We had just been comfortably seated in the Riviera Palm Springs’ signature dining room, ordered a couple of drinks and begun perusing the menu, when seemingly from out of nowhere – a piano solo, a delicate tinkle of melody in the treble followed by some brassy bars in the bass, and then: “Out of the tree of life, I just picked me a plum/You came along and everything started in to hum…” Simultaneously, we put down our menus and exchanged glances. Sinatra in his prime. Not loud enough to drown out conversation, but close enough to induce a spell of nostalgic reverie that lasted past the final line: “The best is yet to come.”
How could we have missed it? Checking in a few hours before, we’d noticed the bold red and black retro décor, the over-the-top chandeliers dripping crystal teardrops, the filigreed white walls illuminated by orange back-lights, the Andy Warhol-ish caricatures in black looking like negatives on the mirrored walls down the broad fairway from the hotel entrance to the dining room (a closer look later on would reveal they were images of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Phyllis Diller, Marilyn Monroe, et al). The Rat Pack revisited in a resort at the foot of the San Jacinto Mountains in Palm Springs. Noticed, but not noted until this moment when it all came together under the restaurant’s name at the top of the menu, penciled in the thin stenciled font popular in the day: “Circa 59.”
“Amazing thing – I was just sitting in the lobby talking to a guy, easily 80 years old, who was a friend of Frank Sinatra’s,” said Morgan Craft, Circa 59’s general manager, who stopped by our table, drink in hand, blonde and handsome as a mid-century movie star. “He’s a friend of the hotel owner’s, came back to catch some movies at the Palm Springs Film Festival, experience the Riviera, and relive some of the past. I’ve been with him for an hour listening to his stories. This guy was a boxer, a sidekick for Sinatra. Did some of his dirty work for him. The things he’s seen . . .” Morgan paused, and we tried to imagine what the gentleman in the lobby had seen.
“There used to be a clause in Hollywood studio contracts that said while filming, you couldn’t be further than 100 miles from L.A.,” he went on. “As Palm Springs is exactly 99 miles away, it became the getaway of choice. In the 1950s resorts sprang up, stars came out, entertained in their nightclubs, built homes here. They used to call it ‘Las Vegas without the whores.’ This was Sinatra’s heyday. Sammy Davis performed with him at the Riviera, along with Dean, Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop. This guy claims he saw them all.”
“Palm Springs was like a mini Hollywood,” Geoff Young, the Riviera’s managing director, told us when we met him for coffee the next day on the dining terrace where breakfast was being served amidst strategically-placed fire pits that were taking the chill off the desert morning air. Before us was a free-form endless swimming pool surrounded by a ring of date palms, chaise lounges, curtained cabanas, and behind them low-rise guest accommodations, food and beverage sites, a free-standing spa, and pathways leading into courts, gardens, and event spaces.
“When you look at the hotel from above, it’s a circle,” the laid back hotel exec said. “The center of the circle is the hub of a wheel, and all the buildings are its spokes. The Riviera was the second property in the United States built in this design. Homer A. Rissman, the architect — he was also one of the original owners — had the vision of guests staying on the outside of this wheel and migrating to the pool at its center.
“Las Vegas had taken off,” he continued. “Rissman saw the Tropicana, the Stardust, the Sands, the success they were having. And he wanted to create a mini Las Vegas here in the desert. We have a photo of the front of the Riviera from 1959, the year the hotel opened: a 50-foot marquee that says ‘The Riviera,’ and lists the headline acts, and the price of the buffet. Exactly what you would have seen in Vegas in those days.
“It was a big success for a while, but by the late 60s, it had begun to run down. There were numerous owners over the years. Ultimately it closed. Then in 2006 Noble House bought the property, took it down to the studs, put it through a $70,000,000 renovation. I came over from San Diego and opened it in 2008.”
Of the three iconic Palm Springs hotels of “The Era”– the Racquet Club, the Colony, and the Riviera — only the Riviera remains. Transformed into a contemporary luxury resort with all attendant comfort and facilities, it still retains the spirit of post-war exuberance in its flashy mid-century décor and spell-inducing music: “Witchcraft,” “In Other Words,” “It was Just one of Those Things,” “In the Wee Small Hall Hours,” “Night & Day…”
“How can you get tired of Sinatra?” Geoff asked. “We get a crowd that is a mix of the generations – people who remember and dig the old days, but also the cool young set. And they all love the music.”
