It’s another hot August night in Palm Springs, California. Although the heat has gone down to 40 degrees Celsius from a staggering 44 degree C earlier that noon, it’s not exactly balmy in this desert resort city.
Just before 7 p.m., the sun still strong and barely setting, we drive to a restaurant that’s famous in the past for a certain loyal customer nicknamed Ol’ Blue Eyes, Mr. Frank Sinatra himself.
Palm Springs had been known as the playground of Hollywood stars such as Bing Crosby, Cary Grant, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, to name a few.
But it was most recognized as the haunt of the Rat Pack, a term coined by the press in the ’60s for a group of celebrity buddies which included Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr., among others.
A two-hour drive from Los Angeles, Palm Springs was the perfect escape of celebs from the stresses of work. With the “Two-Hour Rule” stipulated in most of the actors’ studio contracts during Hollywood’s golden age (a clause stating that, in case of a last-minute film or photo shoot, the actor must be in the studio within two hours), Palm Springs was the best place to be.
Even with the passing of that storied era in Hollywood, Palm Springs has created its own identity within that period. Today it stands with a mid-century architecture for most of its establishments, bringing to life what Starbucks would look like if it existed in the ’50s.
Another famous example of a revived mid-century architecture is Sinatra’s Twin Palms estate. Although we didn’t get inside (and we could barely get out of the car because of the heat, which was always on the 40s during daytime), it was evidently large and well-kept. White walls surrounded the 4,500-sq ft estate and on the post near the gate is a plaque that announces: SINATRA RESIDENCE.
Within the walls of this estate, the wildest revelries of that era were said to have been held. Legend has it that Sinatra would hoist up a Jack Daniels flag on a pole between the twin palms, a sign that there would be a party that night, an invite for his friends in the neighborhood.
Today, you could host your own parties in the estate or stay for $2,600 a night.
The Twin Palms estate was the first house that Sinatra bought. After his separation from Ava Gardner, he sold the property and purchased a 2.5-acre compound in Rancho Mirage near Palm Springs.
This was no surprise. After all, Palm Springs was Sinatra’s favorite place in the world, according to his daughter Nancy Sinatra, in an interview on CBS.
One of the restaurants Sinatra frequented was Melvyn’s. So we made sure to make a dinner reservation in this famous restaurant.
Upon entering the property that’s surrounded by green foliage, we are quickly transported to the secluded sanctuary of Ingleside Inn where Melvyn’s restaurant is located. A valet greets us.
We are welcomed by the smile of a man wearing black-rimmed glasses, his dark hair slicked back, the maître d’ named Matt Butorac. He’s in a black suit ensemble.
The dining room, though small and a bit dated, exudes class. A large chandelier hangs in the middle of the room and unique paintings on its walls.
“The thing about Palm Springs is that everybody has a Frank Sinatra story,” says Butorac. “The wonderful thing about Melvyn’s is that ours is actually true.”
Butorac regales us with those stories: “There were times Mr. Sinatra would call and say, ‘Guys, we’re coming in tonight, there’s 12 of us, I want two round tables for six each.’”
Sinatra might also call Bryan, who has been maître d’ of Melvyn’s for 40 years. This year is apparently the 40th anniversary of Melvyn’s and consequently of Bryan.
Butorac continues: “So Mr. Sinatra might call Bryan and say, ‘Babe, I’m bringing the entourage tonight, I want a long table and I want you to clear the room.’ Wow, this is Frank Sinatra, what are we going to say? So we would do that, we would relocate people. Whatever Mr. Sinatra wants, Mr. Sinatra gets.”
Some other nights, he would prefer a more private affair with his then wife, Gardner. Butorac recalls: “He might call in and say ‘Matt, tonight it’s just me and Ava, I want my corner.”
Sinatra was referring to a corner booth in the dining room, near the kitchen, now officially dubbed as “Sinatra’s corner.”
Tonight, we see a young couple having drinks in the same corner. When Butorac seats them, he explains that tonight, the young lady is sitting in for Ms Ava Gardner and the young man for Mr. Frank Sinatra.
