Palm Beach was created by men at the turn of the last century who had the foresight to buy up a tiny island of swampland. They had princely tastes and built majestic vacation homes. It was a hedonistic time of extravagance and partying—until the ’30s, when the whole world tanked.
At my birthday lunch at Café Boulud, one of the prettiest restaurants in town, a friend brings me a luscious birthday cupcake—from Publix. “You see everyone at Publix these days,” she says. This gorgeous supermarket, with its Rolls Royce-filled parking lot, has been designed with a Palm Beach clientele in mind.
A fractured economic climate notwithstanding; the gravitational force that still propels Palm Beach is the Social Calendar. While the world’s economies wax and wane, tradition still rules. Private and exclusive clubs, such as the Everglades Club, The Palm Beach Sailing Club and the Palm Beach Golf and Country Club, still thrive, uncompromised. There are 29 billionaires on this four-square-mile island (pop. 10,000), making this oldest American resort town the wealthiest zip code in the United States.
Reading through the Calendar, it becomes clear that Palm Beachers have a generous heart and raise many millions of charity dollars annually. The Red Cross Ball, American Heart Association Ball, Humane Society, the list goes on and on.
Still, things have changed in the past few years. Fortunes evaporated and people downsized. Slightly. At the popular American International Art Fair, the old price points ranged from $100,000 to $10 million. Today the range is $10,000 to $2 million.
For the visitor, Palm Beach is a vacation dream come true. One can enjoy miles of ocean and pristine beach along Ocean Drive; drive along South Ocean Boulevard and be awed by the palatial homes, some built at the turn of the last century; bike on a flat trail along the Intercoastal Waterway; window shop on Worth Avenue. At every turn there is casual or formal dining, art galleries and culture. Wherever the eye falls, there is carefully maintained, calm beauty.
Lunch at Ta-boo. Opened in 1941 a week after Pearl Harbour, Ta-boo is where a canny bartender created the Bloody Mary to revive socialite Barbara Hutton after her wild parties at her father’s estate. Ta-boo still rocks today and is an establishment mecca. Minor updates keep the contemporary ambience and one of the affable owners, Franklyn Demarco, is always on hand to charm the clientele. The-Ladies-Who-Lunch crowd lunches here, devouring gossip—along with lobster salad. They choose from an eclectic menu of low-calorie dishes and virtuously share one dessert that’s set in the centre of the table.
Dinner at Café Boulud. The well-balanced menu offers everyone something that they just can’t wait to try. At a white clothed table on the terrace, with tiny lights winking through the palm trees and foli.age, or inside the pleasant dining room, there is an atmosphere of casual luxury. The three-course, $45 fixed-price menu has brought wallet-watching Palm Beachers out in droves. Not one to cut corners, at dinners’ end, Café Boulud still serves warm, fresh Madeleines wrapped in a crisp napkin.
Try something new. High-end bistro fare at Buccan, the hot new kid on the block has let the genie out of the bottle, by serving ever changing, small, shareable plates, reasonably priced, in a high-energy ambience. The room is awash in amber and orange lighting, and the noise level is more South Beach than Palm Beach, but there is not a slow night. Huge burgers, fine fish and seafood and desserts with a lot of wow appeal are served on burnished copper tables, by waiters who seem to love their jobs.
Go for a drive. On the other side of town, Angle at the Ritz-Carlton turns the tables on tradition and amazes us with witty and delectable style. It is the chef ’s artistic and creative talent that sends out caviar tacos nestled in a floral laced square of grass. If you love surprises and really well balanced dishes with superb flavour, drive out to Angle.
Brunch at The Breakers. Steak is still the star of America’s food chain, and is given the royal treatment at the casual 2nd floor Flagler Steakhouse at The Breakers. There are no surprises, and what we want is what we get: The finest USDA prime-grade porterhouse steak and roast potatoes. Sunday Brunch at the magnificent The Circle, crowned by an elegant hand-painted ceiling, offers a buffet dining experience of extreme generosity and delectability. This is the food that made America great.
The Palm Beach Polo and Country Club is well entrenched in the Palm Beach landscape. The season runs from January 8 to April 22 and it is as exciting a game as hockey is to Canadians. Sunday Brunches and Polo give the girls an op.portunity to dress to the nines with their beau.tiful wide brimmed hats and afternoon dresses. The buffet is superb, and the champagne flows like, well, champagne. This is a must-do Palm Beach afternoon.
The Flagler Museum is housed in the 55-room Beaux Arts estate known as Whitehall, built by Henry Flagler, a founder of Standard Oil. 1 Whitehall Way
Norton Museum of Art and Cafe 1451 South Olive Ave. W.
The Worth Avenue Historic Walking Tour is not to be missed. It begins at 11:00 a.m. on Via Amore (formerly the Gucci Courtyard) on specific days. You will be fortunate indeed if this tour happens during your stay in Palm Beach. Hosted by Rick Rose, a second genera.tion South Floridian. www.worth-avenue.com
The windows of the shops on Worth Avenue have displays that wink and gleam and seduce. “Trade in your Diamond Studs for a Larger Pair,” says a sign on one jewellery boutique’s window. The big surprise here is the friendliness and desire to please of the sales staff in these high-end stores. Spanish influenced little “Vias” that meander off of Worth Avenue are where you will find the most interesting boutiques and artisan studios. But the real bargains are to be found elsewhere, and you might be surprised who is shopping next to you.
The Breakers, 1 South Country Rd. This vast property is right on the beach and has swimming pools, golf and tennis, restaurants, boutiques with exquisite merchandise and a spa. No need to leave this resort at all—it is a self-contained paradise.
Brazilian Court Hotel, 301 Australian Ave. We come upon this unique low-rise hotel on a quiet street in a lush neighbourhood. A series of hotel rooms and residence units surrounded by beautifully landscaped courtyards, it is an.chored by Café Boulud and a most popular lounge and bar. It has the feel not of a hotel, but of a discreet private club complete with friendly personal service.
Rick Rose has co-owned and managed Grand.view Gardens Bed and Breakfast and Vacation Homes since 2004, which is located in the Grandview Heights Historic District of West Palm Beach. If you plan to visit Palm Beach, investigate this first.
Sara Waxman, OOnt, is an award-winning restaurant critic, best-selling cookbook author, food and travel journalist and has eaten her way through much of the free world for four decades, while writing about it in books, newspapers and magazines. She is the Editor in Chief of DINE and Destinations magazine.