When it comes to restaurants, we all crave the best. The 10 restaurants listed here all convey an experience that is the paragon of good taste in Palm Beach—and makes us want to return again and again.
1 • Buccan | Palm Beach
Squid ink orecchiette - Buccan, Palm Beach. Photo by Andy Ryan
Several years after opening, Buccan remains one of the most intriguing and unusual restaurants around. The credit goes to Clay Conley, a chef with culinary interests as far-flung as South America, the Caribbean and Asia.
Conley’s constantly changing menu places emphasis on what he describes as “small plates with big flavors.” Dishes are divided into categories such as Raw, Green, Crispy, Wood-Fired, and Flour and Water. The kitchen is open, and the light, airy space is
filled with copper-topped tables packed close together, creating an atmosphere of boisterousness and shared conversation. You enter Buccan through the bar and may be tempted to stay there for the exceptional happy hour Monday through Friday. No
matter where you sit, you feel a palpable buzz to accompany the creative food.
2 • Cây Ða | Boca Raton
Ask local chefs where they eat on their night off, and you’ll likely hear two words: Cây Ða. Tucked away in a strip mall, this small, family-operated Vietnamese eatery has been Boca’s best-kept secret since 2002. While the decor is unimpressive (it resembles a school cafeteria dressed up for dance night), the food is distinctive and flavorful.
Begin with the cold special shrimp rolls, rice paper packed with lime-marinated shrimp, cilantro, onions and crushed peanuts (the favorite dish of Buccan’s Conley). The crispy eggplant may be off the menu, but the chefs will likely make it for you if you ask; it’s flash-fried, feather-light and juicy, topped with rice noodles. Among the entrees, the fluffy steamed flounder is flavored with fish sauce and garlic and garnished with broccoli, snow peas and carrots. Crispy noodles are pan-fried and served with an assortment of vegetables and your choice of shrimp, calamari or chicken.
The husband-and-wife team running this place couldn’t be nicer, and the cuisine is healthy and delicious.
3 • 50 Ocean | Delray Beach
|Coconut shrimp - 50 Ocean, Delray Beach|
Recommend 50 Ocean to someone, and you’ll inevitably find yourself saying, “Yes, but … ” Yes, the restaurant is perched on top of Boston’s On The Beach, the quintessential waterfront joint in Delray, but this is no dive bar. It’s an elegant retreat with a ceiling of pecky cypress, a backlit bar inlaid with quartz and agate, and some remarkably good food.
Don’t miss the crispy whole belly clams—tender and briny, lightly breaded and fluffy. The kitchen is adept at breathing new life into culinary clichés, such as fresh and juicy coconut shrimp and a flavorful, perfectly cooked surf and turf. Service is friendly and enthusiastic, chatty without being intrusive. The lounge area is dimly lit and sexy, festooned with photographs of Hemingway that recall Key West’s glory days. Ask for a table near the window, and enjoy the stunning waterfront views that remind us why we’re here.
4 • Coolinary Café | Palm Beach Gardens
|Rabbit Tacos - Coolinary Café, Palm Beach Gardens. Photo by Jessica Lorren|
There’s something contagious at the Coolinary Café: Everyone is having fun. The customers are enjoying themselves, as they’re supposed to, but the servers and kitchen crew also are having a blast. The source of most of the enjoyment is Tim Lipman, the owner and chef who runs the open kitchen in the small dining room.
Lipman is a former head chef at Leftovers Café, part of the Little Moirs Food Shack empire. His offerings include dishes such as a pan-roasted wild mushroom salad, crispy fried Florida rock shrimp, flatbread topped with pieces of spicy soppressata and a braised, meltingly tender Berkshire pork shoulder. To wash it all down, there’s a respectable selection of craft beers and a short but well-chosen wine list.
Coolinary Café is an example of how well a concept can be executed when approached in the right spirit, without attitude and with a desire to please. No reservations are taken and the place fills up quickly, but it’s worth the wait.
5 • Kapow! Noodle Bar | Boca Raton
|Steamed shrimp dumplings - Kapow! Noodle Bar, Boca Raton. Photo by Kelly Coulson.|
Asian fusion restaurants have been sweeping across America in recent years, but they’re still in short supply in South Florida. Kapow! is changing that, in large part because of the innovative menu devised by Roy Villacrusis, the consulting chef who helped launch the restaurant several years ago.
Among the delightful selection of small plates, don’t miss the wok-charred edamame, stuffed shishito peppers, orange soy glazed ribs, and the beet and peach tea cured salmon. There’s also a varied selection of noodles as well as a section of steamed buns and larger entrees, such as red curry shrimp or Creekstone Farms skirt steak.
