For Willie Rhine, the co-owner of Eight4Nine Restaurant and Lounge, participating in the program was a no-brainer, especially since the restaurant had launched a program to feed lunches to local health-care workers even before the Great Plates Delivered program was announced.

“Since the shutdown, we have delivered almost 2,000 boxed lunches to health-care workers throughout the valley,” Rhine said. “The Great Plates program seemed to fit perfectly and give us another opportunity to continue helping people, specifically seniors.

“Additionally, I wanted to keep as many staff employed as possible. The Great Plates program allowed us that opportunity.”

Great Plates delivered is largely funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, with the county or city administering the program chipping in a small percentage; as of now, the program is funded through Aug. 9. This program is open to seniors 65 or older, or seniors age 60-64 who are at high risk of COVID-19, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Participants can make up to 600 percent of the federal poverty limit; must live alone or with one other program-eligible adult; not be currently receiving aid from other state or federal nutrition-assistance programs; and affirm an inability to prepare or obtain meals for themselves.

In order to participate, restaurants must meet certain nutritional guidelines, such as including fresh fruits and vegetables on each dish; keeping foods low in sodium; and not including “sugary drinks” (although 100 percent fruit juice is allowed). Preference was also given to restaurants and food providers who source and prioritize food from California-based farms and ranches; meet the cultural needs of program participants; and promote standards of fairness and equality in employment practices.

In Riverside County, 49 percent of the participating restaurants are minority-owned, Arballo said. Restaurants can receive up to $66 percent day—$16 for breakfast, $17 for lunch, $28 for dinner, and up to $5 for incidentals. Some have their patrons order directly off the menu, while some don’t; some restaurants deliver daily, while others deliver multiple meals three times per week.

To meet the needs of their customers, each restaurant has been in close contact with the people they are serving, to learn about the special dietary needs the clients may have—like food allergies and diabetes—as well as their physical limitations. For example, Michael Fietsam, of Great Plates Delivered participant PS Underground, said one his customers has lost her fingers, so their chef devised special plating for each of her meals to ensure she can dine with dignity.

The restaurants have faced challenges essentially doing a large catering job every day.

“We originally received a list of clients in cities throughout the valley; we asked if we could limit our deliveries to clients closer to Eight4Nine, ensuring faster service and fresher product,” Rhine said. “Once we had a local client list, we could plan the logistics of daily deliveries. We deliver breakfast, lunch and dinner daily between 8:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. We have been in the catering-events business for many years, so we simply adopted this program as a daily catering event and kept the logistics pretty simple.”

The program also ensures that some of the most-vulnerable members of our community have someone checking on them on a regular basis. Early on, one of the restaurants’ delivery people realized a client’s refrigerator wasn’t working, and the restaurant helped connect that client to services to get that fixed.

Robb Wirt, of Bongo Johnny’s, said the impact of Great Plates Delivered has been “immeasurable”—both to his business and the clients Bongo Johnny’s has been serving.

“Everyone has been so kind and appreciative—so many positive vibes,” Wirt said. “One guest says, ‘This 70-year-old retired teacher feels like a princess or like I have won the lottery, to experience your wonderful food. Thank you.’ … Another said: ‘I know we have said it before, but it deserves repeating over and over again: Thank you. Your staff and you are making this isolating period tolerable. Not only can we stay safer by not having to go out to the grocery stores numerous times a week; we also have a joyful moment each day as our delicious, healthy and well-presented meals arrive.’"

All of the restaurateurs we spoke to said they’re happy to participate in the program as long as it’s funded.

“Without community, we wouldn't be here,” Wirt said.

For more information on the county’s Great Plates Delivered program, call the Riverside County Office on Aging at 800-510-2020. For more information on the Rancho Mirage program, call 877-652-4844, or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Jimmy Boegle contributed to this story.

Published in Features & Profiles

There was sooooo much interesting news today—from more on California’s reopening plans to the hubbub over Tupac Shakur’s unemployment (not joking!)—we shan’t delay in getting to the links:

• Today’s big news: Gov. Newsom today laid out more specifics on the reopening of California, in a four-stage process. Right now, we’re in Stage 1. (But you knew that already.) He also suggested that the state’s schools could open earlier than normal summer

• From the Independent: Kevin Allman talked to the owners of Dringk, Bongo Johnny’s and Eight4Nine, as well as the executive director of the Rancho Mirage Chamber of Commerce, about the tough decisions restaurants have had to make during the pandemic.

• From the Independent: Matt King is a student at College of the Desert who comes from a family full of teachers—so he decided to talk to several of his teachers, current and past, about the challenges of being a teacher at a time when in-person classes cannot be.

• Two related stories: The Conversation brings us this piece, posted yesterday from a business-law expert, on one reason why meat plants may be closing—a concern over being prosecuted if they get blamed for spreading the virus. And then today comes the news that the president plans on ordering the plants to remain open—and possibly protecting them from liability—in an effort to keep the meat supply chain up and running.

A sad stats day: The U.S. crossed the 1 million line in terms of coronavirus cases—and the virus has now killed more Americans than the Vietnam War.

• Yet another piece of evidence showing that we’re living in the worst timeline: The feds are preparing to loan big business billions—with almost no strings whatsoever.

• NPR’s headline says it all: “Leaving Off Mask at Mayo Clinic, Pence Said He Wanted To Look Workers ‘in the Eye.’” Sigh.

