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It has been exactly ten years since Sforza Ristorante threw open its big glass doors for the first time at 223 Clematis St. The day Sforza debuted its Italian menu was a milestone in West Palm Beach history — it looked like the sun was finally rising again on a city so depressed and crime-ridden that you needed bulletproof windows to cruise the main drag. I remember Sforza well: It seemed terribly chic at the time, with its deep-maroon velvet interiors and sidewalk café tables, so sophisticated in the way they'd push back the furniture after dinner and turn the long room into a dance party. The place was always mobbed with girls in little black dresses and guys with spiky haircuts — the young architects, planners, web start-up brats, and P.R. people who'd just moved in nearby to the refurbished office lofts and the cute, new, affordable housing, all angling to grab their piece of the renaissance.
Sforza exerted a force field that pulled other businesses into its orbit. Before we knew what hit us, something like 70 new restaurants opened downtown and 30 on Clematis Street — Roxy's, Mulvaney's, Jamestown Cigar Bar, Starbucks, Zazu City Grill, Narcissus, Spoto's, My Martini. Sforza and My Martini were owned by megaconstruction kingpin Dan Catalfumo and restaurateurs Burt Rapoport, Dennis Max, and Dale Brisson. West Palm had an iron maiden for a mayor then named Nancy Graham, who was being nationally touted as the model for new urbanism. A young Miami planning duo had put together a revolutionary plan to create a "livable city," and nearby CityPlace was under construction. The Gap had moved in. Martinis were big. Small plates were all the rage.
A decade later, only a couple of those original restaurants still operate, the big retailers along Clematis have vanished, and ex-mayor Graham is under federal investigation for corruption. Sforza has long since closed. But this winter, the old room, shuttered behind plywood for months, finally opened again as Clematis Social. And one of Sforza's originals, Burt Rapoport, is directing operations.
Rapoport has been talking up his new concept to anybody who'll listen. Martinis. Small plates. "Price points" low enough that, well, it could be the early '90s all over again. Rapoport has been making restaurants, and chefs, in South Florida since the 1970s. Through thick and thin, he does not give up. He gave chef Johnny Vinczencz his start at Astor Place and installed 32 East's Nick Morfogen at Maxaluna in 1997. Rapoport has had both gems and duds, but he doesn't mope around when he closes a place: He moves on with the ease of a playboy ditching leggy blonds. And although it's too early to predict how Clematis Social will do in the long term, he does have a way of keeping his finger on the pulse: cheap, casual fun, with happy hours stretching into endless afternoons, plenty of Wednesday-night parties, and eggs Benedict served after 10 p.m. It sounds like exactly the right thing for the moment.
How you feel about Clematis Social will depend on which boom you lived through. We went with a group that ranged from 18 to almost 80, and excitement about the place peaked with the youngsters, gradually tapering into moderate enthusiasm, vague distaste, and finally outright loathing with the old folks. This is not the restaurant in which to treat your elegant grandmother to a night out. She won't be able to hear a word you shout at her; the trendy "martinis" ($10) made with chocolate vodka and Frangelico won't suit a palate accustomed to dry Beefeater with a twist; and she won't have the foggiest idea what's in a "slider." But her college-aged grandkids will be all about the supersized drinks, like the scorpion bowl ($18), a brew of rum, amaretto, and fruit juice served with a half-dozen straws so the whole table can suck from a common trough. And they'll like the sliders made from pulled pork, Black Angus beef, beer-battered grouper, and fried chicken ($8 to $10); a handful of flatbreads; nachos; fried mozzarella; macaroni and cheese; a funny "onion soup" served in an escargot plate with croutons so you eat it with your fingers; and — if you can believe it — pigs in a blanket.
Clematis Social is more like a sprawling, noisy cocktail party than a restaurant, a theme underscored by the gigantic black-and-white photos of Clematis Street socialites and party animals that paper an entire wall (we spotted at least two of the live originals in the house the night we were there). Almost nothing on the menu qualifies as a proper entrée. Even the "big plates" are dominated by burgers, fish and chips, and St. Louis-style ribs, with a few Asian-themed offerings thrown in: California or tuna sushi rolls, wasabi seared tuna, chicken spring rolls.
And for those of us who fall somewhere between callow and doddering, there are the California wines made famous from Sideways: the Hitching Post Highliner ($58), the Red Car "Trolley Series" Speakeasy ($71), and the Bulldog Reserve ($84). So Sideways references may be a little cheesy, but the wines are delicious, and they go a long way to soothing nerves jangled by the vision of a bunch of teenagers gang-slurping from a vat of rum. Those wines, which require the assistance of a manager with a key (evidently they don't get a lot of orders for $70 bottles), pair well with the Black Angus sliders and the grilled skirt steak ($25), although a bottle of Burt's specially blended red table wine ($28) would do almost as well.
I took the plunge and shared everything, a table full of eight or nine small plates, and the only dish that really stood out was the beer-battered grouper slider. None of it was bad, and it was edible enough, colorful and crunchy, if a bit repetitive in the elements. The chicken chunks in the Asian chicken salad ($13, lots of veggies, crispy rice noodles, plus soy vinaigrette) are the same ones you'll find topping the Social flatbread ($11, with onion, bacon, sour cream, mushrooms). A California roll ($11) is better than you'd get from Publix but with none of the finesse you'd expect from a real sushi bar. Chicken spring rolls ($9, and there's that chicken again) were bland but made palatable with sweet-and-spicy ginger and red chili dipping sauces. Sliders, served on a soft roll, were a mixed bag — high marks for the fish and Black Angus and groans for the chicken and pork, both far too dry to do any sliding.
What can I say? It tastes like restaurant food, a little mass-produced but not unpleasant, the kind of stuff you've eaten at a hundred other grilles, bistros, and cellars all over Broward and Palm Beach counties, because the same small band of restaurateurs keeps plugging away at this insufferable business. Anyway, it's cheap and filling. Everybody's happy — right down to the staff, seen grinning and horsing around in the semi-open kitchen. And the managers, who are frankly thrilled to have so many asses in seats, so many revelers who think cheesecake lollipop trees with dipping sauce, "mile high" fudge cake, and chocolate fondues ($13 to $14) are the ultimate in cool desserts. In this economy, who'd want to rain on their parade? The place will fly, or it won't. And knowing Rapoport, he's already halfway out the door, on to his next big thing.