Dear 2016, you were a royal mess. You broke my heart more than once. You gave me good reason to fear the unknown – and the known. But you fed me. You fed me so very well.
Yes, 2016 may have rattled us to the core as a planet. But on a community level, it gave wings to some of Palm Beach County’s most creative, independent souls.
It was a better-than-good year for local cooking. This year’s new crop of local restaurants far exceeded that of any other year in recent memory. The year gave rise to what is now one of the hottest, most promising dining districts in South Florida – downtown West Palm Beach and the Dixie Dining Corridor.
I think the editors of Conde Nast “Traveler” nailed it when they included the greater Palm Beach area in their 15 “Best Food Cities in the U.S.” in April. The magazine cited Buccan and Chez Jean Pierre in Palm Beach and The Cooper in Palm Beach Gardens among the highlights, saying, “Dining well is de rigueur in the land of Lilly Pulitzer.”
Of course, that was before the year’s full crop of outstanding restaurants had come to harvest. It should be noted that the 15-Best lineup excludes Miami, Tampa, Winter Park and other hot culinary destinations in Florida. Greater Palm Beach has not only joined their ranks, it has gained full dining destination status.
We said hello to some extraordinary new spots this year, among them Grato, Jardin, The Regional Kitchen & Public House, Cholo Soy Cocina – all in West Palm Beach – and Fries to Caviar in Boca Raton. We welcomed two New York-style delis in Boca Raton (Junior’s and Rappy’s). We said hello to healthy fast food, as fit-minded Bolay opened in Royal Palm Beach and expanded into Palm Beach Gardens and Boca Raton and Meraki Kitchen, sibling to the Gardens’ popular plant-based Christopher’s Kitchen, opened in downtown West Palm Beach.
We said goodbye to some old favorites and traditions. Ralph’s Place diner closed after 26 years of service, first in West Palm Beach, then in Palm Beach Gardens. Tryst, the terrific gastro pub, closed in Delray Beach. Farmer Girl in Lake Worth served its last free Thanksgiving to the homeless, after doing so for three decades.
But mostly we said hello to many memorable meals. There’s a lot of sparkle beneath the Palm Beach County skies.
Here are my picks for this year’s best and brightest. The selections are based on my 2016 dining experiences – and there were so many good ones.
The Regional Kitchen & Public House
There’s so much to praise about this place: the chef and her team, the big-city vibe, the spot-on hospitality, the décor. When local star chef Lindsay Autry teamed up with Thierry Beaud’s TITOU Hospitality group, magic happened. It’s an inspiring thing to watch Autry, a chef who has traveled many culinary miles despite her youth, in the restaurant where she is also a partner. Her menu is pure memoir, the story of a chef and woman coming into her own. She has gathered the most soulful flavors from her cooking life – her North Carolina childhood, her time in Yucatan working for Michelle Bernstein, her years in Miami – and she presents them impeccably at The Regional. This is the most exciting restaurant opening since Buccan changed the game in Palm Beach in 2011. And the gravy on this realization? The restaurant’s star chef and her pastry chef (Sarah Sipe) are women on the rise.
The Regional: 651 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach; 561-557-6460.
James Strine, Buccan family of restaurants
If ever there was a local chef whose culinary identity spanned from French-driven temples of fine dining to parking-lot pig smokers, it is James “Jimmy” Strine. It was welcome news when the former Café Boulud executive sous chef was named executive chef at Grato, star chef Clay Conley’s Dixie Highway trattoria, in August. Strine, a master of meats (from curing to smoking to confiting), brought his smoker to Grato. He also reinforced Conley’s commitment to fresh, regional ingredients in dishes like Grato’s outstanding orecchiette pasta with local blue crab, sweet corn and pecorino. It’s no surprise Strine was just promoted at Grato’s parent group, the Buccan family of restaurants. He will be in charge of menu development for Conley’s Grato, Buccan Palm Beach and Imoto. His scope of knowledge and technique is impressive.
