Florida

surfsidelogo“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.”

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p1030691x1Whenever 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.

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el_mirasol.jpgPalm 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.

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roccossign.jpgThere 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!)

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floridagrill.jpg 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.

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