Sweet Basil opens on El Paseo under the cloud of the pandemic, but emerges stronger thanks to its thriving patio business.
By Jim Powers
Photographs courtesy Sweet Basil California Eatery
The coronavirus pandemic has played havoc with just about every type of business, but restaurants may have had to deal with the worst of it by absorbing two shutdowns and limited service capabilities over a one-year-period.
Sally Hill was hoping to open Sweet Basil California Eatery on El Paseo in April 2020, but the first shutdown canceled those plans. By the fall, the opportunity to eat outdoors was viable, so Hill invested in creating a patio area in front of the restaurant after securing permits from the city of Palm Desert.
At the time, she had no idea how important that patio would become.
“When we built that deck, it turned out to be one of the major blessings of the whole pandemic,” Hill says. “We would have never had a patio. We would have never gotten this much exposure. I mean, we have gotten so much attention because of that patio, that it's been a blessing because had we just had a storefront and opened even under normal circumstances, I don't think we would have been this busy.”
After enduring the second shutdown in December, Hill is able to entertain 50 percent capacity indoors now under Riverside County’s Orange Tier while patio dining remains popular. She tells us more about this new venture in the desert.
How did you pick this location on El Paseo?
It's so strange that we ended up here because Curtis Barlow, who was the listing agent for this place, he was showing me a place in La Quinta. I didn't want anything big. And he says, I have a place on El Paseo that's small. he brought me in and I walked in and I fell in love with it. And that was it. I knew it was the spot the minute I walked in.
Where did you come from?
My partner and I, Martin Duenas, have had an Italian restaurant in Big Bear since 2007 called Sweet Basil Bistro. We’re in the process of selling it.
Do you have a connection to the desert?
We’ve owned a home in Palm Desert since the 1990s. The winters in Big Bear just got to dang cold for me. So just all those long winters and all that shoveling of snow, I said let's open in Palm Desert. That was when I just turned 65 and I really don't know what I was thinking opening another restaurant at this stage. But that was when I thought I couldn't slow down. I was still roaring to go and then COVID hit and I realized, guess what? You can slow down, but that's been another blessing.
What is your culinary background?
I went to culinary school here at College of the Desert and finished in 2002.I went to Jackson Hole for two years and studied with a chef there. He was amazing, I learned so much.
What influences will we find in your menu?
So I've always had a healthy aspect of food and believed in you need to have greens. And going to school, I was taught procedures and kind of the classic way of cooking. And then I went to Tuscany and I fell in love with the flavors there, how simply they do everything, and how naturally. So I've always been kind of leaning toward the healthy aspect of food. For our restaurant here, I want to go for healthy and there's so much gluten free and so many vegetarian and vegan folks out there that have a hard time finding things to eat. I wanted to make that accessible.
Do you have a specialty dish?
Lobster lasagna. And most of my best ideas come in my sleep, that's when I wake up and go, “Oh, I'm going to make a lobster lasagna”. I do a California style shrimp and grits that came the same way. The chocolate lasagna. My favorite thing to make is soups and sauces because you get to be really creative, I think, and you can enhance them by little tiny touches.
What more would you like to be doing with the restaurant?
Catering. Catering is my passion. When I was in Big Bear, I did 21 weddings in the summer of 2019. And I love that because I get to do new menus, sit with people and figure out what's important to them, what they would like, and I like that part of it. Once people can gather again, I’d like to do that.
73655 El Paseo, Palm Desert, CA 92260
@sweetbasilpd on Instagram