The cocktail list is just as textured as the menu: a range of reasonably priced, handcrafted cocktails using seasonal herbs, natural sodas and fresh juices. You can stop into Kapow! for a drink, a snack or a full meal. Whenever you come, it’s bound to be fun.
6 • PB Catch | Palm Beach
|White tuna tartare - PB Catch, Palm Beach. Photo by Montana Pritchard Photography.|
In an area where humidity clogs our sinuses and salt air eats up our cars, it’s surprising we had to wait so long for a first-rate seafood house. Thierry Beaud, Reid Boren and Julien Gremaud, partners in West Palm’s Pistache brasserie, finally came to our rescue.
PB Catch is elegant and understated, with a formal dining room flanked by an elaborate raw bar. The restaurant prides itself on promoting local fishing and sustainable seafood programs, but there are options for die-hard meat lovers. The wine list includes about 150 carefully curated choices, heavy on the classics of Bordeaux and Burgundy but with a good representation from California as well. Unless you go deep-sea fishing or know someone who does, an evening here is your best bet.
7 • Citrus Grillhouse | Vero Beach
|Heirloom tomato gazpacho and Seared tuna au poivre - Citrus Grillhouse, Vero Beach.|
Chef Scott Varricchio has a hefty resume: a pastry apprenticeship at Manhattan’s legendary La Côte Basque, followed by stints at Picasso in Las Vegas and New York’s Ouest and ‘Cesca. His restaurant is perched on the edge of the ocean in Vero, and the subtle harmony of the food matches the splendid water views.
Varricchio’s flavors are simple and vibrant, and his ever-changing menu is augmented by a list of daily specials. The pasta section is more than a nod to his Italian heritage. Pappardelle with rock shrimp are napped in a slightly spicy sauce infused with the tang of a seafood reduction, and al dente linguine is offset with baby spinach, scampi butter and tasty heirloom tomatoes. Veal flank steak is a thing of beauty—tender and flavorful, marked by the grill and garnished with sautéed cannellini beans. Add a short but well-focused wine list and a bartender who enjoys his work, and you have a winning combination.
8 • Max's Harvest | Delray Beach
|Wahoo crudo - Max's Harvest, Delray Beach. Photo by Michele Sandberg.|
Everyone suddenly seems to be offering a farm-to-fork experience, but few places are doing it better than Max’s Harvest. Dennis Max, the restaurateur who introduced South Florida to California cuisine in the 1980s, is still ahead of everyone else.
The ingredients here are carefully sourced and screamingly fresh, and they convey an intensity of flavor that makes one stop and pause, while the menu changes weekly depending on the whims of the market. Decor is sleek and modern; the snug room holds perhaps 40 diners, with room for another 20 on the terrace and an intimate private room in the rear. The space can be noisy when full but fits in perfectly with the trendy Pineapple Grove section of Delray Beach.
9 • Vagabondi | West Palm Beach
|Fisherman’s seafood stew - Vagabondi, West Palm Beach.|
This tiny, 34-seat restaurant is the creation of Chef Carlo Sernaglia and dining room manager Fernando Diaz. Tastefully decorated, with a vibe that blends the Mediterranean and the romantic, it could easily be located in San Francisco or lower Manhattan rather than South Florida.
Sernaglia works in a space smaller than most home kitchens, with no freezer or walk-in cooler. The state of the market reflects his deliveries, which in turn dictate his daily menu. A dish such as plump, feather-light ravioli stuffed with goat ricotta and spinach is the pasta of your dreams. If the fisherman’s seafood stew is offered on the night of your visit, don’t pass it up; pieces of fresh fish are combined with shrimp, clams, mussels and calamari in an intense and zesty tomato broth based on a savory, reduced seafood stock.
Reservations are taken at two-hour intervals, and you’ll be lucky to get one.
10 • HMF at The Breakers | Palm Beach
Gianduja chocolate torte - HMF at The Breakers, Palm Beach. Photo by LILA PHOTO.
HMF stands for Henry Morrison Flagler, the man who built The Breakers and opened up South Florida for tourism. The dining establishment occupies the space that formerly housed L’Escalier and the Tapestry Bar and was the most anticipated opening of 2012. HMF exceeds even those high expectations.
The space is sleek and glamorous, keeping with its mission to revive the glory days of the Palm Beach cocktail culture. The menu consists of five-dozen inventive small plates that change frequently. The culinary wingspan ranges from Asia to South America to the Deep South, but each dish is executed faithfully and with passion.
The cocktails alone are worth a visit. Creative concoctions include Chanel #6, a favorite with the ladies, and The Redhead, a sort of nouveau cosmo.
Best of all, HMF puts the customer in control of the experience. You may pop in for an espresso or spend several hours dining, but either way you’ll have an unforgettable evening.