By Crystal Harrell

With the stay-at-home order being lifted from Riverside County, outdoor dining has returned, sparking many hopes that live music will make a comeback to accompany diners as they enjoy their meals. With the help of President/CEO of the Rancho Mirage Chamber of Commerce, Katie Stice, CV Weekly reached out to county representatives to investigate, and it was announced that live music can resume at restaurant venues that adhere to COVID-19 safety protocols.

“In accordance with State guidance, performers must maintain physical distancing from spectators and other performers. Performers who are singing, shouting, playing a wind instrument, or engaging in similar activities without a face covering must maintain at least twelve feet of distance from spectators. Spectators must remain seated at their tables and practice all health protocols,” said Government Relations and Public Policy Advisor, Greg Rodriguez.

Rodriguez also confirmed with Legal Counsel that Riverside does not have any further restrictions. The only live music allowed applies to performances at restaurants. Any other outdoor concerts are not allowed at this point.

Many local restaurants and musicians are excited to hear this news, and are preparing to provide live entertainment this week. Vicky’s of Santa Fe’s Music Lounge has welcomed, figuratively speaking, over a thousand musicians in the 32 years they have been open in Indian Wells. Manager Marc Lodovico and Music Director John Stanley King will continue the legacy with the new live entertainment guidelines.

“The music venue operation has always been an important part of our restaurant. The Music Lounge has been awarded in recent years as one of the ‘best venue for live music in the Valley’ with a live music program made up of over 36 musicians that formed 10 sets over 7 days every week and never a cover. It’s was exciting news this week to have some COVID restrictions loosened up enough to allow for the return of live music outdoors. Exciting in the sense that you now know that you’re heading in the right direction to get back on the freeway, after driving around aimlessly, looking for it. There’s still a long road ahead to restore the live music performance to its full stature. Think about venues that have to be indoors. Absent of any COVID restrictions, some venues face neighborhood noise ordinances or have no viable space to take from the parking lot, is what I mean by long road,” stated Lodovico.

“We’re following all COVID guidelines to ensure public safety. We have discovered that the outdoor dining experience coupled with some dinner music has brought some fresh perspective to our customers in that they report the experience as a ‘completely charming and enjoyable evening.’ Live music nightly 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., Duet of John Stanley King multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and Danny Flahive on Bass performing what we call ‘some great dinner music on the sidewalk café’,” continued Lodovico.

The Slice and Maracas have also set up a tent in front of the restaurants for outdoor dining as well as the patios. The restaurants feature live music Tuesday through Sunday at 5 to 8 p.m., and 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. The line-up at this time is Sergio Villegas on Sunday and Tuesday, Marco Antonelli on Wednesday and Friday, and Barry Minniefield on Thursday and Saturday. There will also be some special guests on select nights. Both Maracas and The Slice are open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and until 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.

“We feel blessed to be able to give our customers a little bit of ‘normal’ after this tough year. We also feel blessed to be able to give our local musicians a venue to do their stuff. And as important, we are able to keep as many of our employees employed. As I walk the tables, the thanks we get from our patrons is so overwhelming that it just lets us know that we are doing the right thing. We have invested a lot of money to create the outdoor experience that is not only comfortable but safe. We have socially distanced our tables and the area where the musicians sing and we have enforced the ‘Mask Up’ rule at the restaurants. Music and eating are the culture of our community and to be able to put them together is so rewarding. As I tell our customers, we just want it to feel like 2019 again,” shared The Slice owner and co-owner of Maracas, Jack Srebnik.

Sergio Villegas, who also performs at TQLAS Agave Bar & Grill in Old Town La Quinta on Thursdays from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., is also happy for the return of live music, as he had previous events that were cancelled due to the pandemic, like performing at the 2020 Olympics in Japan and touring with Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, but he also wants to remain on the side of caution when he plays, as he takes care of his 98-year-old mother.

“I think it’s good news, but we still have to be safe and very careful. I need to keep distance even though there are people who see me play and want to come up to me and say hi. We have to remember we are still in a pandemic,” said Villegas, whose newest album, 7801, has just been released.

