How to win a seat at the best — and most booked-out — restaurant in Palm Springs

Avery Underhill at Bar Cecil.
(Carlos Nunez / For The Times)

My party of two peers around the manicured hedges at the north end of the Plaza Del Sol Shopping Center at exactly 4:30 p.m. It’s nearly dusk on a Sunday in late January. I’m not entirely sure what kind of early crowd I’ll find waiting to score walk-in slots for Bar Cecil, the 75-seat darling of the Palm Springs restaurant scene, but I am determined to dine here tonight.

We turn out to be first in the queue. No regrets about showing up extra early, though, because I’ve been through this before at Cecil: By 5 p.m., when the restaurant opens, a small mob of people will have assembled hoping for admission; predictably some of these people will walk away ruffled when the staff can’t accommodate their spontaneous group of six.

By 5:05 p.m., we are settling into two bar chairs upholstered with tufted turquoise leather and trimmed with nailheads. Five minutes later, lead bartender Avery Underhill is reaching over the veined marble bar to set a very cold, very dry martini in front of me. Beautifully garnished plates of chicken liver pâté and smoked trout rillettes will soon arrive.

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My perch at the bar — an ideal place to study the oak shelves lined with gin bottles, vintage glassware, framed sketches and photographs plus thick books on food and fashion — is the vantage point I have every time I’m here. I’ve never been able to score a Bar Cecil reservation. Bookings open a month out to the day; my travels to Palm Springs from Los Angeles, usually to see friends who are visiting or residents, are more spur-of-the-moment. I’ve made my peace with lining up and starting early on Bar Cecil evenings.

The restaurant is part of a guide The Times published this month on my favorite places to eat in Palm Springs, which was part of a bigger fun project detailing 64 ways to enjoy L.A.’s beloved getaway. In it, I say about Bar Cecil, “If I’m asked to name the best restaurant in Palm Springs, this is the place.” I kept thinking about why after writing the short capsule for the list.

Dishes on a table at Bar Cecil include roast chicken, shrimp cocktail and a martini.
Roast chicken, smoked pork chop, shrimp cocktail and the Fifty Dollar Martini at Bar Cecil in Palm Springs.
(Carlos Nunez / For The Times)

Jeff Brock and Richard Crisman, the hoteliers and life partners whose local properties include the Sparrows Lodge and Holiday House, alighted on the idea to frame the restaurant, which opened in April 2021, as an homage to Sir Cecil Beaton, the famously flamboyant British photographer, designer, author and all-around Renaissance man who died in 1980 four days after his 76th birthday. I know Beaton’s name via my old-school, supremely gay taste in music: He took an iconic 1956 photo of Maria Callas, a portrait in which she stares into the camera with her mouth set somewhere between a smile and a snarl, and he designed the regal, broadly 19th century gowns Barbra Streisand wore in “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.” A 2017 documentary called “Love, Cecil” that takes a deep dive into his visual style is worth watching.

Beaton’s photo hangs over the bar of the restaurant named for him. He’s captured with his wide-brimmed hat cocked at a rakish angle. I cheers to it — to him — with the first sip of my martini every visit.

Executive chef and partner Gabriel Woo grew up in the Coachella Valley and worked previously with Brock and Crisman. A big part of the restaurant’s appeal is the meal’s synthesis of styles — a worldly mix of Continental swagger, global-minded modernism and California realness. A route of caviar-studded deviled eggs, shrimp cocktail and steak frites is as satisfying as mussels in Thai-inspired red curry followed by righteously seared scallops in vadouvan beurre blanc or a couple of small plates of seasonally rotating vegetables (thumbs up to spaghetti squash in basil-scented tomato sauce) and a bowl of cacio e pepe.

At the center of the Venn diagram is an entree of roast chicken with green beans, mashed potatoes and chicken jus that Woo and his team have calibrated since the restaurant’s earliest days; straightforward goodness can be a hard thing to pull off with such consistency.

Hands hold two small dishes of sauce over a plate of smoked pork chops.
Smoked pork chops at Bar Cecil.
(Carlos Nunez / For The Times)

The cheeseburger overlaid with Comté can be less reliable. Sometimes it arrives as a dream merger of beef, nutty cheese and domed bun; the last time it tasted like, well, a decent enough burger, and one always hopes for a little transcendence when paying $26.

I think my only regret in eating dinner at the bar rather than a table is not being able to memorize more of the design deeper into the space: the moss-green velvet banquettes, the intersection of light woods and leaf-print wallpaper, the Tysen Knight sketches of Diana Vreeland and Grace Coddington. It’s fun to hunt for the Warhol from Brock and Crisman’s art collection — an appropriate collage of post-consumption plates, bottles and glasses from the artist’s 1979 “After the Party” series.


The restaurant does keep a table or two available for walk-ins … so maybe one of these days. In chatting with Underhill between martinis he mentioned that the 6:30 p.m. to 7:15 p.m. window is often when the first wave of bar seating turns over and would-be diners can slip in. I hope I haven’t ruined my chances at that hack by mentioning it.

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