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When It Comes to Restaurant-Inspection Ratings, Please Calm Down

In the September 2015 issue, I used this space to examine the ridiculousness of public freak-outs over restaurant-inspection ratings. Now, 25 months later, I shall do so again.

Here’s why: On Friday, Sept. 1, some very bad things happened to Manhattan in the Desert, at 2665 E. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. First: The restaurant had refrigeration problems. Second: Inspectors from the Riverside County Department of Environmental Health showed up.

As a result of all this, according to the inspection report: “Due to (a) lack of adequate refrigeration, (the) facility … decided to voluntarily close.”

That’s bad enough. Making matters worse: This happened on a Friday … before a holiday weekend—Labor Day Weekend, to be exact. This meant the restaurant had to be closed during what would normally be a rather lucrative four days, until it could be re-inspected by the county on Tuesday the 5th—even if the refrigeration matter were fixed well before that.

Making matters much worse … the inspector, as they are mandated to do, placed a big, red “C” sign, for all the world to see, near the closed restaurant entryway.

Of course, someone took a picture and posted it on Facebook; that pic was then passed around, giving trolls and idiots a chance to have a field day.

Yes, “C” ratings are a big deal. A “C” or even a “B” means the restaurant failed its inspection, requiring that it be re-inspected again, often the next business day, until it receives an “A.”

My problem with all of this is context: My research uncovered at least nine other Coachella Valley businesses that got “C” grades during inspections over the last 12 months, with many dozens of others getting “B” grades—which, again, means failure—often with scores of 80 or 81, meaning they’re on the cusp of “C” grades. You probably heard of the mess regarding Manhattan … but did you hear about many of these other restaurant-inspection failures? Unless you’re constantly checking the county website, no, you did not.

Some restaurants that fail inspections are genuinely dirty or poorly managed; many of them are not—they just had a bad day, like all businesses have. This is why Manhattan in the Desert will not lose a dime of my business. See you there soon, I hope.


California Barbecue Company Moves to Indio's Club 5

On Aug. 15, we published a nice piece at CVIndependent.com about Reggie Martinez and his California Barbecue Company.

At the time, Martinez—who before had been at Neil’s Lounge, in Indio—was serving up smoked meats and his famous mac-and-cheese to rave reviews at the Red Barn, in Palm Desert.

However, shortly after the article was posted, the Red Barn and Martinez parted ways. When we asked Martinez what happened, he declined to share the details.

Martinez’s smoker, fortunately, did not stay in storage for long: He is now serving his delicious barbecue and sides at Club 5, located at 82971 Bliss Ave., in Indio.

For more information, call 760-863-6971, or visit www.facebook.com/thecaliforniabarbecueco.


In Brief

New: Azúcar Restaurant and Bar. The tiny restaurant at the La Serena Villas, at 339 S. Belardo Road, in Palm Springs, has been creating a buzz with its tasty fare, such as shrimp and scallop ceviche ($16), Kobe beef sliders ($23) and blackened salmon ($25). Lunch and dinner are served Wednesday through Sunday, as is breakfast on Saturday and Sunday. The restaurant offers a limited menu on Mondays and Tuesdays. Check out the menus at laserenavillas.com/azucar-restaurant-and-bar. … If you’re a fan of cigars and tequila, take note: Las Casuelas Terraza, at 222 S. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs, will be holding its latest cigar and tequila dinner at 6:30 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 11. Rancho Mirage’s Viva Cigar Lounge is providing the cigars, and the tequila on offer is Hornitos Black Barrel and Siete Leguas Añejo. $35 will get you all that plus a carnitas bar. Call 760-325-2794 to reserve your spot. … Mark VanLaanen, a now-former co-owner of Trio Restaurant, recently announced he’ll soon be opening On the Mark just a few doors down at 777 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. The shop will sell cheese, meats and other yummy foods—along with beer and wine. Watch www.onthemarkpalmsprings.com for updates. … Coming within the next few months to 36101 Bob Hope Drive, near Gelson’s: O’Caine’s Irish Pub. Watch www.facebook.com/ranchomiragemarketplace for updates. … Good news for fans of patio seating and Sunday tea dances: Oscar’s Café and Bar, at 125 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, in downtown Palm Springs, again has a liquor license. Ownership changes there led to drama, which led to the current owner not having a liquor license, but that has been resolved now. … We’re hearing rumors that a high-end sushi and cocktails joint is coming soon to Palm Springs. Keep your fingers crossed, and watch this space.