• The Wall Street Journal yesterday posted this piece: “The Secret Group of Scientists and Billionaires Pushing a Manhattan Project for COVID-19.” While the story itself is interesting, I recommend skipping straight to the PDF report from the group

• For this one year only, films will not need to be released theatrically in order to be eligible for the Oscars.

• Best Buy today announced that it was allowing the Geek Squad to enter people’s homes again.

• Well, this is depressing: Some stores are running out of sympathy cards because of this damned virus.

The nation’s hotels, large and small, are getting ready to do things rather differently when travel again becomes a thing.

• As the great Dave Barry would say, we are not making this up: Scientists are examining the possibility that nicotine may keep COVID-19 at bay. Yes, really.

• I repeat, we are not making this up: If you’re having problems checking the status of your stimulus check on the IRS website, try typing things in all caps. Yes, really, again.

• Meanwhile, out of Kentucky comes this headline: “Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear apologizes to Tupac Shakur over coronavirus unemployment claim.” Yes, this headline is accurate, and no, we’re not smelling toast.

• Aaaand in the ever-weird and cutthroat world of British media, a newspaper has suspended a journalist after he allegedly snuck into a rival newspaper’s Zoom meeting.

• This is not directly related to the virus, but we need all the good news we can get, so here’s a just-released trailer for the Kimmy Schmidt special coming to Netflix in May.

That’s all for today. Buy our coloring book, dang it! Let us know if you want a copy of our May print edition sent to you. And if you can afford to support our journalism, please do so, because times are tough. We’ll be back tomorrow.

Published in Daily Digest

Selling takeout meals—with a side of hand sanitizer. Cooking for the health-care professionals who are fighting COVID-19. Or just hunkering down and waiting for it to be over.

These are a few of the strategies being employed by Coachella Valley restaurateurs since March 19, when Gov. Gavin Newsom issued the stay-at-home order that has shut down all but the most essential businesses in the state of California.

Before Kurt Gardner’s Rancho Mirage bar and restaurant, Dringk, was shuttered for in-house service, Gardner had 33 employees. Today, he’s down to four. They, along with Gardner and his wife, are running a skeleton takeout business six days a week. Gardner says he and his wife are at Dringk “literally 18 hours a day,” assembling what he calls “family-style large-format meals.”

Dringk’s poké rice bowls and chicken-and-peach pizzas have been replaced by disposable foil pans of comfort food: beef Stroganoff, pasta bakes and ready-to-serve pot roast. Homemade soups are sold by the jar. The takeout menu also includes beer, wine, a “DIY mimosa” kit and a few whimsical-but-practical items for the age of COVID—jigsaw puzzles, hand sanitizer spray and 12-packs of toilet paper.

Gardner said his staff consists mostly of young bartenders and servers. “At first, it was like a vacation for some of them,” he says. “Now some are getting nervous; some are getting scared. I don’t have a point of reference for them, and I’ve been in the restaurant business 25-some years.”


In mid-March, the James Beard Restaurant Association surveyed 1,500 of its members to provide what it calls “an immediate snapshot of the industry’s needs.” Three out of four restaurants in areas that had been forced to close believed they wouldn’t be able to open again in two months. Respondents said they had already let go of 78 percent of their hourly workers.

“We unfortunately had to lay off 100 people,” says Willie Rhine, owner of the popular Eight4Nine Restaurant and Lounge in Palm Springs. “We have 10 people working at the moment. This morning, I had a Zoom meeting with about 25 people, and it was nice to see their faces. Everybody wants to return to work and resume some sort of normalcy.”

Until then, the “new normalcy” at Eight4Nine is handwashing four times per hour, according to the restaurant’s website, along with single-use plastic gloves being discarded after every food preparation. Guests picking up food are encouraged to order and pay online to further reduce contact.

Eight4Nine’s takeout menu consists of “things that would travel well,” says Rhine. Like Dringk, Eight4Nine is serving comfort food in family sizes, but its menu also includes sandwiches, salads and some sophisticated entrees: sourdough-encrusted Chilean sea bass with crab-stuffed piquillo peppers, for instance, and a grilled Scottish steelhead with fennel and orange. The restaurant also offers delivery through Grubhub, Postmates and UberEats.

“We’re going to bring in a bartender and do our regular cocktails as well,” Rhine says. “Some of our clients are missing their cocktails.”


Of course, it’s not just the Coachella Valley that’s hurting. The National Restaurant Association estimated in 2019 that 11 percent of the jobs in California were restaurant-related, and that the state has more than 75,000 restaurants. Estimated sales in 2018 were $97 billion.

While some restaurants, like Eight4Nine and Dringk, hope to keep some cash moving with takeout efforts, for others, that didn’t make sense—at least at first

Robb Wirt, owner of the casual Palm Springs dining spot Bongo Johnny’s, has had a bad patch of luck. Two years ago in March, the building that housed his restaurant burned down. The fire forced the restaurant to move, a process that took nearly a year, “and now we’re closed again,” he says.

Unlike some other Coachella Valley restaurants, Bongo Johnny’s hadn’t switched to offering takeout.

“I couldn’t see how it would be possible” to be profitable, Wirt told us when he first talked, adding that he thinks the takeout field might be saturated at this point.

However, a little more than a week later, Wirt emailed and told us he’d had a change of heart.

“Just FYI, I plan on reopening (soon) for curbside pickups, and I will also be bringing back our famous free delivery,” he said.

Of his 29 employees, he says, only half have been able to get unemployment help.


