The amazing thing about our annual pilgrimage to Palm Springs is that this is the only Garrone family affair that’s not about food, this one revolves around tennis, the BNP Paribas Open, and everything else we can fit in recreationally. When I say it’s about the tennis I’m serious, we’re there for a week, at least four full days at the tournament with at least an hour of practice in the evenings under the lights. But you have to eat and might as well eat well, at least in style, which represents a conundrum because, to be close to the tennis, we always stay in one of those golf course housing complexes around Indian Wells which is at least half an hour away from downtown Palm Springs, the center of culinary action in the Coachella Valley.
For the first few years we really beat ourselves up about this. We actually drove down to Palm Springs to dine at Melvyn’s and to try the places on everyone’s lists. After getting exhausted by all the driving we started trying the strip mall and hotel places closer afield but the quality wasn’t really there. Punctuated evolution kicked in and we simply embraced the grill and never looked back.
That’s not a difficult thing because we’re a family of home cooks. Still, we love to dine out so that was a tough pill to swallow. But the more time you spend in the warm desert evenings, the easier it is to embrace the al fresco dining. Plus the closer you look at local supermarkets the more you find strange cuts and organs that reflect another era of New York or LA cooking, things like veal and liver are plentiful which makes for great contrast to the normal stuff we find at our local grocery stores.
That still leaves the days at the tennis. Over the years the culinary scene at the appropriately named Indian Wells Tennis Garden has evolved quite a bit. At first they just had the normal food stands serving hot dogs, rice bowls, and the like. Then a few years ago Larry Ellison decided to really spruce up the tournament so he built a whole new stadium and added Nobu, Chop House, and PizzaVino to it. When they opened it was a pretty amazing fan experience. If you splash out for Nobu you can dine while perched a few stories directly above the tennis. Choose pizza or chops and embrace the al fresco patio surrounded by tennis on TVs. Those innovations are now baked into most contemporary sports stadia like Sacramento’s new Golden 1 Center which features a huge Sierra Nevada Bier Garden up in the nose bleeds and not down where the rich people sit.
Once PizzaVino opened at Indian Wells it was a god send; suddenly you could get a pizza, salad, glass of wine and get back to the main event without breaking much of a stride. Given what we’d come to expect of restaurants from these trips, PizzaVino is yet another exception. In my daily life I rarely dine at the same place more than a few times a year. At Indian Wells I dine there daily. But given the alternatives at the tournament, there’s really only one sure bet. It’s not overachieving cuisine but as they say at the Zeitgest: Fast, Friendly, Service – Choose One. Adapted to this context PizzaVino is fast, friendly, have service, and decent food so it’s better than hitting the trifecta, especially given the culinary context. They’ve succeeded enough that, for good or bad, my daughter is now known there well enough that the staff recognize her after a year’s absence.
Then we got this year’s BNP Paribas Open announcement which prominently features new restaurants, namely LA’s epochal Spago but also Cassell’s Hamburgers, and B.S. Taqueria. Spago has been around longer than most of the competitors in the tournament so it should be long in the tooth but it did make significant contributions to Californian cuisine so it has to be worth something. And the other fast casual alternatives are right on target. I got excited because, you know, variety is the spice of life. So for the first time in years we ventured out of the PizzaVino bubble and caught out Spago.
Day one was a fiasco because they weren’t even open yet. Day two the same. Day three, finally they were open but in our own person Keystone Cops movie we managed to walk every level of Stadium One before finding Spago way up at the upper lip of the stadium. The view of the tennis is stunning: It’s perched at the upper lip of the main stadium so the view is straight down onto the court. Anyone suffering from vertigo should just skip it.
With vistas like this, why brave the 100 degree weather? With prices like that the answer is pretty obvious. It’s incredible to be up there, watching the line cook away, enjoy a nice glass of wine, plus you get to try something that’s not pizza. Hell, the man himself was there, Wolfgang resplendent in two day stubble, wandering the line with a smile but really devoting quality time to working the room where everyone, including us, was taking selfies.
It’s a strange scene, given the exceptionalism of the entire desert experience. It’s even more exceptional in that you need a separate ticket to access Stadium One during the tournament so you’re already paying a premium to be there, then you pay the premium for Spago’s food. And it’s not bad. It definitely hits all the right note for a high end chain like this. But it’s not perfect, nor inventive, nor really fun. It’s what you’d expect from Spago which is really why most people dine there. That’s the sad fact of the higher end corporate restaurant chains. It’s just what you’d expect. And you pay for it.
So, it’s back to pizza and wine for me where my daughter gets pampered and we don’t spend too much. After all we are there for the tennis. A fact my father never ceases to remind me of because he doesn’t even break for lunch, he just snacks in the stands watching the wild variety of playing styles. Still, I gotta eat.