Published in Restaurant & Food News

Among the chic desert shops and restaurants of downtown Palm Springs, and mere steps from the Sonny Bono fountain, is an oasis for cigar-smokers, wine-enthusiasts and craft-beer-lovers alike.

The unassuming Fame Lounge attracts tourists, locals and a fair share of cigar-aficionado celebrities. A wall of wine and beer, and spicy scents from the walk-in humidor greet visitors. My curiosity immediately led me to this herbaceous alcove. As a cigar newbie, I honestly didn’t know what to look for, but I found myself sniffing the various cigars as if I did. With the help of the owner, Mel Shaw, I learned I wanted a lighter, vanilla stogie with earthy and sweet woody undertones.

Fame owner Mel Shaw at the lounge's bar. (Photo by Sean Planck)Beyond the retail store—which features cigars, wines and an amazing selection of craft beers—lies a backroom lounge in the classic sense of the word: a living-room setting with comfy leather chairs and couches, dim lighting and a not a Bud Light drinker in sight. There were 10 tap varietals at the small bar in the corner; it was obvious the owner had a taste for the rare and specialized brews. To keep customers coming back, Shaw rotates the taps weekly. Whether you seek an Austrian Trappist like Engelszell Gregorius, or San Diego’s Karl Strauss 24th Anniversary Flanders-style Sour Red Ale, the quality selection doesn’t disappoint.

The ambiance caters to the true desert gentleman, but Shaw’s $10 beer and cigar “back room special” makes it easy for the novice to taste the sophisticated life. As a relatively new resident of the Coachella Valley, this was the Palm Springs I was looking for. It was a welcoming feeling. Pair an Indian Tabac Box Pressed Double Corona cigar with Allagash Fluxus on tap, and tell me you won’t be grinning like a kid with an ice-cream cone on a hot day.

Shaw obviously enjoys guiding people toward the perfect wine-and-cigar or beer-and-cigar pairing. He said matching lighter-flavored beer with a lighter-flavored cigar is a great way to start.

“Similar to beer, different flavor profiles, when you are drinking, how you’re drinking, how you’re pairing with food—it’s the same thing with cigars,” Shaw said. “A cigar will taste seven different ways during the day. If you smoke it early the morning, it will taste different than if you smoke it after lunch. It’s how your body reacts to the flavor.”

Shaw started smoking cigars in 1996 and opened the store in 2001. Fame has been in this Palm Canyon Drive location since January 2005. His consistent curiosity has made Fame one of the leading places in the Coachella Valley to enjoy not just a stogie, but a flavorful beer or wine. Shaw even had a shipment of cigars infused with Washington hops, specifically to pair with IPAs and hoppy pale ales. As a craft-beer writer, my mouth immediately dropped on the wooden bar when I heard this.

However, Fame isn’t the only cigar game in town. What’s the difference between Fame and the other cigar shops?

“I would classify them as cigar shops. Here, we enjoy cigars. It’s about the experience,” he said.

Just at that moment, my smoking cohort said, “Isn’t that John Salley from the Lakers looking at the wine over there?”

Yep, it was. After attending to his latest celebrity guest, Shaw rejoined us at the bar and embarrassedly chuckled as he told us about the time that Chris Noth, aka “Big” on Sex and the City, came into his lounge.

The cigar lounge owner was not a frequent viewer of the sexy show full of witticisms. When “Big” came casually walking into Shaw’s lounge, puffing on his own cigar, Mel politely asked him to put it out. As the other smoking patrons attempted to nudge Shaw with their eyes, Shaw smiled, as he had no idea who the “Big” man was.

Moments later, he glanced down at an issue of Cigar Aficionado, with none other than Chris Noth on the cover.

The scents, sophistication and overall surroundings bring to mind the concept of an old-school gentleman’s club. Fame keeps one foot anchored in this classic ideal, and the other in the contemporary world, while opening the eyes of its patrons to the appreciation of a good wine, a good beer and a good smoke.

Whether it’s a 2007 L'Aventure Estate Cuvee blend, a California craft beer or a multidimensional cigar, assuage your desire for rich flavors in an upscale, yet cozy atmosphere.

Fame Lounge is located at 155 S. Palm Canyon Drive, No. 3. For more information, call 320-2752, or visit www.fame-lounge.com.

The beer selection at Fame—both in the shop and in the lounge—is surprising and unique. (Photo by Sean Planck)

Published in Features & Profiles