Katie Stice, president of the Rancho Mirage Chamber of Commerce, says the agency is in constant contact with restaurateurs in the city, offering advice and information both macro (regarding the federal Payment Protection Program, or PPP, for instance) and micro (a liquor company offering small grants to out-of-work bartenders). The city of Rancho Mirage also has launched its own version of the PPP, of sorts, giving between $5,000 and $8,000 to restaurants that commit to staying open 30 hours a week in some form until the end of May.

“All the cities and chambers (in the Coachella Valley) are in a conference call once a week” sharing information and coordinating aid, Stice says. Out of those efforts grew a directory of valley restaurants via the website dinegps.com that are open, along with their hours and information about their menus.

Stice also started a GoFundMe campaign to assist both first responders and restaurants (www.gofundme.com/f/operation-feed-the-frontlines). Money raised through the online fundraiser goes toward purchasing meals from Rancho Mirage eateries; those meals are then delivered to the area’s three major hospitals.

Rhine, of Eight4Nine, began sending meals to Coachella Valley medical centers and the Desert AIDS Project on Good Friday, and has kept up the practice since, with help from some generous customers. The restaurant now provides 150 meals each Friday. Gardner, of Dringk, has been doing the same, providing family-style pans for doctors and nurses.


What will the restaurant world look like when California cautiously reopens? No one knows, but a recent Bloomberg BusinessWeek article on the restaurant scene in the recently reopened city of Wuhan, China, indicates that customer behavior has changed—social distancing has continued, and people still are getting takeout rather than sitting at restaurant tables.

Wirt, of Bongo Johnny’s, thinks Palm Springs “may go back to the way it was five years ago” before the city’s recent growth.

“It’s just hearsay at this point,” says Gardner, “but there’s a lot of talk about keeping tables (in California) at a six-foot distance, which means many restaurants will be operating at 50 percent capacity, at best. And with certain restaurant plans, it will be next to impossible.”

Wirt has heard the same thing. “We’re probably going to be required to reduce our occupancy,” he says. “I think customers are going to be a little apprehensive at first; half the people won’t be ready to go out. It’s going to be a very slow uptick, especially here in the valley. (If we reopen during the summer), we’ll have no tourists, and some of the Palm Springs population leaves town. Everybody’s in the same boat.

“I try not to be so negative,” he adds, “but I’m kind of a realist.”

Rhine is more optimistic. “I do believe that we’re going to get through this quickly,” he says. “I’m hoping we’re going to have a strong summer. If we can open up in the next four or five weeks, maybe people in L.A. will be taking driving vacations rather than flying.”

Kevin Allman is a Southern California-based journalist. Find him on Twitter @kevinallman.

Published in Features & Profiles

I’ll be honest: As I write this column, I am exhausted. November has been one hell of a month here at the Coachella Valley Independent. Here are a few highlights:

• We were again fortunate enough to have a booth at the Greater Palm Springs Pride festival, this year on Nov. 2 and 3. During the two-day fest, we gave out 500 magnetic chip clips with the Independent’s logo, as well as many hundreds of newspapers. Thanks to all of you who stopped by and shared a kind word or three. Also, a personal thank you to Kevin Fitzgerald and Matt King, who helped me out at the booth.

• The following weekend, the Independent hosted the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s annual Publishers’ Retreat at the Colony Palms Hotel. Our group of publishers—from newspapers in locales ranging from Santa Barbara to Milwaukee, and from Boston to Little Rock—gathered for two days to discuss the media landscape, share ideas, and commiserate over great meals and a cocktail or two. Thanks to all of my fellow publishers who came to Palm Springs; to all of the wonderful people at the Colony Palms; to Willie Rhine and Lucy Kent at Eight4Nine Restaurant and Lounge, which hosted our Friday happy hour; and to our friends at Palm Springs Speaks, who provided tickets to Robert Reich’s speech.

• Finally … we put together our Best of Coachella Valley issue. While I could thank many, many people who helped us produce the fun and informative issue, I have limited space here, so I’ll limit my expressions of gratitude to just two.

First: Beth Allen, our fantastic graphic designer, is the true Best of Coachella Valley MVP. Not only did she design this year’s excellent Best of Coachella Valley logo; she laid out the entire BOCV package for the print edition (which is NOT easy, given the number of moving parts), and she even designed a few late-arriving advertisements. Heck, she wrote three of our staff picks, too. Thanks, Beth; we couldn’t have done this issue without you. Literally.

Second: We also couldn’t do the BOCV issue without you, our amazingly astute and community-minded readers. Thank you for taking the time to head to CVIndependent.com and vote in the two rounds of balloting; I know it can be daunting to face down a slate of almost 130 categories. But you did—and the result is, by far, the valley’s best “Best Of” slate of winners and finalists. Your support is why, as the Independent enters its eighth full year of existence, we do what we do.

Happy holidays, and as always, thanks for reading. If you have any questions or comments, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.—and be sure to pick up our December/Best of Coachella Valley print edition, hitting the streets this week.

Published in Editor's Note

Local Restaurants Offer Splendid Summer Specials

The summer giveth to Coachella Valley foodies … and the summer taketh away.

As for the “taketh away” part: This is your annual reminder to call ahead before heading off to your favorite local bar or restaurant … because it may very well be closed. Some places take a couple of weeks off; others take off the whole damn season.

However, an increasing number of places are choosing to stay open throughout the summer, because they recognize that most locals and even a fair number of sun-loving visitors are, in fact, here. Some restaurants offer up amazing deals, too—which leads me to believe that the summer is the best time to be a foodie in the Coachella Valley.

