Palm Springs is Los Angeles’ treasured vacation town, known for the stunning Mount San Jacinto, soaring wind turbines, hotels made for booze-soaked weekends and convenient proximity to the Coachella and Stagecoach festivals. But what many don’t realize while sipping spicy margaritas poolside is that people actually live there — grow up there, even. With its year-round population of about 46,000, Palm Springs’ young natives commonly leave the desert after graduating high school, promising only to return for the holidays. But Palm Springs’ small-town story has taken a turn. As a result of its decadelong transformation from a retiree oasis to a hipster haven, Coachella Valley millennials are seeing potential in their hometown, and moving back to start their own businesses. Three of the city’s most innovative bars and restaurants are owned by four members of Palm Springs High School’s class of 2002.
Christine Soto, co-owner of the high-concept beer and wine bar Dead or Alive, moved to Los Angeles after graduation. After completing International Development Studies at UCLA, living in Chile for a bit and exploring a variety of career paths, she found herself back in the desert more than a decade later.
“I swore to never come back. I grew up here in the ’90s — post–spring break shutdown, so Palm Springs was dead to young people," Soto says, referring to regulations enacted in 1991, such as a ban on poolside drinking after 11 p.m., that essentially shut down tourism for the under-30s. "After I left for college was when Coachella got popular and the Ace Hotel opened.”
In 2013, Soto received an opportunity to run a new Palm Springs hotel, leading her back to her hometown.
“I’d lived in L.A. for 11 years and thought, why not? Palm Springs is cool now. However, that gig fell through and I found myself in Palm Springs with no job, kind of a nightmare scenario.”
Soto and Dead or Alive co-owner and designer Anthony Cioffi collaborated on several projects, ranging from a wallpaper concept to various other one-offs, before pulling the trigger on Dead or Alive in December 2015.
The dark and provocative beer and wine bar just off the main drag, Palm Canyon Drive, offers a small, thoughtful list of brews and varietals, including the new house wine, Dead or Alive Pinot Noir. It’s an experiential concept in design and service where customers are encouraged to learn about what they’re drinking.
Dead or Alive was designed solely by Cioffi, who left Palm Springs High to study at Art Center College of Design. The transportation designer fabricated virtually every detail of the bar, from the luminescent bar top to the hand-corded chairs and custom-molded ceramic beer mugs. A giant, glowing sun looms over the space, illuminating it with ever-changing colors that melt into the bar top and all the way to a smaller glowing sun that greets you at the front door. An ambiance unique for any city, let alone midcentury modern Palm Springs.
In September 2016, Soto began a partnership with Los Angeles sommelier Matthew Kaner, owner of Los Feliz’s Bar Covell and Sherman Oaks’ Augustine Wine Bar.
“My first visit to Dead or Alive [was] back in March of this year. I loved it. Loved the design, the boundary-pushing wine selections, the dedication to small-producing breweries,” Kaner says.
“The city of Palm Springs seems to be very pro-business, which is a great tool for people being able to open new businesses,” he adds. “I see Dead or Alive continuing to push boundaries in the wine
scene to elevate the everyday wines people are drinking and have access to. It's been great to see importer and distributor friends finding ways to make their wines accessible to the Palm Springs area now that they realize there are more and more outlets to sell to.”
Two years before designing Dead or Alive, Cioffi also designed Bar, the whiskey tavern that greets drivers with its striking snake mural (which has drawn some complaints for cultural insensitivity) at the north end of downtown Palm Springs. The large space offers a full bar with whiskey and beer cocktails and a menu of salads, sandwiches and bar bites. It's a hangout for the young Palm Springs set looking to play ping-pong somewhere other than the Ace Hotel. Owner Donovan Funkey moved back to the desert from San Diego shortly after his family opened the popular Italian restaurant Giuseppe’s in Palm Springs.
"I left Palm Springs to go to college in San Diego. There was no family business to come home to [at the time], so I didn't plan on coming back," Funkey says.
“My family opened the first restaurant in 2008, and I still didn't have any desire to move back. But then after about a year of the restaurant being open, something just kind of clicked in my mind along the lines of, 'Why work for the man when I have the opportunity to go work for myself and with my family?'”
Bar opened in February 2013 and, at the time, was the only bar of its kind in the area.
“When we opened Bar, it was good timing. There weren’t a lot of places doing decent cocktails or focusing on whiskey, so we filled that niche, which was nice,” Funkey says. “That's also part of the reason for opening in Palm Springs. It was easier to be ahead of the curve out here, and it's significantly cheaper to open a bar out here. But mainly it was still a family venture and I decided I did want to stay in Palm Springs and put down some roots again. There's a ton of great people out here and it's nice because the industry is pretty small and tight.”
But starting a businesses in a quickly developing resort town presents its own challenges. A multimillion-dollar revitalization of downtown Palm Springs is currently underway, affecting businesses on the main drag of Palm Canyon. A six-story Kimpton Hotel complex is currently being constructed on the north end.
"The future of Bar is actually pretty uncertain right now," Funkey say. "The property was bought about a year and a half ago and they plan to tear everything down to build a new hotel. But regardless, [Bar] still could be around for another year or so — then we will find another project that should be pretty similar."
Patrick Service, owner of contemporary deli Appetito, has a similar family-driven story. After earning degrees at USC and Cornell University, Service gained field experience under New York restaurateur Danny Meyer, playing a key role in opening Manhattan’s Maialino and revitalizing Union Square Cafe. It was a far cry from the slow and steady lifestyle of Palm Springs.
But while Service gained valuable knowledge on the East Coast, he, too, wanted to enter the Palm Springs restaurant business, where his grandparents founded Las Casuelas, one of the desert’s oldest and most successful restaurant chains.
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“The experience in New York was fantastic, but I always knew I would be back, but not as early as I had. With everything that was happening in Palm Springs at the time, the timing felt right. I'm so glad I came when I did. The combination of being a part of something new and learning from something as special and established as Las Casuelas Terraza was the clincher. Appetito was a natural extension of my experience in New York City and what I felt passionate about.”
Appetito, a sleek bar/cafe/deli located across from the Ace Hotel, opened in 2014. The menu offers house-made pastas such as braised lamb malfatti and spaghetti with "Sunday sauce," as well as starters like wild mushroom arancini. The mains include a smoked brisket platter and a pork chop stuffed with prosciutto. And there's a Negroni bar, should visitors want to escape the scorching desert sun.
Despite Palm Springs' constant redevelopments, these business owners are among a cohort earnestly changing the city's food and drink landscape by cultivating what they’ve learned in the larger metro areas, and bringing it all back home.