The Desert Lounge Where Old Hollywood Lives

Welcome to "About a Bar," a column that explores America's most notable bars and cocktail programs. This week, Leslie Pariseau hits Melvyn's, a one-time Rat Pack refuge and Hollywood haven in Palm Springs.

melvyn's palm spring bar hollywood

A little over a month ago in the Coachella Valley, Madonna was kissing Drake, Justin Bieber was ejected from a VIP area and Paris Hilton was prancing around in cat ears. All while stoned twentysomethings swayed to Alt-J and Father John Misty under the Sonoran Desert sun.

Back in Palm Springs—Coachella’s party circuit basecamp—a caravan of photographers buzzed around the midcentury oasis looking for the next celebrity-steeped pool party. But at the Ingleside Inn, located at the end of West Ramon Road behind a thick wall of hedges and palm trees, time meandered on as it had for the previous 90 years. Completely unaware of who was kissing who, a cadre of tuxedo-attired waiters went on delivering steak Diane and bowling ball-sized chicken potpies to regulars at the Inn’s restaurant and bar, Melvyn’s. Bartenders cracked liter bottles of Kendall Jackson chardonnay, and lounge singers crooned to show tunes while a crowd of blue-hairs sang along. And seated at the front of the bar, sipping white zinfandel from a goblet, the innkeeper, Mel Haber, held court as guests came up to thank him for such a marvelous evening.

Even though he declares himself “a relic,” Haber is a remarkably young 79. He has a girlfriend 29 years his junior, reads “voraciously,” exercises often and floats around in a pool nearly every day. On Fridays and Saturdays—in formal attire—he sticks around the lounge late to listen to live music and dance. The owner of the Ingleside Inn since 1975, Haber fell into buying the property after a chance visit. At the time, he ran an automotive novelty item business (dashboard hula dancers and the like) in New York. But when he happened upon the inn—which, coincidentally, was up for sale—and its trove of oddities (including a card catalog detailing the information of former guests, e.g. “Salvador Dalí: I believe he is a painter”), he pounced. In Haber’s book, Bedtime Stories of the Legendary Ingleside Inn (with a special dedication by Arnold Schwarzenegger), he recounts his first stroll through the dining room: “The only way I could describe this whole experience is to say it was absolutely ‘trippy.’ I felt I had been transported back in time one hundred years.”

In contrast to the hip, new boutique hotels and restaurants that have colonized older properties, the allure of Melvyn’s is that it isn’t an old building remade to feel like a lounge where the Rat Pack once dined or Greta Garbo once slept. There is no beautiful decay, no facsimile furniture, no overwrought interiors. It simply is where the Rat Pack once came to drink and eat and be seen.

Melvyn’s remains a vestige of Palm Springs’ earliest days as the first outpost of Hollywood vacation homes. First built as a private residence in the 1920s—when Palm Springs was still not much more than a dry-heat sanatorium for asthmatics and arthritics—it was reborn in 1935, when a Midwesterner, Ruth Hardy, bought the property and transformed it into a private club. Guests like Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Elizabeth Taylor, Howard Hughes and J.C. Penney were welcomed by invitation only, and waited on personally by Hardy (a master of hospitality, she reportedly had a free Champagne policy on cloudy days). Following her death in 1965, the estate fell into disrepair.

When Mel Haber came along ten years later, the restaurant was called Orville’s and staffed by a “chef who was temperamental, totally absorbed with pornography,” and “four little 60-year-old waiters.” It was a year of polyester, high-waisted jeans and psychedelic floral patterns. And while none of this is readily apparent in the décor, Melvyn’s feels as if from another century with its wall-to-wall carpeting, baroque chandeliers and brocade chairs. Like the rest of Palm Springs, it’s melted into the timeline of American history, its identity forever frozen somewhere between the Spanish haciendas of the 1920s and ’30s and the stark modernism of the 1950s and ’60s.

Melvyn’s still lives on its its reputation of welcoming Hollywood regulars, most prominently Frank Sinatra, who called Palm Springs home and frequented the restaurant throughout his time there. Even “Mr. S’s”—as the town would used to refer to its most famous resident—face is printed onto one side of the bar napkins slipped beneath the White Russians and Gimlets that patrons order by name. Framed photographs of various stars like David Hasselhoff and Liza Minelli, their arms draped around Haber, hang around the lounge, as a sort of contemporary version of Ruth Hardy’s long-lost guest catalog. And there is the endless flow of stories.

Haber likes to tell the one about unknowingly turning away Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw on opening night, and another one about his hero Marlon Brando setting up a camper in the parking lot. Then there’s the story about Sir John, the con artist who duped dozens of Palm Springs residents into believing he was a knight, and the one in which Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn fly in for the afternoon just to go swimming at the pool. Haber is full of these tales, many of which are preserved in Bedtime Stories, and newly recounted on “the YouTubes.”

Despite its palpable connection to the past, Melvyn’s remains young at heart. In fact, Haber welcomes the Coachella crowds with the same hospitality offered to weeknight regulars. “We had a DJ here, a little Italian girl [Mia Moretti] doing a party on the first weekend of Coachella,” he says, going on to mention that Katy Perry came by to say hello and hang out poolside. (And thus a new Haber story is born.)

In contrast to the hip, new boutique hotels and restaurants that have colonized older properties, the allure of Melvyn’s is that it isn’t an old building remade to feel like a lounge where the Rat Pack once dined or Greta Garbo once slept. There is no beautiful decay, no facsimile furniture, no overwrought interiors. It simply is where the Rat Pack once came to drink and eat and be seen. Yes, the Martinis might be shaken and they will arrive atop Frank Sinatra’s ink-printed face, but they’ll also be mixed by a bartender who, very possibly, served Sinatra himself. It’s this quirky, first person history—and Haber’s persistent storytelling—that keeps Melvyn’s from slipping into relic territory.

The only problem, according to Haber, is the women. “They all leave,” he says, “because the men in Palm Springs are either gay, gray or only here until Tuesday.” He sits back and considers it. “That’s a great line.”

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