Here are four of the summer deals out there that have caught my eye thus far:

Eight4Nine Restaurant and Lounge (849 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs) is offering a $29 three-course meal Sundays through Thursdays. I’m partial to Willa Jean’s fried chicken, by the way.

Bernie’s (69830 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage) is offering a $29 three-course menu daily; options include a 7-ounce cut of prime rib, and Wagyu meatloaf.

The Purple Palm Restaurant (in the Colony Palms Hotel, 572 N. Indian Canyon Drive, Palm Springs) has its three-course “love to the locals” dinner for $39, Sundays through Thursdays. The almond wood-roasted strip steak sounds amazing!

Shame on the Moon (69950 Frank Sinatra Drive, Rancho Mirage) is giving diners three great deals: a three-course dinner (soup or salad, entrée and dessert) for $21; and two different four-course dinner menus (soup or salad, appetizer, entrée and dessert), for either $29 or $38, Sundays through Fridays. Wow!

Visit the restaurants’ Facebook pages and websites for more information—and let me know about other great specials not listed here; if we get enough, we’ll publish a roundup of these suggestions at CVIndependent.com!


Taste of Summer Returns to Rancho Mirage

Rancho Mirage restaurants are again teaming up to offer up delicious food at a discount—and benefit great causes while doing so.

Here’s how it works: People can buy $10 wristbands, and anyone with those wristbands will be able to enjoy $4 offers at participating restaurants during the promotion periods: July 7-16, Aug. 11-20 and Sept. 8-17. All of the wristband proceeds will go to an impressive list of charities.

Wristbands are available from the charities themselves; at the Rancho Mirage Chamber of Commerce (71905 Highway 111, Suite H); or at the launch party, taking place from 5 to 7 p.m., Thursday, July 6, at Pirch, also located at 71905 Highway 111, in Suite H.

RSVP for that launch party, and get a list of participating restaurants and charities, at www.tasteofsummerranchomirage.com.


In Brief

Now open and earning rave reviews: Chef Tanya’s Kitchen, at 706 S. Eugene Road, over in the industrial area near Ramon Road and Gene Autry Trail in Palm Springs. The “plant-based kitchen that’s totally bitchin’” is a vegan restaurant, open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday (with expanded hours until 8 p.m. on Wednesday), helmed by Tanya Petrovna, the founder of Native Foods. Visit www.cheftanyapetrovna.com for more info. … After being closed for nine months due to the sudden death of the owner, Willie Boys finally reopened on June 2. The Morongo Valley barbecue joint and music venue, a popular destination for valley denizens, is located at 50048 Twentynine Palms Highway; get updates and information at www.facebook.com/willieboyssaloon. … The Arrive Hotels empire continues to grow: Chris Pardo and co. christened the Palm Springs Fan Club with a shindig on June 3. What exactly the space, adjacent to Arrive, at 1541 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs? “Palm Springs Fan Club is a cocktail lounge and event space,” according to the Facebook event page for that aforementioned shindig. “Designed with a nod to the iconic wind farms just outside Palm Springs city limits, Palm Springs Fan Club is a playful and unique location for pop-ups, receptions, meetings and weddings.” OK then! In other news, Pardo recently announced an Arrive hotel will be opening in Austin, Texas, in 2019. … Coming soon: Venezia Restaurant and Pizzeria, to the former Spaghetteria/Caffé Italia space at 2500 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. While a slightly faded sign on the building inaccurately says to expect an opening in “early 2017,” the restaurant’s Facebook page says the opening date is close enough that the restaurant is now hiring. Visit www.facebook.com/veneziapalmsprings for more info. … Just in time for the scorching temps: Vinny’s Italian Ice and Frozen Custard, at 190 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in downtown Palm Springs, is open for business. Get info at www.facebook.com/vinnysitalianiceandfrozencustard. … Popular La Quinta poke joint Pokehana, at 78742 Highway 111, is opening a second location in Palm Desert this summer—and we’re hearing rumors that yet another Pokehana could come to the valley by the end of the year. Watch www.pokehana.com for updates.

Published in Restaurant & Food News

Pho 533 Expands, Adds a Spring Roll Bar

About a year and a half ago, Chad Gardner—known for his fantastic Dash and a Handful Catering business—purchased longtime old-school Vietnamese restaurant Pho 533, located at 1775 E. Palm Canyon Drive.

What a difference 18 month makes: On Tuesday, Aug. 30, Pho 533 will emerge from a month-long closure as a completely different place.

First, Gardner has doubled Pho 533’s size while also revamping the menu. Second, he’s added a cocktail bar. Third, he’s added a 10-seat spring roll bar.

Yes, that’s right … a spring roll bar.

On Sunday, Aug. 28, Pho 533 offered a sneak preview to the Palm Springs Eating and Living Facebook group—and the new digs are gorgeous.

The food’s pretty amazing, too. The new spring roll menu includes 10 different types of rolls, featuring everything from mango to chicken to lobster to mushrooms. The samples of the spring rolls being created—“hand rolled to order,” thank you very much—at that aforementioned spring roll bar were delicious. I got a bite or two of the spicy tuna roll ($16), which comes with sashimi-grade tuna mixed with pickled ginger, shirataki noodles, cilantro, lettuce, cucumber, sesame seeds and the house sriracha mayo. Let’s just say I am looking forward to enjoying my own spicy tuna roll, and don’t expect me to be in a sharing mood.

