- Liz Balmaseda Palm Beach Post Food Editor
If one could bottle the feeling inside Grato, the buzzy, months-old trattoria on Dixie Highway in the Flamingo Park neighborhood, one might capture the phenomenon that’s overtaking West Palm Beach’s downtown-area dining district.
In a space of exposed-beam ceilings and rustic concrete floors, the place hums like a dinner party you’d like to crash, one so infectious it’s bound to spread from block to block.
One might credit the success of this neighborhood trattoria to its nationally acclaimed chef and co-owner, Clay Conley, to the business savvy of his partners, to its wildly popular big sister, Buccan bistro in Palm Beach – or to all the above. What is undeniable is that the arrival of Grato has put an exclamation point on a once scattered dining scene as it rises to regional relevance.
It’s a dining scene that’s morphing into a dining destination.
That dinner party happening at Grato? It’s happening across the street at four-year-old Table 26, the stylish, nautical-themed spot that draws in a steady Palm Beach crowd.
It’s happening a few blocks south at the 2 1/2-year-old Kitchen, haunt of visiting celebs and movers and shakers.
It’s sweeping downtown West Palm Beach, from Clematis Street to the Okeechobee Boulevard corridor, where new eateries like Jardin, Banko Cantina, and Dorrian’s have opened and others like The Regional Kitchen & Public House and The Butcher Shop are upcoming. It’s moving southbound from Dixie Highway, where Grato has made a splash, to the edge of Antique Row, where the Cholo Soy taco shop prepares for its opening.
This rising dining scene is a phenomenon that’s notably different from late-late-night Clematis Street and its Fireball-shot party crowds.
A sizeable batch of quality-driven, mostly independent restaurants are redefining the landscape. And it’s all music to the ears of Raphael Clemente, executive director of West Palm Beach’s Downtown Development Authority (DDA).
He notes there’s a cluster effect taking hold around downtown, with new restaurants opening within proximity of other successful restaurants. So far this year, 16 new businesses have opened in downtown West Palm Beach, many of them restaurants. More eateries are on deck. In a quickly shifting landscape of eateries come and gone, a new sense of place is taking root.
“It’s just like when retailers cluster in a certain area. Restaurants do the same. When they’re clustered, you get a destination effect,” says Clemente, a downtown dweller who describes himself as “an urban planning nerd kind of guy.”
He not only pays close attention to the restaurant scene “and those who make downtown really sparkle,” he has recent data to prove that sparkle.
A new downtown area perception survey, commissioned by the DDA, confirms this. One of the main reasons people spent time downtown during 2015 was dining, according to the newly released survey by Radius Global Market Research.
“Dining has rebounded significantly,” says Clemente.
According to the 2015 survey – the most recent – 55 percent of those interviewed cited dining as a major reason for spending time downtown, he notes. About one in five of those interviewed cited the dining scene as their main reason for coming downtown, he notes. (At a low point, only 6 percent of those interviewed cited dining as their main reason.)
When asked what they’d like to see expand in the area, 23 percent of those interviewed said casual dining, says Clemente.
“They want even more dining,” he says, noting that the majority of those interviewed are female property owners who spend about $70 per three-hour visit.
One more thing that might be culled from this study: The crowd is skewing a bit older these days (average age 46), a detail that might indicate a preference for dining experience as opposed to party experience.
Perhaps the poster couple for this quality-driven dining experience is the young husband-wife team behind Kitchen on Dixie Highway.
Their shared dream was as simple as a bowl of grits. (Well, maybe a bowl of grits glammed up just a little with fancy cheese.) Matthew and Aliza Byrne wanted to open a small restaurant within walking distance of their West Palm Beach home.
Matthew Byrne, a detail-oriented cook, sought a tiny eatery where he could quality-control every dish. Aliza, a vivacious former publicist, wanted a dinner-party feel and a place that felt like an extension of their dining room.
