“I love Palm Beach for being the small town it is, and anything I can do to keep that feeling of home, I will do.”
And, do well! Danny Ponton has been affecting the good nature of Palm Beach since 1982 when the charming 22-year-old took control of Club Colette from Aldo Gucci in a daring, smiling, smooth talking act of salesmanship. He spoke of bringing back the nostalgic feel of the intimate nightclub and wed it to Gucci’s Northern Italian Cuisine. Gucci, no fool he, jumped at the opportunity, and Club Colette became the new hot darling of Palm Beach’s nightlife. Danny had been wintering in Palm Beach since he was a child, and from the beginning he intuitively understood not just the culinary needs of Palm Beachers, but what made them happy: Gracious hospitality and the feeling that as guests they are meant to be comfortable – that they are appreciated and wanted.
“There are two thing Palm Beachers love: 1) Dressing up and slow dancing on an intimate dance floor at Club Colette; and 2) going to the beach, watching their kids surf, and ordering a grilled cheese sandwich with a cup of tomato soup on the side.”
Now Ponton’s world of nostalgia sans kitsch has finally gotten to the grilled cheese sandwich with the side of tomato soup. This season he opened SurfSide Diner - which he lovingly refers to as the “joint.”
OK... it is better than not coming at all!
There is something rather delicious about “discovering” a restaurant and doing the brag only to find everyone in the room has been eating there for decades. That happened to us last week when we discovered Rhythm Café in the center of West Palm’s Antique Row - a true “café” converted from a 1950’s drugstore which explains the funky exterior window and serpentine counter. Décor is tacky 50’s and the joint is filled with odd 50’s and 60’s adult toys, pink flamingos and vintage prom photos. (If you bring them your prom photo you get free dessert.)
It is even funkier than I can describe but as you check out the menu the first bit of information offered is a check list of stuff not welcomed at their place: Perfume, for example, can be worn but only the person whispering sweet nothings in your ear should be able to smell it (21 gun salute for that!); Complaints are not accepted, nor grumpy behavior. The list goes on, but it is clear Rhythm Cafe chooses its clientele! And, after reading the menu, if you don’t like its’ yummy descriptions, then leave immediately, for Rhythm Café is all about its yummmmmmmmmmm factor!
Whenever I find myself in a new town, I always look up a Triple-D (Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives) restaurant. Why not? The places always have rave reviews and you know you are going to get a BIG, hearty meal.
Finding myself in South Florida this week, we had to give 11th Street Diner a try. We showed up at lunch time on a busy Sunday, brunch was in full swing. If you've ever been to Miami (South) Beach, you would also know parking is scarce. All the little bars on the main drag offer valet parking for a cool $30+ bucks just to go in and sip a drink.
Luckily, the diner is about a block or so off the highway but parking is still an issue. With that being said, I don't know how we managed to pull up and park right across the street and score a table for four in about five minutes. The place was PACKED and it looked like everyone was really enjoying their food. You could tell this was a neighborhood and tourist favorite.
Outside, the roosters crow. I look at the time display on my cell phone within reach. 4:30. A.M. As hard as I try, I cannot fall back to sleep. The continuous crying sounds of the roosters are foreign to me and grate on my nerves.
Finally, I pull myself out of bed, throw on some workout clothes and softly pad down the stairs outside my room.
I sit in the dark, the only light coming from the screen of my laptop computer. As my fingers move quickly across the keys, the light of day appears, surprising me with its sudden takeover of the night.
The sound of cars in the street join the constant noise of roosters calling to one another. My nose picks up the familiar aroma of yeast dough wafting from the kitchen.
Early each morning, an employee of the Angelina Guesthouse, where I'm staying in Key West, Florida, opens the kitchen in the early morning hours of darkness, while most of the guests are still deep in their slumber. On this morning, Nodira, a beautiful woman originally from Uzbekictan, pulls two batches of plump unbaked cinnamon rolls from the refrigerator and slides them into the oven.
Our friend, Shiny Sheet Society Editor, Shannon Donnelly, can masticate on purple prose as well as any one I know: we are naught but a chew toy impaled on the incisors of the Cosmic Hellhound of Wall Street (from a "society" editor, no less). She was catching our attention to suggest that bad times should equal better manners – and why not; we can never over-spend on Grace. Course in this case Grace is the "slightly-hung-over" Doyenne of the Etiquette of Denial. From her delicious SOCIAL GRACE'S GUIDE TO GETTING THROUGH ALL THIS, comes Rule Number One which forbids the use of the word "new" unless it is followed by either the (interchangeable) "grandchild" or "shelter dog." And, forget any conversation that touches on "bling" or "leveraged buyout." That will be a challenge to most Palm Beachers, but not to us as we now "have permission" to cross Worth Lagoon at will and treat the whole experience as just one of life's many broadening experiences. Crossing Southern Bridge leads to West Palm Beach – an exotic land to be sure.
West Palm actually has (gasp) sexy, hot young people that mingle at sexy hot spots like Bradley's, Grease, or Rocco's Tacos & Tequila Bar. (I plan to write about Grease and Rocco's as soon as I take the time to Spa myself to youthful, sexy and hot – well, at least in Bill's eyes).
West Palm also has – like all of South Florida – great Cuban Restaurants! But, when it comes to Cuban food I find myself heading down a yellow brick road. I have no sense of seasoning, how flavors combine or what to order. I am clueless – a Cuban food ninny, but a smart ninny! Bill and I are going to Havana, the best authentic Cuban restaurant in Palm Beach County with an aficionado – Grace herself – Shannon Donnelly, who loves this opened-24hrs-a-day storefront kitchen.