As for the drinks coming out of the new bar: The event featured the tequila “buoi”—Pho 533’s version of the paloma—which includes Arette blanco tequila, Bundaberg grapefruit soda, lime and salt. Tasty, indeed.

For more information, visit Pho 533’s Facebook page or website for more information.


Coming Soon: Umami Seoul Korean BBQ and Japanese Cuisine

We have a good-news, bad-news situation here.

First, the bad news: Thai Kitchen 1, which was located at 67555 S. Palm Canyon Drive, in Cathedral City, has closed. Thai Kitchen 1 was one of my favorite Thai restaurants in the valley, and I learned the restaurant had closed the hard way: When I called the restaurant to get some takeout, I got that dreaded message: “Beep beep BEEP! We’re sorry. You have reached a number has been disconnected or is no longer in service.”

Now, the good news: The folks who owned downtown Palm Springs’ Wasabi for many years are opening Umami Seoul Korean BBQ and Japanese Cuisine in that spot.

“How did we come up with the name Umami Seoul?” the restaurant’s website asks. “We wanted to combine both our Japanese and Korean influences into one. Umami means savory in Japanese, using and challenging all of your senses to create a truly ‘umami’ experience. Seoul is our hometown city in Korea and the place that has inspired all of our Korean cuisine.”

The online menu promises various appetizers, sushi rolls and Korean specialties. Yum!

The restaurant should be open any day now; heck, it may be open by the time you read this. Stop by, or visit www.umamiseoul.com and www.facebook.com/umamiseoulps for updates and more information.


In Brief

Fans of the Augustine Casino’s restaurants—Café 54 and the Menyikish Bar and Grill—take note: The entire casino will be closed from Monday, Sept. 19, through Sunday, Oct. 16. The Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indians is taking that time to do a full-scale remodel of the 14-year-old facility, located at 84001 Avenue 54, in Coachella. Visit www.augustinecasino.com for details and updates. … Coming soon: The Big Rock Pub, to 79940 Westward Ho Drive, in Indio. Expect “a blend of classic rock and classic cuisine.” Visit www.thebigrockpub.com for more info, including details on Big Rock’s job fair, taking place Sept. 6-9. … Congrats to the good folks at Rio Azul Mexican Bar and Grill, at 350 S. Indian Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs, who on Aug. 28 celebrated the one-year anniversary of the restaurant’s popular Sunday Desert Divas Drag Brunch! For just $14.95, it’s an amazing deal. (Be sure to bring dollars to tip the divas, too!) Visit rioazulpalmsprings.com for more info. … Get ready to enjoy German beers and eats—and support a great cause while doing so! From 5 to 10 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 29, through Sunday, Oct. 2, Eight4Nine Restaurant and Lounge, at 849 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs, will be holding an Oktoberfest celebration—and 30 percent of all Oktoberfest proceeds will go to the March to Equality, billed as “the most expansive virtual march in history supporting full LGBT equality.” Visit marchtoequality.org for more details. … Please extend a hearty Coachella Valley welcome to Andrew Cooper, the new executive chef at the La Quinta Resort and Club, at 49499 Eisenhower Drive, in La Quinta. He’ll oversee the food and beverage program at all of the resort’s bars and restaurants, including Morgan’s in the Desert. Cooper’s 15-year career includes a lot of time at various Four Seasons resorts, most recently the Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado in Santa Fe, N.M. More info at www.laquintaresort.com. … Popular build-your-own-pizza joint Pieology Pizzeria has opened its first valley location, at 42500 Bob Hope Drive, Suite D, in Rancho Mirage. Head to www.pieology.com for details. … Coming soon to the old Sam’s Sushi location at The River, 71800 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage: Fox and Fiddle, a British-style pub. There are a bunch of Canadian locations of Fox and Fiddle; visit www.foxandfiddlecalifornia.com for more info. … Keep your eye open for changes at Matchbox, on the second floor at 155 S. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. It’s under new ownership; a new name and menu should soon follow. … We’ve been hearing nothing but raves about Cie Sichuan Cuisine, which opened a couple of months ago at 45682 Towne St., in Indio. We’ll give a more detailed report after we’ve had a chance to check it out; in the meantime, find menus and more info at www.facebook.com/ciesichuancuisineofficial.

Published in Restaurant & Food News

Restaurant Week Returns With a Slightly Different Name, Higher Prices

The 10-day foodie feast known by locals simply as Restaurant Week is back and celebrating 10 years of existence—but things will be slightly different in 2016 than in years past.

Less important: Out is the clunky full name of Palm Springs Desert Resorts Restaurant Week; in comes the more streamlined Greater Palm Springs Restaurant Week.

More important: Prices have gone up. In recent years, participating restaurants have offered three-course prix fixe menus for either $26 or $38. This year, however, there are three price points: $28, $38 or $48.

The good news is that most of the participants are sticking with the lower two price points. Organizers say that more than 90 restaurants across the valley will be participating; as of our press deadline, the Restaurant Week website listed an impressive 94 participants, 83 of which had posted their menus. Of those 83, a majority of restaurants were going with the $38 prix fixe—43 of them, to be exact. Meanwhile, 26 restaurants were offering $28 menus, while just 14 of them were offering $48 menus.

New participants this year include Cathedral City’s Bontá Restaurant and Bar, Palm Desert’s Koutouki Greek Estiatorio, and Palm Springs’ Chi Chi at the Avalon, Reservoir at Arrive, and SO•PA at L’Horizon.