Butorac has another special story which happened in the other part of the restaurant. He invites us to follow him to the spot—a corner booth near the piano bar.
Al dente pasta
He tells the story:
“Well, there was a particular evening, where there was a gentleman sitting right where you are and at one point he said to the cocktail waitress, ‘Excuse me, Miss.’ She came over and said, ‘Sir, how can I help you?’ He said, ‘I would like to talk to Mr. Haber.’”
Mr. Mel Haber has been the owner of Melvyn’s for 40 years, Butorac explains. Haber also owns the Ingleside Inn.
“The young lady says, ‘Well, of course, Mr. Sinatra. I’ll go get Mr. Haber for you.’ Mr. Haber comes over and Mr. Sinatra says, ‘Mel, sit down. I want to ask you some questions.’ So he does, and Mr. Sinatra starts asking questions about the food. You know, very Italian stuff—can you do al dente pasta? How is the Sinatra Steak prepared? What’s the special side dish with this? Do you have Jack Daniels?
“And Mr. Haber says, ‘Let me get my manager and my chef and we’ll have a meeting.’ And he goes and gets the gentlemen and they all sit down.
“And again Mr. Sinatra is peppering them with questions—al dente pasta, special dishes and they’re answering the questions. At one point Mr. Sinatra kind of sits back and relaxes, and says, ‘You know guys, I’ve been thinking about having my wedding rehearsal dinner here at Melvyn’s for Barbara (Marx) and myself. You guys have done well, we’re gonna have the party here.’ And we did and it was a very successful night, it was a big party.”
Butorac says that the party was such a big story back then that the paparazzi would do anything just to get a scoop. And that night, Jilly Rizzo, a wonderful friend of Sinatra’s and his right hand man, got to beat up two paparazzi.
“The guys were trying to take pictures and Mr. Sinatra did not want to have pictures taken that night,” says Butorac, who adds that there were a few punches thrown, cameras opened and film torn out of them. After that, the paparazzi were sent away.
At the end of the party, Mr. Sinatra and Barbara got in the car and just as they were leaving, apparently, the real paparazzi who were hiding behind the trees jumped out and started to take pictures.
Jilly saw them and grabbed the cameras again, tore the film out. What he didn’t know was that there was a little spy camera and they did get a picture.
“That picture exists, you see Frank and his car driving away,” Butorac says.
As we listen to Butorac’s stories, it feels as though we are having drinks with Mr. Sinatra himself in his booth.
When Butorac winds up, we are now excited to have a taste of the food that kept Sinatra coming back.
Steak Diane, a Sinatra favorite, is cooked beside our table. Our server skillfully handles the filet mignon in the pan. Large flames engulf the meat as red wine is poured on it.
It is then carefully placed on a plate and served on the table. And as how Frank preferred his pasta, the Shrimp Scampi is al dente.
There is something about Melvyn’s that makes you forget about everything else. The moment you enter the place, you’re taken somewhere else in time—when everything was enjoyed at a much slower pace.
There is nothing flashy about the restaurant; instead, there’s this cozy, elegant ambiance that’s not too stiff but more welcoming.
Somehow you feel the vibe of yesterday’s legendary parties, the fine atmosphere that the likes of Sinatra and his gang immersed themselves in.
And now, it’s as if you’re a part of it, another buddy having a good time with its famous clients. At Melvyn’s, everyone feels like family whenever you enter the restaurant.
Maybe that was why Mr. Sinatra loved the place.
And maybe it was the quiet nights that Sinatra loved most about Palm Springs.
There is a certain calm in this desert city that made it easy for anyone to go on a retreat, to relax and forget.
Whenever I look back on Palm Springs, I’ll remember the large mountains, standing tall as if guarding the city. I’ll remember the 1950s-inspired architecture, the retro Starbucks.
I’ll remember the 44-degree C heat and the still desert nights.
I’ll remember the cool elegance of Melvyn’s. And most of all, I’ll remember good Ol’ Blue Eyes.