Considering how much the restaurant and music industries have suffered over the last year, it’s been refreshing to see live music return to restaurants.
Casuelas Café in Palm Desert is one of the local restaurants that’s been leading the way, offering live music—in safe and entertaining fashion—seven days a week.
“We’re one in the line of the Las Casuelas restaurants in the valley,” said owner Ray Rodriguez during a recent phone interview. “In 1992, the oldest son of Florencio and Mary Delgado, who are the founders of Las Casuelas, and I decided that we were going to (combine) our efforts. We wanted to make a little local place in Palm Desert, just like they had their local place in Palm Springs.”
Rodriguez’s background in live entertainment eventually led him to create a space that melded dining with live music.
“I’d always had the idea to have a big outdoor event area, because I had worked at the La Quinta Resort as well as the Hyatt Grand Champion,” Rodriguez said. “I understood the use of outdoor space with dining, and, of course, the Las Casuelas restaurants have nice patios. I wanted to do something at the café, but different. … I knew the uniqueness of our location in Palm Desert. We were able to get a patio done here, and we’re celebrating three years.
“It’s not just, ‘I’m going to go and have lunch or dinner there,’ like you would at Tommy Bahama or Pacifica. We wanted to have events. Yes, you can come and have lunch or dinner—we want you to do that—but it’s also a place where you can have 100 people, and we could cook exhibition-style for you, like you would see in a grand hotel or country club. We also … wanted to be able to showcase the live music in our community. It’s gotten bigger and bigger over the years, and we wanted to be able to do something besides traditional mariachi-style music. … We wanted to be able to showcase all types of performers, and we are also always looking for our local Latino performers who are doing things in different formats.”
A prime example of this multi-format approach involves Giselle Woo, best known for Giselle Woo and the Night Owls. She performs at Las Casuelas every Sunday as part of Las Tías, a traditional Spanish duo with Janine Rivera.
When asked about her return to live music, Woo channeled her inner Night Owl and said: “It felt as if the birdcage door was finally flung open.”
Rodriguez said Casuelas Café is a perfect fit for both Las Tías and Giselle Woo and the Night Owls—because he wants to host a variety of music.
“Las Tías is just a duo; she and another gal are singing beautiful, old, traditional Spanish music that my grandmother would love—and that everyone loves, quite frankly,” Rodriguez said. “And then she goes into the Night Owls, who do everything from originals to Led Zeppelin.”
Rodriguez said he does not want Casuelas Café to sound the same every night.
“We have two country bands, and traditional Mexican, central South American-style performances in Spanish as well,” he said. “We’re in the community we’re in, so it’s very important, I think, to have that kind of Southern California element. We have a lot of visitors here from Canada or the Midwest, so you want to have some music that can speak to that as well—with a little bit of Jackson Browne, or the Eagles. There’s also a kind of showcase element to music. … We have a little bit of that on a Friday or Saturday night, so people can cut loose a little bit late. I don’t want it to be boring. If you come in today, I want you to know that if you come in tomorrow, you’ve got another reason to come in musically.”
Performing every Thursday at Casuelas is Avenida Music, the choice of Independent readers as Best Local Band in the Best of Coachella Valley 2018-2019 readers’ poll. Avenida’s unique approach to cover tunes checks all of the boxes listed by Rodriguez—and more.
“It’s a huge privilege to be playing again,” said Josiah Gonzalez, who plays piano and snyth for Avenida. “You almost forget how therapeutic the process is. It definitely makes you think twice about complaining when you’re loading gear.”
Part of Rodriguez’s drive to create a great entertainment experience comes from his love of live music.
“My first concert was the Ike and Tina Turner Revue in 1973, in the gym at College of the Desert,” Rodriguez said. “To watch Tina Turner in her prime do ‘Proud Mary’ left an impression on me at the age of 14 that has never gone away. I don’t think it’s surprising that we developed a stage here, because I was always interested in the performing arts, but I knew I had no talent. The next thing was to just respect the talent and appreciate it, and try to then create an environment for talent to continue to grow and flourish.
“The restaurant and the music definitely like each other. It’s not like every guest is going to like every group. People learn and think, ‘I’ll come on this night, because they have music that I prefer, at the volume I prefer.’ … The enthusiasm has continued to grow, and it’s really exploded in the last month with the COVID restrictions being lifted. There has been such a wealth of demand for real live music.”
Alas, COVID is very much still a concern, and Rodriguez said he’s making sure his team is taking all necessary precautions.
“With the COVID guidelines, you want 12 feet from any singer to any potential audience member,” said Rodriguez. “We essentially enlarged the stage with a boundary—a no-man zone. We took some high-top multicolored chairs, and then we took some multicolored flags, and we strung them around the stage so everybody knows to not go near the performers. We do it as required with the distance—but we do it kind of in a cute way. It’s like a dance floor you can’t dance on.
“We’ve always had good COVID guidelines in place. Our chef’s wife is a nurse, and our sous chef’s wife is a nurse, so from day one, we understood what it was going to take to keep our guests and our staff safe. We’ve always had really strong protocols, and the music was just another step of that.”
For more information, visit www.facebook.com/CasuelasCafe.