Also new this year: The folks at ever-mysterious PS Underground will be offering a $48 menu at Velvet, a supper-club experience at a secret location created just for Restaurant Week. Very cool!

Also very cool: Beyond the restaurant deals, all sorts of other local businesses, attractions and hotels offer specials during Restaurant Week, too.

Greater Palm Springs Restaurant Week takes place Friday, June 3, through Sunday, June 12. For more information—including a list of participants and their menus—visit visitgreaterpalmsprings.com/restaurantweek.

New: Blaze Pizza Opens in Palm Desert

A growing pizza chain that does things a little bit differently has opened a new location in Palm Desert.

Blaze Pizza opened at 73393 Highway 111 on May 10, and here’s its shtick: You walk in and get in line; you tell the employees what sauce and ingredients you want placed on the made-from-scratch dough; one of those employees puts your creation in a very hot stone-hearth oven; and three minutes later, your pizza’s ready. It’d kind of like Chipotle … just with pizza, and without all the terrible press the burrito chain has gotten recently.

Actually, the press that Blaze Pizza has received lately has been just the opposite of that of Chipotle: It’s been downright glowing, as the fast-casual chain continues to grow. One of the investors in the “Fast Fire’d” pizza chain is NBA superstar LeBron James, who went to work at a Los Angeles Blaze location not to long ago, posing as an employee named “Ron.” Of course, this appearance became fodder for a commercial.

Learn more at blazepizza.com.

In Brief

As previewed in this space a couple of months back: In the very same shopping center as the aforementioned Blaze Pizza, you can find the second valley location of The Habit Burger Grill, a chain that claims to have the best burger in America according to Consumer Reports. The Palm Desert location—that address again is 73393 Highway 111—opened in May and is the second Coachella Valley location; the other is at 79174 Highway 111 in La Quinta. More info at www.habitburger.com. … Good news for West Valley boozehounds and wine snobs alike: A little store called BevMo! has applied for a liquor license to do business at 333 S. Palm Canyon Drive, the location that was The Alley furniture/gifts for many years. The building is currently under construction. We’ll be keeping a close (if slightly bloodshot) eye on the progress and will keep you updated. … The family of Crater Lake Vodka’s Kathy Schriefer has been through hell recently—but the community is stepping up to help. In December, her son, Thomas, suffered serious brain damage after drinking too much water. On May 17, local publicist Jeff Hocker, Live Magazine and Eight4Nine Restaurant and Lounge joined forces at Eight4Nine to raise funds to help cover Thomas’ medical bills. The goal was to raise $3,500 at the event, but Hocker reports that the “Take 2 for Thomas” party actually raised $5,501. Great work! If you want to help, the Schriefer family has a donations page set up at www.gofundme.com/d9mfr6dw. ... Speaking of good causes: Some Fabulous Leos—the local nonprofit organization, co-founded by the late George Zander, which celebrates the Leo astrological sign while raising money for worthy charities—will be having a “Pre-Party” at Eight4Nine, 849 N. Palm Canyon Drive, at 4 p.m., Saturday, June 25. For $10, you get a raffle ticket and entry to the party. It’s one of two events—the other being a happy hour at the Hard Rock on Wednesday, July 20—leading up to the big event: The annual Leo Party, taking place Sunday, Aug. 21, at Toucan’s Tiki Lounge, 2100 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. This year’s beneficiaries: The L-Fund, a lesbian philanthropic group that assists locals in need; and the Raina Chessman Fund, which aids the local transgender community. RSVP and get more info at www.somefabulousleos.com.

Published in Restaurant & Food News

Looking Back and Looking Ahead at the Local Restaurant Scene

As we turn the calendar from 2015 to 2016, it’s worth examining the year gone by in the local food scene—and speculate about what’s coming up.

What did we learn about the local restaurant scene in 2015? A few top-of-the-mind thoughts:

• Intriguing restaurants can still create a buzz. Think for a moment: What was the last local restaurant that opened and created a buzz like Eight4Nine did? Unless I am forgetting something (which is entirely possible), it’s been years since a new place created such a fervor.

In some ways, Eight4Nine represents a perfect restaurant-buzz storm: It has an excellent pedigree, thanks to the team of co-owner Willie Rhine, the longtime general manager at Lulu California Bistro; renowned photographer John Paschal; and veteran executive chef Chuck Courtney. It has an exciting location, in the burgeoning uptown design district of Palm Springs. Finally, previews of the look and menu of the restaurant helped build excitement long before the doors finally opened.

I also think part of the buzz surrounding Eight4Nine can be attributed to a less-than-pleasant fact about the local dining scene: People are starving for great dining experiences here. There are a lot of good restaurants in the Coachella Valley. Tons of ’em. But there are just a few great ones.

• Having said that, there are nuggets of greatness to be found in the Coachella Valley food scene. Roman Blas is doing amazing things at Over the Rainbow, and just got a little love on Top Chef. Babe’s Bar-B-Que and Brewhousewas named the 2015 Brewery of the Year at the California State Fair, and the two newer breweries in the valley are picking up medals at various beer competitions.

The stupid runs deep when it comes to some protesters. I totally understand why someone would be opposed to the concept of foie gras, or want to be vegetarian. There are some serious, serious problems with the corporatized food industry in this country regarding food safety and humane practices.

However, I don’t understand why local food protesters set their sights on Mindy Reed and Zin American Bistro.

In January, a California law banning foie gras—fatty duck or goose liver—was overturned, and Reed added several foie gras dishes back to the menu at Zin, located in downtown Palm Springs. Soon after, she was besieged with hate mail and protesters.

