It is so strange and delightful to come upon Shields Date Gardens on Highway 111 in the midst of the development that has turned the Coachella Valley into a golf/resort/retirement paradise. The vintage roadside attraction doesn’t seem to have changed in decades, hearkening back to a time when the California desert was as exotic-seeming as Araby.
Located alongside a grove of stately palm trees, Shields is an airy showroom for dates and date products available by mail order. These include spectacularly sweet and creamy Super Jumbo Royal Medjools, deglets (semi-dry, smaller dates), date bits (like you’d get in trail mix), and date crystals, which are dried date bits suitable for cooking (a Shield’s invention). All these things are on display and available to buy and eat immediately. Also on sale are strips of photographic slides that show attractions of the California desert, booklets that sing of the glories of the dates that Floyd and Bess Shields began to cultivate and sell in 1924, and other assorted desert souvenirs. For free, you can step into a small theater to the side of the showroom and enjoy a film titled ‘The Romance and Sex Life of the Date,’ which explains the life cycle of what the narrator describes as “the least understood of all fruits.”
There are a few old wooden booths in the showroom, where visitors can sit and enjoy the two prepared foods available at the counter: date ice cream and date shakes. The former is vanilla ice cream laced with shreds of date, making it ultra-rich; the latter is a thick, date-flavored milk shake that is super sweet and as rich as butter – one of the culinary triumphs of old California.
Behind the old front room is a sit-down cafe with a menu that includes date items (jalapeno & cheese-stuffed dates, dateburgers, date pancakes) but is more focused on such Mexican specialties as chilaquiles for breakfast and tacos or nachos for lunch. As retro as Shields Date Gardens is up front, this cafe has a modern mien, offering hormone and antibiotic-free beef, free-range chicken, and freshly-baked bread free of preservatives and additives. Breakfast includes a “fit omelet” made of egg whites and lunch features such nutritionally enlightened items as a summer berry salad and a portobello “burger.”