Palm Springs: Desert Oasis

By Joseph Schmitt for PASSPORT Magazine
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During a recent trip to Palm Springs, California, I overheard a local resident refer to this desert oasis as the "gayest town in the United States." Judging from my numerous visits over the last fifteen years, I suspect that man could be correct. Each time I make the short drive from Los Angeles for a weekend getaway of fun in the sun, there are new shops, hotels, and restaurants, all frequented by like-minded desert-casual patrons out for a good time. Following a decade or more of gay gentrification, with many transplants choosing to make Palm Springs their year-round residence, locally owned and operated businesses catering to the gay traveler are plentiful, with new offerings to explore opening all the time.

Dining al fresco is a year-round favorite pastime in the desert, with heat lamps for comfort in the winter months and misting systems to keep you cool in summer. Some tasty new additions in Palm Springs include The Tropicale Restaurant and Coral Seas Lounge (330 E. Amado Road. Tel: 760-866-1952). The ultra-chic dining room here is reminiscent of an old-world Miami supper club with soft hues of pink and green and wave-textured white walls. The menu is described as "world cuisine," allowing the chefs room to play, but sprinkled throughout the common theme are pan-Asian influences loaded with fresh seafood and old-school favorites like Niçoise Salad and Crab Louis. My waiter told me that in the last week alone he'd waited on Lily Tomlin and Barry Manilow! (Both are great tippers, he assured me). The Coral Seas Lounge, slightly divided from the main dining room by a low wall, has become the upscale bar destination of choice. A lone, dramatic, Polynesian mural over the bar sets a subtle tropical tone. The massive, wrap-around, stainless steel bar leads you outside to a large and festive patio where you can enjoy tropical cocktails, such as my favorite, the Spicy Mango Margarita, and full dinner service under a starry desert sky. Reservations are recommended, especially on the weekend.

Okura Robata Grill and Sushi Bar (105 S. Palm Canyon Dr. Tel: 760-327-1333) on Palm Canyon Drive in the heart of downtown is the newly- opened sister location of the original Okura in nearby La Quinta. The ultra-modern interior and Japanese-California fusion menu attracts a trendy crowd of locals and tourists. Enjoy a Lychee Martini at happy hour from 4?6 P.M. on the spacious patio, which is a great spot for people watching.

Bongo Johnny's (214 E. Arenas Rd. Tel: 760-866-1905) was a better-than-expected treat on a recent visit. Located on Arenas Road, the heart of gay Palm Springs with a number of bars and shops, the theme here is upscale surfer haven with Abercrombie-like surfer boy photos on the wall, and a full bar with a large patio. The laid-back atmosphere and menu of burgers, salads, and sandwiches is great for a casual lunch, and even better for a late-night snack (kitchen open until 2 A.M.) when stumbling out of Hunter's Video Bar just down the street.

Meanwhile, Azul (369 N. Palm Canyon Drive. Tel: 760-325-5533), a tapas-inspired lounge and patio bar, has been a huge hit since opening in 2006. It used to be that restaurants and bars located on the main boulevard of Palm Canyon Drive were mostly tourist traps, but part of Palm Springs' resurgence is the revitalization of Palm Canyon Drive as a year-round destination for locals, too. During my visits to Azul over the last year, I found the crowd was always at least half locals. Denise Carter, a favored Palm Springs entertainer, belts out jazzy standards weekly in Azul's main interior cabaret bar. Azul also highlights special guest appearances by other local talent as well as gay icons like Lady Bunny. The adjacent dining room has a studious feel with wood paneling and large booths, but don't let the upscale furnishings fool you. Once the dinner menu has finished for the night, Azul rolls up its sleeves for a long night of ruckus until 2 A.M. Azul's sizeable patio bar (with heaters for the winter months) often resembles a town hall meeting of the gays with a few hetero visitors tossed in for variety. You'll also find a late-night menu available until 1:30 A.M.—a good thing after a few stiff drinks down the street at the popular new bar, Mixie's.

Published: 13 Aug 2008 | Last Updated: 1 Apr 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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