BEST RISING STAR CHEF
Clayton Carnes, Cholo Soy Cocina
Here’s a chef who traded in a spacious, beef-centric restaurant in the ‘burbs of Wellington for a tiny taqueria on West Palm Beach’s emerging Dixie Dining Corridor. But quality-wise, little has changed. Clay Carnes uses quality ingredients and treats them with respect, big kitchen or little kitchen. His steak tacos will bring carnivores back again and again. Carnes’ cooking techniques have brought him acclaim. Earlier this year, he won the Chef vs. Chef eight-week summertime challenge at Max’s Harvest. And he just won the Grand Chef Throwdown challenge at the Palm Beach Food & Wine Festival. He even won an episode of Food Network’s “Cutthroat Kitchen.” But the true winners are those who pack into his Cholo Soy Cocina and watch the chef work his magic.
Cholo Soy: 3715 S. Dixie Hway., West Palm Beach; 561-619-7018.
Whether you’ve come for lunch, dinner, drinks or brunch, you are welcomed here with the same polished hospitality each time. The good service at Pistache goes beyond the welcome – it extends into each server’s command of the menu and the way they anticipate what your party may need. It is service that complements the food – and the food is exquisite.
Pistache: 101 North Clematis St., West Palm Beach; 561-833-5090.
BEST COMEBACK CHEF
Mark Militello, Josie’s Ristorante
This is a chef who needs no comeback. His pivotal role in South Florida culinary history is etched on a James Beard Award. But luckily for Palm Beach County diners, one of South Florida’s original Mango Gang stars is hard at work at Josie’s Ristorante in Boynton Beach. The dishes here are simple and honest – and, like the master in the kitchen, sensational.
Josie's Ristorante: 1602 S. Federal Hway, Boynton Beach; 561-364-9601.
BEST INDIE RESTAURANT
Restaurant owner Julien Gremaud wears many hats at his small, much celebrated restaurant in downtown West Palm Beach. He’s the executive chef, the pastry chef, the mastermind of party brunches, the fine-tuner of ambiance. And while setting and such may be important to those seeking a lively, urban dining experience, it’s the food that brings me back to this spot for lunch, dinner and weekend brunch. Gremaud isn’t capable of delivering a careless dish. His dishes are full of flavor, yet never overly rich. From his raw bites to his brunch benedicts to his larger dinner plates, the food is spectacular. This is where I had my favorite dessert of the year: Gremaud’s dulce de leche lava cake. It’s the bite that proves this health-minded place can be sinful as well. Avocado Grill is a gem.
Avocado Grill: 125 Datura St., West Palm Beach; 561-623-0822.
BEST RESORT RESTAURANT
Latitudes at the Delray Sands
The oceanfront location alone is reason to come to this seafood restaurant in Highland Beach, tucked between two of the most bustling dining districts in South Florida (east Boca and Delray’s Atlantic Ave). But the biggest reason is the executive chef, James King. Latitudes serves some of the best coastal cuisine in the county, thanks to King’s refined touch and soulful flavors.
Latitudes: 2809 S. Ocean Blvd., Highland Beach; 561-278-2008.
Dixie Grill & Bar
This is a true beer lover’s bar, a place where one shouldn’t get too attached to any one beer because brews are always on rotation. You must simply trust that there always will be a great brew at the Dixie Grill & Bar. So they don’t have that Sweet Baby Jesus porter by DuClaw Brewing? Have the barrel-aged Backwoods Bastard instead. Or have any of the nearly 30 craft beers on tap – or a flight of beer samples. And because you have to eat, try the warm cheese dip with pretzel bread. Yeah, there’s beer in the cheese, too.
Dixie Bar & Grill: 5101 S. Dixie Hway, West Palm Beach; 561-586-3189.
Breeze Kitchen at the Eau Resort
You are closer to the ocean waves here than you are to the island traffic out front. And it’s a glorious view beneath Breeze’s bright yellow-striped umbrellas: the sea, the beautiful sea. Grab a cocktail and maybe a light bite and the plan to linger in paradise.
