Mirrors hang on the back walls of Sant Ambroeus, but probably not for the reason they would in most restaurants. It’s not to make the beautifully apportioned space seem bigger. Instead, they’re likely there so guests can better take themselves in.
At lunch on a Wednesday, the regulars breeze through the Palm Beach restaurant with airs of ownership. A large group lords over the round table in the centre of the room, men with hundred-dollar haircuts in polo shirts with a carefree extra button open, women in sleeveless, flowy maxi dresses. A man in boat shoes with aviators perched in a mess of curly locks leads a much younger friend in a runway-ready dress that appears made of ribbons to the booth in the corner. A couple who paid a lot of money to remain in their 40s (or maybe 60s?) cuddle up below the mirrors and survey the room.
This is a crowd that knows the reason to come to Sant Ambroeus. Yes, the Italian dishes are good – the simple continental-style grilled seafood of a nice hotel restaurant. But the real draw is the mealtime entertainment. People-watching in Palm Beach is like attending a Stanley Cup playoff game; what you see is the best the sport has to offer.
For many years, dining out in Palm Beach was just that, a practice in pretending to be part of the upper crust, or, for the lucky few, a chance to be with fellow one-percenters in a place where they can shed modesty. These days, though, the island of Palm Beach and the surrounding county of the same name are experiencing a dining revolution. Noteworthy restaurants have opened in succession since the lull of the pandemic, brought in by big-name chefs and well-known restaurant groups that are finally latching on to this moneyed corner of Florida’s east coast.
It’s not that the wealthy are new here. The gentry have wintered in Palm Beach since Henry Flagler brought his railroad to town in 1894 and later constructed Whitehall, a 100,000-square-foot gleaming gilded age palace along the water. Eight-figure mansions now dot the island like they were spread by seed, headlined it seems nowadays by a former president whose club serves as a symbol of the fortunate-class establishment here.
After Flagler arrived, dining in Palm Beach, a town with now at least 35 billionaires, meant largely stuffy restaurants with a reputation of catering to prep-school buddies and ladies who lunch between serving as matrons on charity boards. Daniel Boulud recalls coming to scout the area before he opened Cafe Boulud here in the Brazilian Court Hotel in 2003. “The dining scene was very limited. It was not a destination for sure,” he said by phone from New York. “To me it was a little bit like going back to the ‘60s or ‘70s. The restaurants were really predictable and conventional. Very classic. But nonetheless, very fun and a very loyal clientele.”
That loyal customer base included many diners from Daniel, his much-awarded French restaurant on the Upper East Side of New York, and he knew these well-travelled customers understood fine-dining. “When we came, the goal was to make a restaurant that was not just for the socialite but also served good food.”
The Palm Beach dining scene finally began to change during the darkest points of the COVID-19 pandemic. While much of North America remained shuttered, Florida largely reopened by the summer of 2020. Soon, it became common to hear Quebec, New York and Philadelphia accents at La Sirena, a West Palm restaurant that’s served the socialite community for a third of a century.
In response, restaurants began opening across the are, from Palm Beach Gardens to Boca Raton, especially from popular fine-dining chains and chefs. Hillstone Restaurant Group brought Honor Bar from Beverly Hills. Miami celebrity chef Jeremy Ford headed north to helm the Butcher’s Club at the PGA National Resort in Palm Beach Gardens. New York’s Major Food Group opened the Flamingo Grill in Boca Raton, sporting from-another-time wallpaper of those pink birds and a menu of shrimp cocktails and porterhouse steaks to evoke “South Florida’s golden age.”
Suddenly, visitors were coming to town to eat at the restaurants – not just ogle at the aristocrats, says David Sabin, founder of Palm Beach Food & Wine Festival and president of Brickhouse Public Relations. “You’re seeing this incredible movement. You’re seeing more options than you ever had. If you haven’t been here in a while, you could probably make a list of 10 new restaurants that just came in since your last visit a few months ago.”
These restaurants are ushering in a new level of creativity, Sabin says. The other day, he had lunch at Stage, a wildly creative Palm Beach Gardens spot from talented chef Pushkar Marathe. He ordered a salad (little gem greens, grilled corn, tomatoes, avocado, crispy shallots and a sherry-shallot vinaigrette) that was so good he had to call his wife on the way home. (His wife, by the way, is Lindsay Autry, the much-lauded chef of the Regional in West Palm Beach, so she appreciates those kinds of calls.) “And I was telling my wife, ‘Oh my God. It’s incredible.’ When a restaurant can get you excited about a salad, that really is incredible.”
A former Miami chef, Marathe opened Stage in 2020 and followed it with a second location, Ela Curry Kitchen, in 2022, combining the flavours of his native India with the foods he’s discovered cooking at restaurants around the world. Another local chef who broke out on his own during the pandemic is Rick Mace. He grew up on a farm in Ohio and, getting a major break in his restaurant career, moved to Palm Beach in 2013 to become the executive chef at Cafe Boulud.
Florida’s quick exit from the lockdown elevated the spots that survived and provided an entry for chefs like Mace to open their own eateries. Bookings at many locations now exceed what restaurants were doing in 2019, Mace says.
After leaving Cafe Boulud, Mace, in January, 2021, opened Tropical Smokehouse, an untraditional Florida barbecue restaurant with brisket empanadas, a mojo pulled pork sandwich and Cajun gator sausage. While a lot of the old-school restaurants that were open in 2013 remain, Mace says now it’s far more interesting to eat in Palm Beach. “It’s become a more rich landscape of restaurants,” he said. “Now you’re seeing a boom cycle where everybody wants to come to Palm Beach.”
Ten Restaurants to try in Palm Beach
Founder of Palm Beach Food & Wine Festival, David Sabin knows local restaurants. He’s also married into the industry, with wife Lindsay Autry the chef at the Regional. He offered up 10 places to hit during a trip there.
- Honeybelle, Palm Beach Gardens (opened in 2022)
- Lewis Steakhouse, Jupiter (opened in 2022)
- Coolinary, Palm Beach Gardens (expanded in 2021)
- Stage Kitchen & Bar, Palm Beach Gardens (opened in 2020)
- The SoSo, West Palm Beach (opened in 2022)
- Cactus Grille & Tequila Bar, Palm Beach Gardens (opened in 2022)
- Ela Curry Kitchen, Palm Beach Gardens (opened in 2022)
- Tropical Smokehouse, West Palm Beach (opened in 2021)
- Polpo, Palm Beach (opened in 2022)
- Mockingbird at the Regional (opened in 2022)
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