Just for fun, close your eyes. Picture Zsa Zsa dining at Bistro Garden or Liz at Chasen’s – bejeweled and pleasing to the eyes. Imagine charming George Hamilton tanned and natty in his double- breasted blazer table-hopping his way around the room. Now open your eyes. If the vision remains, then you must be in Palm Beach! And, guess what! You’ll still see charming George tanned and natty in his double-breasted blazer table-hopping his way around the room – along with Jimmy Buffet, Rod Stewart, Donald Trump, Vic Damone, Dina Merrill, Susan Lucci, the indomitable Dame Celia Lipton Ferris, Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh.
Surely, you understand the delight for a Left Coast Malibu Beach Bum time-warping on the "Right” Shore. For someone who actually remembers the bridal trail down Sunset Blvd and a laid back Rodeo Drive of local businesses, Palm Beach and Worth Avenue is the old Beverly Hills I most cherish. Here in Palm Beach most of the upscale restaurants recall those old glamour days, and their menus cater to the pre-foodie crowd who like their food simple and well prepared.
Café L'Europe most exemplifies Beverly Hills posh dining from the eighties. The interiors, with décor reminiscent of the Belle Epoch – sparkle like champagne. Gaiety seems part of the menu with its varied list of Iranian, Russian, Italian and domestic caviar, Sliced Scottish Smoked Salmon, Escargot Bourguignonne, (any one who ever lived in the Colony knows an excellent snail when they see one!), and a ninety-eight page wine list.
On the second day of our Florida trip, we dined at one of our favorite, always good, “coming home” restaurants in Apalachicola: The Apalachicola Seafood Grill. Located in the heart of “downtown” Apalachicola (within spitting distance of the town’s solitary traffic light) , The Grill offers a simple menu, The World’s Largest Fried Grouper Sandwich, an impressive assortment of beer (you get your own bottle) and the motto “No Whining.” We have been eating at The Grill at least once a trip since Sam was two and threw a sippy cup at the front window. We’ve not been disappointed. I have had everything on the menu that I want to try, and the Grill is not the kind of restaurant that changes it’s menu. There are fresh shrimp, oysters and fishes fried, baked, broiled, in soups, stews and chowders, in sandwiches and/or in baskets. City folk can have a salad with seafood in it, if they insist. If I arrived at The Grill to discover that they were offering a terrine of langoustine on a bed of microgreens with a Guiness reduction, I would burst into tears.
There is the neighborhood Mexican Restaurant – good solid simple Mexican food with waiters who are kind to children and ask all women under 50 for their ID when they order beer. (I used to LOVE that!) There is the tourist Mexican Restaurant Emporium that sells T-shirts, sombreros and disappointing but familiar fare. And then, there is the vaguely upscale hip and you-definitely-have-a-chance-of-getting-laid joint that is a great bar first – Mexican food second kinda place. Rocco's Tacos in West Palm Beach is that kinda place!
So lets start with the bar. It is a glorious bar extending the length of the restaurant. With chair back stools, oak paneling and extensive menu of Tequila, Mezcal and other south of the border spirits, one could happily spend the night sitting at this bar drinking Tequila shots and holding it all together with Jalapeno Poppers and freshly made Guacamole. Should one's eyes start to roll about, one might even notice the wondrous chandeliers and tin (or faux-tine) ceiling that give the place such a warm air of pre-coital romance. Far be it of me to break the mood by suggesting their food only pretends to be marvelous. (And, for that matter if one's eyes are indeed rolling about, who cares!)
There used to be wonderful French bistros in my neighborhood in New York City, but one by one they are disappearing, leaving me drowning in pasta sauce and nearly Moules Mariniere deprived! But, in West Palm Beach (of all places) there is a delicious Palm Beach Season alternative – Pistache. And, it has the grace to actually look the part.
The first clue that you are in the land of the French is that there dogs sitting politely by their masters on the terrace as you walk in. So civilized dining with dogs! And, so cozy; everything is exactly as one would expect from a Bordeaux native managed Bistro – except for the waiters, who insist on being friendly!
The menu has a few surprises such as the Lobster Mac and Cheese – a dish I would normally cherish – but I had an agenda: Burgundy Escargots in Garlic Butter. They arrived juicy and fine textured. Other appetizers ordered were an elegant and freshly made beet salad with small bits of chevre on arugula and a traditional beef based Onion Soup Gratinee with Gruyere Cheese. We were off to the perfect culinary memory experience.
Palm Beach is different from other tidy resort cities that line the Florida Coast. While remarkably tidy, it is also both eccentric and pretty, and I do believe it has its own wacky, elegant soul.
If indeed there is an aesthetic soul fluttering in Palm Beach it is the work and influence of a Californian artist turned architect, Addison Cairns Mizner. In 1918, Mizner moved to Florida just as resort hotels were fading in popularity and private ocean front mansions were becoming the rage. His hurricane resistant Mediterranean Revival designs set the standard in romantic opulence, making him the society architect of choice. Snubbing the cookie cutter effects of modern architecture, Mizner brought a bit of mystery to his estates and private clubs creating a rambling "add-on" quality to his spaces. Besides his famous structures, his work thrives in courtyards and narrow alleys off Worth Avenue where you can stroll, check out the small privately owned shops and "discover" your newest, secret rendezvous – Renato's.
Not that Renato's needs discovering! Renato's is old Palm Beach, the way the Bel Air Hotel is old LA: There is a charming, relaxed insider atmosphere with just the hint of indiscreet desire – the best spice for a really good dish. And, good dishes are only an order away, if you can catch your waiter's attention. Do not expect to see empty tables here.