That was many a mover-shaker, VIP guest ago. Today, it’s not easy to nab a weekend table at Kitchen, where chef Byrne serves a menu of updated American classics. And that’s without a bar or sports-streaming TVs.
“The people that come to Kitchen are really foodies that dine in a different way. They come to enjoy a nice bottle of wine. They come for three courses” says Byrne, who worked as golf star Tiger Woods’ personal chef for seven years before opening Kitchen.
A competitive sort might believe a popular chef like Byrne would have been concerned when Grato and its star chef opened for business in the neighborhood. But Byrne says the opposite is true.
“People were asking me, ‘Aren’t you nervous that Grato is opening?’ Not at all. The more, the merrier. I think the more good neighbors we have, the better. There are still so many more restaurants needed, in my opinion,” says Byrne, who serves as consulting chef for the stylish, new West Palm Beach Hilton by the Palm Beach Convention Center on Okeechobee Boulevard.
In enlisting Byrne, the hotel has tried to rev up its foodie game. The hotel’s dining operations even includes a custom-built, mega-grill dubbed “Christine,” equipped with a hot plancha and a rotisserie for up to a dozen chickens. The grill is now a central feature in the hotel’s Thursday night cookouts at its Galley lounge and other alfresco events.
In the five months since the hotel’s grand opening, Byrne has learned just how complex the dining scene can be. What works well at his small restaurant may not work at all at the hotel eateries.
“At the hotel, we’re finding that people are gravitating more to the bar and fire pit outside, so we’re focusing our energy on that,” he says.
Dining options will increase with the upcoming opening of The Regional, across the street in the 10,000-square-foot space most recently occupied by Pampas Grille. The restaurant will come to life, thanks to a partnership between restaurateur Thierry Beaud and acclaimed chef Lindsay Autry, who will serve as the restaurant’s executive chef as well as its director of operations. Autry believes it’s the right time, place and team for this project, which is slated to open this summer.
“The area is coming together,” she says, describing The Regional’s concept as reflective of its name – regionally inspired cuisine. “There will be a chef-driven part of it, but it’s just really good food, ingredients with integrity.”
The menu, she says, blends “a little of the Southern and Mediterranean influences that I’ve fostered over the past few years.”
In the best case scenario, the name will mirror more than the eatery’s food – it will mirror the local dining scene itself.
If Beaud’s eight successful years at his flagship downtown restaurant, Pistache, are any indication, The Regional could be a game-changer for the fickle Okeechobee Boulevard corridor.
Just to the northeast, on Datura Street, Avocado Grill knows something about turning around a challenging space. The casual bistro has been bringing in a mix of multi-course diners and tapas nibblers with notable success. The restaurant is packing in crowds in a space where various other restaurants failed.
Owner and chef Julien Gremaud has watched the shifts and turns of downtown’s dining scene for the better part of eight years, first as chef at Pistache and now at his Avocado Grill. The scene is changing because it’s attracting top talent, he says.
“I think it’s really about picking up the level. There’s now competition that makes the levels rise as the chefs try to do a better job,” says Gremaud, who seeks to appeal to “all ages of foodies.”
He remembers a time when the area’s dining options woefully wilted. Today, he say, the area is coming up, thanks to that competition.
He echoes Matthew Byrne’s belief of “the more, the merrier” in terms of good restaurant openings.
“Think of Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach,” says Gremaud. “I’m always amazed by it – so many restaurants, and it’s always busy.”
It’s the cluster effect Clemente mentioned.
That’s what enticed Wellington chef Clay Carnes to scope out the area for available restaurant space. Dixie Highway is hot and he wanted to be part of it, says Carnes, who plans to open Cholo Soy Cocina in a former Antique Row design shop this summer.
“I could be anywhere right now, but when I was looking at it, I thought a couple of things: Where is my following? Where are my purveyors?” says the chef, who appeared on Food Network’s “Cutthroat Kitchen Time Warp Tournament” this week.
He says he also pondered the question of the moment:
“Where can I be on the forefront with those other chefs? Where can I be on the forefront of this West Palm Beach movement?”