Even with the economy in the tank for most of last year, restaurateurs still flocked to South Florida for the weather and stayed for the disposable income.
In the past year, we've had celebrity chefs open big-money outposts in Palm Beach County, local toques expand their empires with new concepts, and national chains pour moolah into upstart shopping malls. This strange patch of swamp even saw a heavy-metal drummer open a rib joint in the 'burbs — how crazy is that?
Here are a few of the biggest restaurant splashes over the past year.
4215 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale. Call 954-561-7300, or visit pizzadangelo.com.
The elder statesman of Italian dining in Broward County, Elia Angelo, has opened the doors to a casual eatery in Oakland Park. The menu is full of affordable tapas, ceviches, pizzas, salads, calzones, and other traditional Italian eats — and all appear to be crafted with the same attention to detail that has helped Angelo's fine-dining restaurants in Fort Lauderdale and Boca Raton flourish. More than a dozen varieties of pizza with red or white sauce dominate the menu and arrive perfectly crisp from a wood-fired oven that anchors an open kitchen. "It's supposed to be like you're in Italy," our server told us.
169 NE Second Ave., Delray Beach. Call 561-274-4444, or visit tastegastropub.com.
This small-plates and drink spot from Chef Allen Susser is located in artsy Pineapple Grove, just two blocks off Delray's main strip and, consequently, the city's other gastropub, the Office. Its menu reads like a mishmash of fashionable bar food as envisioned by the sort of folks who read Serious Eats on a daily basis. The bulk of it is made up of small plates, mostly overplayed stuff like house-made charcuterie and bar snacks like olives and dates. Then there are more intricate options like salt-roasted beets and duck confit pot pie, which oddly share space with obligatory sliders and chicken wings. The price of these small plates coupled with their relatively small portions ultimately lowers Taste's value as anything more than a cocktail spot.
201 E. Atlantic Ave., Delray Beach. Call 561-276-3600, or visit theofficedelray.com.
This Delray Beach gastropub from restaurateur David Manero is all about indulgence but, most pointedly, bacon. A glance down the menu reveals bacon in salad, bacon smothering macaroni and cheese, bacon on burgers, and bacon finishing off a tray of souped-up tater tots. If you count the various forms of pork and ham employed by the kitchen, then there are also Serrano-wrapped scallops, Spanish toast with tomatoes and ham, and a retooling of pork and beans where the pork is, in fact, pork belly (read: bacon). And lest you think the bacon bus stops there, for dessert you can order perhaps the restaurant's greatest triumph: a maple-glazed doughnut topped with — what else? — bacon. It's all consumed in a rollicking 1950s atmosphere that's a cross between a Madison Avenue office building and a Dick Van Dyke-era home study. Cocktails are picture-perfect and delivered by a bow-tied staff, and craft beer flows liberally from the bar. No reservations.
Rock 'N' Roll Ribs
4651 State Road 7, Ste. 1, Coral Springs. Call 954-345-7429, or visit rocknrollribs.com.
This rib joint from Iron Maiden drummer and South Florida resident Nicko McBrain feels just about as close to a backyard barbecue as you can get in a restaurant. The food isn't exactly Memphis-style barbecue; rather, it tastes like what you might whip up with some friends huddled around a Weber grill. Ribs are the fall-off-the-bone variety, wet and sweet with sticky barbecue sauce that will leave your fingers tacking to the sides of your beer bottle. Pork and beef brisket are each smoky and firmer in texture and taste amazing on a sandwich made with Texas toast and slathered with creamy coleslaw. Prices are cheap, service is friendly and pierced, and metal from the likes of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest streams constantly throughout the day.
Martorano's Italian-American Kitchen
5751 Seminole Way, Hollywood. Call 954-585-4450, or visit cafemartorano.com.
Steve Martorano, Fort Lauderdale's favorite Italian-American bad boy, is back with this, his third restaurant, set in Seminole Paradise at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. At his palatial new digs, which is so glitzy that it practically sparkles, the beats are louder and the crowd is rowdier than ever. The 7,400-square-foot restaurant feels like a club, but the food is every bit as good as the stuff that made Café Martorano famous among locals and celebrities. To keep the kitchen flowing properly, Martorano has halved the menu, but mainstays like fried galamod (calamari) and South Philly meatballs are back. So is pitch-perfect rigatoni with Sunday gravy, spaghetti carbonara complete with runny egg yolk, and thin-crust pizzas topped with homemade mozz. You'll need to take out a second mortgage to eat there, but the food — and atmosphere — is worth it.
