Right Neighborly

With this much local good will, Centro has it made.

Northwood Village , situated at the northeastern tip of West Palm Beach, has undergone a bizarre transformation in the past dozen years. When I first moved to Palm Beach County in the '90s, I met lots of youngish, middle-class people who were buying modest houses there. They'd formed a close-knit neighborhood association, fought with the city to place strategic dead-end barricades sealing them off from pawn shops and crack houses on Broadway, built cheery, landscaped roundabouts at intersections, and laid the road toward gentrification one brick paver at a time.

Northwood was and still is a small island of white privilege in rough seas: It's adjacent to Pleasant City on one side and Riviera Beach on the other, two of the oldest and poorest black communities in Palm Beach County, and the neighborhoods share a main street. Northwood Road a decade ago was a thriving community of African-American-owned businesses, hairdressers and barber shops, thrift and drugstores, neighborhood markets, restaurants with takeout windows, and the African American Heritage bookstore, which is still in business, stocked with hard-to-find black history and literature.

The three neighborhoods have had to work to find common ground and to stitch up their differences. Historic houses have sold for more than $2 million in Northwood, and seven blocks away, single-family homes in Pleasant City are priced in the mid-40s. Brick pavers or no, the road to gentrification has been a pretty rocky one. A couple of years ago, I drove to Northwood to check out a new pub called Hoboken Grill and found a valet station parking Lexuses and Lambor­ghinis at the entrance. The place was packed with rich Palm Beach islanders, who have long kept at least one favorite Northwood watering hole as an escape hatch — for two decades, they'd trekked across the bridge to This Is It Pub on 25th Street. But the streets around Hoboken Grill were still empty and rundown; the businesses on the main drag had shielded their windows with iron grates. Today, though, all that has changed.

In part, the change is thanks to Café Centro. On a recent Friday night, the line to get in to this neighborhood Italian bistro stretched down the block, fraying at the ends so waiting customers mingled with the artsy crowd preening outside the gallery next door. The monthly Northwood Nights sidewalk arts fair was in full swing; couples strolled along the sidewalks and lingered outside cafés like Jade Kitchen and the long-running and newly refurbished soul-food joint World Famous Restaurant. Some of the original African-American-owned businesses were still open among new antiques galleries and garden stores, owners and customers unfolding metal chairs to sit by the sidewalk. There were surreal elements: A guy rolling by on a ten-foot-high bicycle, a trio of girls in haute dresses clacketing down the street on stilt heels and looking like they'd just got loose from a fashion shoot — in short, the scene was a big sophisticated street party, closer to a happening neighborhood in Atlanta or Boston than anything in South Florida. Café Centro was opened last year by Yuksel "Sal" Kutsal and Turgut "T.K." Kaytmas, who years ago ran Pescatore on Narcissus Avenue and Clematis Street in West Palm (they still have a Pescatore in Manhattan). They've since commandeered almost a block on the southwest corner of Northwood Road and Dixie Highway and added a casual pizzeria/burger joint named Allora that segues into the chic Centro piano bar.

What they've done with all three spaces is so hip, urban, and inviting that it makes you realize how other restaurants have sadly failed at design: gorgeous exposed beam ceilings, endless glass doors thrown open on sidewalk tables, walls painted in luscious hues of raspberry, exposed brick, and oversized antique mirrors. Potted trees are set at intervals along the sidewalk; an outdoor table under a pergola sports a funky chandelier. The whole complex feels incredibly swank in the most comfortable way; it's impossible to walk by without wanting to go in or snag a patio table. We popped our heads into the bar, and there was the Palm Beach island set, recognizable in salmon-pink trousers and helmet hair, with a valet outside still struggling to find a spot to park a Bentley.

If you do happen to pass by and feel inexorably drawn in, good luck: Even on a Monday night last week, Café Centro was fully booked for dinner between 7 and 9. This must be one of the most popular and successful restaurants in West Palm Beach, a place fully shored up against economic ills. When you look at the menu, you get why: Centro has priced its entrées so you could reasonably eat here once or twice a week without hurting; it's got a solid wine list, but you can bring your own bottle for a $15 corkage fee (mixed drinks are available via the Centro piano bar). They'll serve pizza from next door as an appetizer ($10.50 to $13.50), or steamed clams, raw oysters, crab cakes, and salmon carpaccio priced in the same range. Homemade linguine and rigatone is $12; a plate of grilled free-range chicken is $14.50.

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