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To get to Hoboken Grill, you must pass briefly through a black hole. It's a lightless, uninhabited corridor of Dixie Highway, a no-fly zone between downtown West Palm Beach and the cozily gentrified neighborhood of Old Northwood. There's not a single streetlamp on this stretch of road; warehouses and vacant storefronts offer blank faces. Before ex-Mayor Nancy Graham started publishing the names of johns caught with their pants down in the Palm Beach Post, this patch of turf was our homegrown red-light district, paced by skinny, coked-up hookers in leopard-print thigh-highs and pink feather boas. These days, it's just pitch-dark, profoundly creepy, and dead empty.
But turn the corner onto 25th Street and you'll find yourself ogling a fleet of Mercedes, Lexuses, and maybe a silver Bentley or an antique Roadster, two gleaming lines on either side of the street. A valet opens your door; faint notes from a piano drift into the night or the sultry vocals of somebody singing "Girl from Ipanema." Cross through the mellow lighting spilling over the threshold at Hoboken Grill and a blond in a micro-mini hands you a menu. You've entered the zone, baby.
George Cesar isn't the first restaurateur to try to get something going in this blighted couple of blocks. In fact, his 3-month-old Hoboken is participating in a 45-year-old tradition. Many an idealist has set up shop in this broken neck of the woods and hoped to lure Palm Beach socialites, politicians, and movie stars to tumble down the rabbit hole. It started when Isabelle and Rel Carta opened This Is It Pub in 1961 a block away on 24th Street. This Is It was 5,000 square feet of chic in the middle of nowhere. For more than 30 years, the Cartas served oyster stew, prime rib, beef Wellington, rack of lamb, and mussels steamed in wine to Palm Beach islanders who liked the idea of slumming it. Seascape painter Jack Gray, goes the story, used to pay his bar tabs with paintings. Gerry Beebe, who bought This Is It a few years after the Cartas closed it, remarked that next to Petite Marmite, it was the swankiest restaurant in Palm Beach County. Beebe poured a fortune into the place but couldn't make it go; neither could Richard Day, who until a few years ago tried staging drag shows to bring the old crowds back. This Is It no longer is.
535 25th St.
West Palm Beach, FL 33407
Region: West Palm Beach
But pieces of what It was have gone into refurbishing Hoboken one block over. Cesar, formerly a Wall Street trader who has no prior restaurant experience, is not only aware of the weird history of the area; he revels in it. He says the space Hoboken Grill occupies on 25th Street may be the oldest continuous restaurant locale in Palm Beach County. He bought This Is It's gigantic bar, worn down by the elbows of many a local lush; Michael Scalpi happened to have it in storage. Now completely restored and polished to a luster, that old bar is rumored to have gotten its start at the Royal Poinciana Hotel in Palm Beach.
Or maybe not. "Actually, Jim Ponce was in here the other night, and he swears it's the original bar from E.R. Bradley's casino," Cesar says -- which would locate the birth of that chunk of wood in the early part of last century. Ponce is official historian of the Breakers Hotel and the Palm Beach Chamber of Commerce, so he oughta know.
Ponce is a regular at Hoboken, along with West Palm Mayor Lois Frankel and her staff. Plus a bunch of Old Northwood residents who now have to saunter only a couple of blocks to get a good, char-grilled cheeseburger topped with triple cream brie and applewood smoked bacon ($9) plus a side of crisp waffle fries or a plate of pappardelle Bolognese ($17) or a slab of cedar plank wild king salmon with lobster-infused mash ($19). Hoboken's menu suffers from attention deficit disorder; it's almost willfully unfocused. You can get a New England lobster roll ($13) and a bowl of edamame ($5). Or start out with a Mediterranean mezze ($9) followed by risotto with grilled scallops. Craving quesadilla? Asian barbecued ribs? How about a Cuban sandwich? Or a wild mushroom pizza? Want a BLT with your Gaucho steak? And don't forget the veal Milanese!
The menu doesn't say so, but Cesar assures me he'll dish up caviar by the ounce too, maybe to eat with the Dom Perignon on the wine list.
I suspect that George Cesar is serving the stuff he likes to eat while also trying to hedge his bets. He wants Hoboken to be a neighborhood bar -- not so much a special-occasion destination as somewhere people can come to eat five out of seven nights a week. Nice people. Gay couples and ladies wearing Lily Pulitzer clamdiggers and city commissioners with their wives. And according to him, they do.
"When I moved down here to be with my girlfriend, we ate out literally seven nights a week," he says. "And I thought that in general, the restaurants here were not that great and very overpriced. I wanted to open a place serving good food with lots of flavor and keep the prices down so people would keep coming back."