If the protesters had done their research, they would know that Reed is one of the area’s biggest proponents of local, free-range and humanely raised ingredients. That goes for foie gras, too.

“I serve foie gras that’s humanely raised,” she told the Independent earlier this year. “The geese are not caged. There’s no tube. There are no machines. The goose is hand-fed. There are a few farms doing this. Geese will gorge themselves naturally. People who like foie gras appreciate the fact that I buy humanely raised foie gras.”

Reed also had a question for her protesters.

“Why aren’t they picketing McDonald’s or other restaurants in town (that don’t seek out meat from humanely raised animals)?” she asked. “I don’t think it’s fair.”

She’s right. If you’re going to protest, think things out first, OK?

• Restaurants come and go. We lost a lot of great restaurants this year, including The Falls Steakhouse, Margarita’s, Twin Palms Bistro and Lounge, Michael’s Pizzeria, Wasabi, 3rd Corner Wine Shop and Bistro, Dickie O’Neal’s Irish Pub and the Hacienda Cantina and Beach Club.

So what should we expect from the local restaurant scene in 2016? Whether you love what’s going on in downtown Palm Springs, or you hate it, restaurants will be part of the scene when all these new developments begin opening late this year. Here’s hoping they are good ones.

I also think (and hope) that the craft-cocktails trend continues to develop in the valley. While you’ll find more craft cocktails here now than you would have two or three years ago, the cocktails scene is still lacking.

Whatever 2016 may bring in the food and restaurants world, we’ll be reporting on it. Keep watching this space.

In Brief

Congratulations to the fine folks at Rio Azul Mexican Bar and Grill. The much-loved Mexican restaurant, located at 350 S. Indian Canyon Drive, in downtown Palm Springs, celebrated its fifth birthday in December. Get more details at rioazulpalmsprings.com. … Coming soon to downtown Palm Springs: Chicken Ranch, which is going into the old Jiao spot at 515 N. Palm Canyon Drive. Dave Morgan and Mike Smith are opening the place, which according to its Facebook page will offer free-range, farm-fresh, locally grown fare including rotisserie chicken, sides and salads. There’s a full bar as well. Keep your fingers crossed for a January opening date; watch www.facebook.com/EatChickenRanch for updates.

Published in Restaurant & Food News

When the Summer Closure Becomes a Permanent Closure

I may have been one of Margaritas’ final customers.

We decided to go the restaurant, located at Avenida Caballeros and Tahquitz Canyon Way in Palm Springs, for dinner on Sunday, June 28. We couldn’t decide what we wanted, and since Margaritas offered a decidedly unusual mix of Mexican fare and sushi, with a little Italian thrown in to boot, it was a logical choice.

When our server told us the restaurant was closing that day for the summer, with a planned reopening on Oct. 1, I thought: Oh, no. Here we go again.

It’s a Coachella Valley tradition: A popular restaurant suddenly announces it is closing for the summer, never to open its doors again. Last summer alone, this happened at three of my fave restaurants—Figue in La Quinta, and Jiao and Hamburger Mary’s in Palm Springs.

This is not to say that all restaurants that close for the summer are doomed. In fact, some of the area’s most popular, established joints make summer closures a habit. But when a “summer closure” seemingly comes out of the blue, as it did at Margaritas, one can’t help but wonder.

Well, guess what? There are now signs outside of Margaritas saying the building is for sale. (A message left on the Maragaritas Facebook page for clarification had not been returned as of our press deadline.)

Another victim of the permanent summer closure: Twin Palms Bistro and Lounge. At least we saw this one coming: The popular joint, which specialized in Southern fare, closed “for the summer” rather suddenly on Sunday, May 17 (leaving several events which had been planned at the restaurant in the figurative lurch). The co-owner, Pat Daltroff, told us at the time that it was possible the restaurant might not re-open at the current location, 1201 E. Palm Canyon Drive, if needed repairs to the building became too expensive and onerous.

Sure enough, Daltroff announced on July 15 via Facebook that Twin Palms was finished in its current incarnation. He said he was hard at work finding a new spot and wants to reopen as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, we’re not exactly sure what’s going on at Plate | Glass, located at 301 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. A July 9 post on the restaurant’s Facebook page said the restaurant was taking a summer break, and would be back in October.

However, the plot thickened when a member of the popular P.S. Rant and Rave Facebook group peeked inside a week or so later, and discovered the restaurant—which focused on craft cocktails, small plates and desserts—had been cleared out.

While various members of the Facebook group were declaring Plate | Glass to be dead and gone, I checked in with the folks at O’Bayley Communications, who have been handling PR for Plate | Glass, to see what was up.

The not-so-helpful response I received: “We’ll have an announcement about the re-opening of Plate | Glass sometime in August.”

Slightly more helpful were some comments Plate | Glass co-owner Larry Abel made on the P.S. Rant and Rave Facebook post, in which he insisted the restaurant would indeed reopen in October.

What does all this mean? We’re guessing there’s going to be some sort of concept change, which will be announced in August.

So … stay tuned. Meanwhile, let us know if you suspect any other restaurants may be in the midst of a permanent “summer closure.”