Breeze at Eau Resort: 100 S. Ocean Blvd., Manalapan; 561-533-6000.
BEST MEAL OF THE YEAR
The First Bite during the Palm Beach Food & Wine Festival
The festival’s opening night dinner at Buccan Palm Beach is always a hot ticket and one of the first events to sell out. This year, the chef lineup and menu seemed particularly inspired. Kicked off by a trio of raw bites – Miami chef Timon Balloo’s kombu-marinated cobia, Charleston chef Mike Lata’s carne cruda and Palm Beach chef Clay Conley’s main lobster ceviche) – the four-course meal went on to delight with two of the best pasta dishes I’ve ever sampled. Conley’s agnolotti filled with caramelized cauliflower and tossed with scallops, brown butter and Perigord truffle was simply divine. A Filipino adobo goat by Balloo followed as well as a spiced beef strip loin by Conley. The sweet finale: apple-pear crostata by rising star pastry chef Sarah Sipe. So much to love about this meal, so much to remember.
The best neighborhood trattoria around serves a delicious, chill Sunday brunch. I love the ultra-thin crepes known as “crespelle,” layered with fontina cheese, ham and béchamel sauce, then topped with a poached egg and charred scallion vinaigrette. You won’t find “bottomless” anything here, but you will find a small selection of brunch cocktails and a leisurely vibe in which to enjoy them.
Grato: 1901 S. Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach; 561-404-1334.
BEST VALUE SPOT
Three words about this restaurant’s value power: the lunch buffet. Think of it as a Latin-style “meat and three” instead of an all-you-can-eat situation. On any given day, you might find freshly roasted pork, ropa vieja (shredded flank steak in creole sauce) and stewed chicken, plus your choice of beans, rice and plantains, all starting at $4.99. You can’t beat that with a yuca fry. Plus, you get to enjoy your lunch in a cozy dining room that’s often filled with Dominican bachata rhythms.
El Unico: 6108 S. Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach; 561-619-2962.
BEST WINE PROGRAM
Marcello’s La Sirena
Thanks to Marcello Fiorentino’s love of wine, his La Sirena restaurant is now considered a global wine destination. For the second consecutive year, the county’s premier Italian restaurant snagged a rare Grand Award from Wine Spectator magazine. This year, the 31-year-old restaurant added 250 more selections to its extensive (1300-plus) wine menu. As a special treat to local wine enthusiasts, Fiorentino hosts wine dinners during season, featuring important Italian winemakers.
La Sirena: 6316 S. Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach; 561-585-3128.
BEST GLOBAL RESTAURANT
Kersmon Caribbean Restaurant
Diners from all over the world descend on this tiny Jamaican restaurant, thanks to the power of Yelp.com. This colorful spot is where owner/chef Althea Drummond creates her soul-warming specialties: brown stew chicken, curried goat, braised oxtail, and other classics. A genial host, Drummond presents her dishes with a smile and a story. It’s easy to understand why she has stacks of guest books filled with handwritten notes from satisfied customers from near and far. She does more than serve the foods of her homeland – she represents the essence of good hospitality.
Kersmon: 4622 Jog Rd., Greenacres; 561-968-5656.
BEST SEASONAL SPECIAL
Mussels and frites at Chez l’Epicier
Always a good sign when a Palm Beach restaurant is bustling in the dead of summer – and a weeknight, to boot. But that’s how it is on summer Thursdays at Chez l’Epicier, the island outpost of Chef Laurent Godbout’s Montreal restaurant. That’s mussels and frites night – unlimited Prince Edward Island mussels and the best skinny fries in town for $22. The plump mussels are offered in a choice of four sauces. What makes this special even more special is the restaurant’s warm hospitality. Even more special? When you stray from the mussels and into Chef’s regular menu of imaginative dishes. Mussels night is only the gateway to one of the best restaurants on the island.
Chez l’Epicier: 288 S. County Road, Palm Beach; 561- 508-7030.
COMING UP: LIZ’S TOP 20 RESTAURANTS OF 2016!!! Stay tuned!