By now we were walking around the pool, passing cabanas that are rented by the day or week. At the Bikini Bar, attractive young women in minimal bikinis were getting ready to take sunbathers’ orders. Behind a tall hedge, an event was being set up: white tablecloths on round tables across the lawn, the mountains as background, a canopied platform at the far end where many a wedding vow has been exchanged.
Just beyond the Bikini Bar, the Riviera’s spa was opening for the day. Where performers once entertained, guests as well as local members indulge in a multitude of health and beauty treatments. Here, any connection to a previous hip life are smothered by an Oriental sensibility evoked through soft music, incense, pale colors, and repeatedly, images of Buddha.
“I first saw the spa when it was only a foundation. The inside had been completely gutted. Then I watched the entire thing come up,” Traci Trezona, Spa Terre’s enthusiastic director told us as she showed off the full-service facility which opened in 2008 and was nominated for best new spa by “Spa Magazine” the following year.
There are the hair stations, manicure/ pedicure set-ups, a retail area which offers products used in spa treatments and some interesting accessories like metal jewelry made from recycled auto parts by a local artist. “Steam and shower rooms and a range of treatments can be performed without the client having to move from one room to another,” Tracy told us. “To get a massage, a soak, and a sugar scrub in the same room is a feature that guests love. They also love the water massage where the therapist gets in the water with the client, massaging his or her back, doing different types of manipulative movements.”
A facial performed by Sylvia from Peru elicited the following recollection from a client: “My eyes are closed. Music in the background is so soft that at first I’m not quite attending to it. Then slowly, very slowly, I become aware of the melody. A single note held for a long time like a drop of water that resists release before ultimately it falls, only to be followed by another. Lying on a bed in a state of pure relaxation, my face covered with a clay mask, I anticipate the resolution, the holding on of the next note until it, too, falls. Only then do I realize I am listening to a version of ‘Quiet Nights and Quiet Stars.’”
The spa, Tracy told us, is one of the main attractions of the Riviera. So is the dining experience under the direction of a talented young chef. We met Eric Scott at Circa 59 when he emerged from backstage dressed in his chef’s whites to greet us (a typical gesture we were to learn). Young, good-looking, and confident, he is a neat fit in the new generation of star chefs one finds featured in style magazines and on television shows, albeit with a modest demeanor that sets him apart. “I’ve been doing this for fifteen years,” he told us, “Japanese cooking, Latin American cooking. But here at the Riviera, I’m taking a different route, concentrating on context as well as content. Beyond having something good to eat, my goal is for you to enjoy a total sensory experience, a merging of taste with appearance and aromas.”
If that sounds something like Spa Terre philosophy, it is also deeply rooted in the context of California and all its bounties. “So much of our produce is grown in the immediate vicinity,” Eric said. “Even all our seafood, with the exception of oysters, comes from within 100 miles. Here in the desert, we are surrounded by date palms, and that has led me to this little creation. He placed before us a platter of dates that had been stuffed with manchego cheese and little pieces of cashew nuts, wrapped in bacon, and roasted in a balsamic reduction. We sampled one, then another, and another. Incredibly delicious, they were also addictive. Understandably, the chef’s stuffed dates are in demand at Circa 59 at any time – even breakfast.
The menu takes off from the abundance of fresh and quality products. Outstanding entrees included bluenose bass that was skinned and coated with a crispy crust made of deep fried asparagus and served in a ginger sauce, and a mushroom-crusted very tender tenderloin filet enhanced by a sauce of red vinaigrette with melted Roquefort cheese on top.
Like the menu, the wine list relies heavily on the California product. “We’ve begun to explore small wineries going up the coast from Malibu to Napa,” restaurant supervisor Ryan Corbin told us. “The plan is to continue heading north to Oregon and Washington where of late there’s been a substantial growth in the wine industry. Every month, we hold a dinner using wines from a single winery and creating a special menu where every course is matched to a different wine. They’re terrific events – attract locals as much as resort guests.”
Terrific things are going on at the Palm Springs Riviera; the eye is clearly on the future. At the same time, the past has left its mark. And it is honored in a host of distinctive ways. Perhaps most symbolic is a little ritual that takes place at 5 o’clock each evening, where from a pole standing between a pair of palm trees overlooking the Riviera’s pool, the American flag is raised. Fluttering high above the rooftops of Palm Springs, it is a nod to a late friend and neighbor who used to raise a Jack Daniels flag in his own backyard signaling to one and all: It’s 5 o’clock, “Ol’ Blue Eyes” is in town, and Happy Hour is at hand.
Riviera Palm Springs
1600 North Indian Canyon Drive
Palm Springs, CA 92262