In Brief

Michael’s Pizzeria, located at 71800 Highway 111, at The River in Rancho Mirage, is no more. Michael’s other two locations, both in Long Beach, remain open. … Also no more: Rose and Buster’s, the Yucca Valley wine bar, closed in late June. However, the place’s Facebook page hints at a possible reopening. … Larry’s Gourmet Market and Deli is now open at 2781 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. The place does not look like much from the outside, but we’ve been hearing great things about the sandwiches inside. More info at www.facebook.com/larrysdeli … The Palm Springs Planning Commission has given a thumbs-up to plans for the new Bernie’s Lounge and Supper Club, located at 292 E. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. The restaurant burned to the ground, more or less, on Christmas day last year, and the owners hope the brand-new building will be completed by this December. See the plans and get more information at www.facebook.com/Berniesfans. ... No opening date has been announced for Eight4Nine, the much-anticipated restaurant owned by Willie Rhine (of Lulu California Bistro) and John Paschal, located at 849 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. However, art is being installed inside, according to the restaurant’s Facebook page, so expect an announcement soon.

Published in Restaurant & Food News

Tinto at the Saguaro Downsizes a Bit

Tinto, the Basque-style restaurant owned by Iron Chef Jose Garces that calls the Saguaro Palm Springs home, will reopen Wednesday, Dec. 3, after a lengthy closure during much of the summer and fall.

When Tinto reopens, it will be just a fraction of its former self, size-wise: The restaurant will occupy what had previously been the Tinto bar—and that’s it. The rest of the former Tinto space, including the lovely patio, has been converted into what’s called the Palmetto Room and the Santa Rosa patio. Those spaces will be available for special events like weddings and holiday parties.

The Saguaro hosted an event for VIPs and media at the old-new space on Wednesday, Nov. 19, and here’s the spin Tinto/Saguaro reps were putting on things: The Tinto downsizing will allow the restaurant to return to the small, intimate tapas-bar roots of the original Tinto in Philadelphia; meanwhile, the Palmetto Room and Santa Rosa Patio will help the Saguaro keep up with a demand for more special-events spaces.

Make what you will of that spin. All I know is that I hope the downsized Tinto can succeed; although I’ve experienced inconsistent service and food during previous visits to Tinto, I’ve also experienced some of the best bites I’ve had in the Coachella Valley.

Get more details at garcesgroup.com/restaurants/tinto.

PS Underground Takes Up a Semi-Permanent Residency With Light

Over the last two years or so, Michael Fietsam and David Horgen have wowed local foodies with PS Underground, a series of intimate, details-secret-until-the-day-of themed dinners held at a variety of valley locations.

While PS Underground lives on—in fact, the next event, called “Wanderland,” takes place on Wednesday, Dec. 10 (more details at www.psunderground.com)—Fietsam and Horgen have also set down roots, of sorts, for a new experience called Light.

Fietsam told me that like the usual PS Underground events, the details of Light’s dinners—including the menu and the dining location—remain secret to diners until the day of the event. However, unlike PS Underground events, the Light experience will be accessible throughout the season—until May 2, to be exact.

Why did the duo add Light to the PS Underground menu of offerings? Fietsam explained that he and Horgen wanted to share the PS Underground experience with a wider variety of people; it was a logical expansion of the hobby-turned-business.

“We haven’t been able to tap into the market of tourists and (out-of-town) friends of people who live in the desert” thanks to the inconsistency of the PS Underground schedule, he said.

While Light’s venue will remain the same through May 2, chef Horgen’s menu, or at least portions of it, changes on a weekly basis, Fietsam said.

Light takes place at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday, through the season. The experience costs $150. Make reservations and get more details at www.lightps.net.

LuLu’s Rhine Joins Forces With Photog John Paschal for Eight4Nine

Willie Rhine has become a community icon as the general manager (and one of the public faces of) Barbara and Jerry Keller’s LuLu California Bistro, in downtown Palm Springs.

He’s so strongly associated with LuLu that his mid-November announcement that he was starting his own restaurant shocked many in the restaurant world.

Rhine is joining forces with John Paschal, of Snapshot Palm Springs Studios, to open a new-American cuisine restaurant called Eight4Nine Restaurant and Lounge, at 849 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. The new restaurant is slated to open sometime next summer.

After the initial announcement, Rhine took to Facebook to clarify his status with LuLu.

“I have the love and support of LuLu California Bistro owners, Barbara and Jerry Keller, who are excited about my new opportunity and equally thrilled and happy that I am staying on to continue the success of LuLu, where I remain both vested and the general manager, in charge of the day-to-day operations,” Rhine wrote. “I will continue to oversee our catering events with our amazing management team, including Lucy Kent and Francisco Plascencia.”

Congrats to Willie Rhine and John Paschal!

Follow the progress at www.facebook.com/eight4ninerestaurant.

In Brief

Figue Mediterranean Restaurant—the gorgeous La Quinta spot that was a solo effort by Lee Morcus, of the Kaiser Restaurant Group—is apparently no more. While no official announcement that we know of has been made, the closed restaurant’s Facebook page and website have not been updated in many months. ... The Villa Royale Inn and Europa Restaurant will hold a masquerade-themed dinner to benefit Angel View at 5:30 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 11. Europa is located at 1620 S. Indian Trail, in Palm Springs; call 760-327-2314 for reservations or more info. … The former Crave, the dessert joint and bar on the second floor at 301 N. Palm Canyon Drive in Palm Springs, is now known as Plate | Glass. Larry Abel and Raymond McCallister are the owners; they formerly owned Crave with Davy Aker, who is not part of Plate | Glass. Find more details by calling 760-322-2322, or visit plate-glass.com.

Published in Restaurant & Food News