Lizann Warner is another musician performing at Coachella Valley restaurants, with a performance every Tuesday and Friday night from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on the patio of Chef George’s & Picasso Lounge in Bermuda Dunes. Warner performs a variety of genres such as Jazz, Pop, Country, Classic Rock, Disco, Latin, and R&B. She is a full-time performer, and in addition to performing in restaurants and other venues, Warner also performed for seniors in nursing homes and memory care centers four to five days a week. However, when the pandemic hit, not only did all the restaurants and concert venues close, but all nursing homes closed as well, so her entire calendar year of performances were wiped out.

“I’m very grateful to be performing again. Restaurants and the entertainers who perform in them were probably among the hardest hit from the shutdowns. While other retailers were permitted to open and were deemed essential, restaurants were forced to close their dining rooms. Many built patios or rented tents only to have outdoor dining shut down as well. And sadly, countless restaurants went out of business. And with the restaurants closed, performers as well as cooks, waitresses, and other staff were left twisting in the wind with no income for nearly a year. Now we need the support of the community to get back on our feet. I think everyone can agree that dining and entertainment plays an important role in the community, especially here in the desert,” said Warner.

Chef George’s & Picasso Lounge has been a desert staple since 2003, offering fine Hungarian food and live entertainment. “We are very happy to be offering outdoor dining and to be able to also have live entertainment again. We look forward to seeing everyone,” said restaurant owner Lana Ristich.

Derek Jordan Gregg performs at Wildest in Palm Desert every Friday through Sunday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. His loop shows emulate drums and bass, while he plays guitar and sings. Having live music is a relief to this seasoned musician.

“Getting to perform is like being able to walk again, or coming up for air when you’ve been underwater for too long. Supporting local business is so important as well to the economy, locally and nationally. Bigger than that is saving the hearts and souls of the people who rely on their businesses to survive, or the people who need good food, and real music in their lives. It’s so important,” commented Gregg.

Casuelas Cafe in Palm Desert is also prepared to host live performances, with the Zocalo Patio designed by renowned architect Juan Carlos Ochoa and his generous use of open space allowing for socially distanced tables and still providing an exciting experience for guests and artists.

Photo by Micheline Morena

“We are thrilled to be able to again enjoy exceptional Valley performances in an artist-friendly open air space. Our customers, as well as the City of Palm Desert and other Valley cities, really stepped up for local restaurants during the shut downs. In a crisis with evolving information, the effort to balance public safety, modify business practices, and financial support makes me proud of our communities. I don’t envision another patio dining shut down at this point.  It’s great to be open for business again. Unfortunately, white table cloth restaurants like our Cork Tree are likely to continue taking the brunt of the shutdown with limited patios and food not designed for delivery, including bigger food costs.  Hopefully, we can get 25-50% back indoors soon to help fine dining,” said Casuelas Cafe/Cork Tree owner Ray Rodriguez.

Lisa Lynn and the Broken Hallelujahs have a weekly gig on Wednesday nights at Casuelas Cafe starting at 6:30 p.m. The band covers a spectrum of blues, R&B, and classic rock, but front woman Lisa Lynn Morgan will always be partial to the classic country from artists like Patsy Cline and Merle Haggard.

“I feel like I just woke up to the first sunny day after a long desert rain. Neither musicians nor restaurateurs have picked an easy gig. It was a tough job before COVID, especially here in the seasonal desert. It is a lot of hard work for the money. It’s extremely competitive and comes with a lot of public criticism. The only reason to do either of these jobs is because you absolutely love it and cannot imagine doing anything else. The corporate restaurants and big machine artists in the world will likely be fine. But your family-owned restaurants and local musicians are the things that make a community special and unique. People can go to a chain restaurant in any town. People can see concerts on TV, and eventually in a large arena again. But your local brew of dreamers and doers will bring genuine love, charm, and connection to their community. They are where some of your best memories come from. If you lose them, you lose something priceless,” said Lisa Lynn Morgan.