Inevitably, the most eye-catching item on the menu at Bar Cecil is the $50 Martini. Served on a silver tray, next to a deviled egg topped with a heaping portion of caviar and a side of sunchoke chips, this show-stealing drink ends up in front of most bar patrons and graces nearly every table in the 75-seat restaurant. The owners say the Martini was inspired by visits to Bar Hemingway at The Ritz Hotel in Paris, except this desert hot spot is an homage to British photographer Cecil Beaton instead of an American writer. And somewhere between the Martini, an actual Warhol on the wall and local darling chef Gabe Woo’s exquisite cooking, Bar Cecil became not just the hottest reservation in Palm Springs, but possibly the whole state of California. French Laundry is out, the Beaton burger is in.
On a recent trip to the desert, testing out a new car service to skip the tedious drive, the opportunity to grab a couple seats at Bar Cecil’s gleaming marble counter happily presented itself. Whatever my expectations might’ve been going in, the restaurant mightily exceeded them. Pull up a turquoise, high-backed leather stool at the bar, and your gaze will be instantly drawn to rare art by legends like Damien Hirst and Alexander Calder that’s nested in and around a towering, floor-to-ceiling wooden bookcase. Filled with tchotchkes, design books, art objets and sketches, these shelves serve as the backdrop for a space that’s as much devoted to design and fashion as it is to iconic cocktails and supremely delicious food.
For those who are actually in it for the caviar, a full service of Regiis Ova Ossetra is available (it even comes with a vodka shot). But you’ll get a better sense of Woo’s California-focused bistro cooking with savory treats like the caramelized onion tart, flaky and sweet with a hint of comté, or the emerald-colored bucatini with pea puree, black truffle and fresh herbs. A smoked, bone-in Duroc pork chop is the menu’s sleeper hit, and we were steered toward it by head bartender Avery Underhill who shepherded us through the whole meal with easy charm. It’s an old school cut and an homage to Palm Springs’s past that brings it directly into the present, kind of like the bar itself.
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Two years in, the restaurant is still packed every single night. For an L.A. restaurant, that would be a sign of major success, but out in the desert, where mid-week and off-season slumps are almost unavoidable, demand like this is practically unheard of. Getting a table at Bar Cecil is such an undertaking that even legendary LA Times food critic Bill Addison can’t do it — he, too, happily snags a bar seat. Tucked into a shopping center in south Palm Springs, the upscale bistro offers a $350 prix fixe tasting menu, that infamous $50 Martini and plenty of other tantalizing options on their full dinner menu. But food is only part of it: in an era of remote work and at-home comforts, visiting Bar Cecil manages to feel more like a luxury experience than just a meal. That’s a feat of hospitality, and by design.
The bar’s namesake and the modern art hung in homage to his sweeping influence and brilliant eye are just as much a part of the night as the food and drink. That’s because owners Richard Crisman and Jeff Brock, who are life partners and work on other desert hospitality projects together like Sparrows Lodge and Holiday House, brought in pieces from their own art collection to decorate the space. If dining here feels more like being at an incredibly chic dinner party than a restaurant, the couple’s impeccable sense of style is certainly why.
With support from other local players, like John Janulis of Portland-based hospitality group Lighting Bar Collective —which also had a hand in the design of in-demand Palm Springs hotels Azure Sky and Villa Royale — every aesthetic detail is in place, including custom light fixtures, a substantial outdoor space and luxe flourishes like green wallpaper and plush indoor booths. If you’re staying at either of those hotels or favorite Ace Hotel, Bar Cecil is well within walking distance, another boon for its location.
Perhaps the most famous work in the space, the late ‘70s Warhol painting “After The Party,” hangs above a table near the back of the room; it’s hard to ‘gram if you’re not seated at that table, which is maybe the point. Behind the bar, a notebook guide to all the artwork in the bar is available for perusal while you dine because it’s almost impossible to clock every artistic Easter egg on an initial visit. You can balance appetizers like an icy shrimp cocktail with dill and lemon or a plate of glimmering escargots while scouring the book, or just sip on your $50 Martini and soak in the atmosphere along with the rest of the room.
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