2345 Wilton Drive, Wilton Manors. Call 954-626-0082, or visit themanorcomplex.com.
The Manor is a joint venture of local real estate developers/restaurateurs/nightlife mavens Paul Hugo and Brett Tannenbaum, and their thinking is anything but small. The 16,000-square-foot complex includes York Restaurant and Windsor Martini Bar, Epic Nightclub, and Ivy Ultra Lounge & Patio. You'd have to hit every other gay bar in town to even come close to getting the Manor experience. Its compartmentalized rooms and copious bars make this the most diverse place in Wilton Manors to get blitzed — whether you're tossing back signature Red Apple martinis with the entire YMCA or you're alone celebrating your 40th birthday (with a tray of tangerine-flavored shots and a pink tiara). The dance floor of Epic Nightclub boasts more shirtless, muscular men per square foot than the sauna at your local gym. And if the Manor weren't already everything you need it to be, the cherry on top is Coffee Talk — a Wi-Fi-equipped sweetshop smack-dab in the middle of all the sexiness.
1032 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Call 954-357-2606, or visit solitalasolas.com.
SoLita stands for "South of Little Italy," and the menu is full of traditional Italian favorites your grandmother might have made that were designed by chef Anthony Risoli, formerly of Café Martorano. The restaurant has taken over the former Mark's restaurant space and transformed it into three distinct parts: a romantic parlor lounge with cozy love seats and dim lighting, a wine bar filled with boisterous crowds weeknights, and, tucked behind white curtains, the dining room, where low-slung chandeliers, tufted sofas, and mirrors set a glitzy backdrop. At the top of the menu are meatballs with pomodoro sauce and fresh herbs, rigatoni with slow-braised pork and tomato sauce, and pan-seared snapper with faro and blood-orange vinaigrette.
1450 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. Call 561-750-2120 or visit vivobocaraton.com
Tona Bova — the man who allegedly left employees unpaid, recently filed for bankruptcy, foreclosed on his home, stiffed his landlord for more than $30,000 in unpaid rent, and partnered with Scott Rothstein — opened Vivo Partenza in June. That was less than a month after closing his last, no less. Vivo Partenza occupies the exact spot once occupied by his Bova Ristorante. All three Bova restaurants (including planned locations in the old Jackson's Steakhouse and Casa Casuarina in Miami Beach) went bye-bye after Rothstein's unraveling. The menu for Vivo is similar to the old Bova one as well, featuring classic Italian like penne al vodka and fettuccine Bolognese. Vivo Partenza also offers $10 lunch specials including a prime burger and meatball sliders. Happy hour features 50 percent off drinks and half off appetizers at the bar.
401 Northwood Road, West Palm Beach. Call 561-629-5377, or visit relishburger.com.
Relish in cozy, quaint Northwood Village is the ultimate mix-and-match burger joint. To start, diners must choose from 12 types of burgers: beef, all-white-meat turkey, tuna, mahi-mahi, crab, shrimp, black bean, mushroom, lamb, buffalo, veal, or lobster, all of which are freshly ground or made in-house each day. Next, add any number of Relish's 20-plus gourmet toppings. There are relatively normal offerings like lettuce slaw and drunken onions cooked in lager. And then there's the wacky stuff you would never have thought to put on a burger in a million years, like oven-roasted beets with fresh herbs or shaved asparagus with white wine and tarragon. The freedom of choice is mirrored on down the menu, from fries and onion rings (top them with your choice of six gourmet salts) to milk shakes (there are more than a dozen flavors) to cookies (six varieties with six dipping sauces).
Michelle Bernstein's at the Omphoy
2842 S. Ocean Blvd., Palm Beach. Call 561-540-6440, or visit omphoy.com.
Having made the trip to Palm Beach — a place awash with a different sort of sin — Miami's own Michelle Bernstein is at her most self-assured. The restaurant itself is secured on the third floor above a quiet lobby bar and terrace eatery, and everything within seems to mask dimension — backlighting, mirrors, and angles abound. The sum is a room with an amazing capacity for making you feel unseen, a place where you can drop your guard without care. Bernstein's menu has a mysterious effect too. It's divided into four sections — salads, crudos, starters, and mains — and much of what appears here is culled from her Miami restaurant, Michy's. Her creations are as whimsical as they are simple, like tuna carpaccio, consisting of three uniform slices of tuna, pink and thin as tissue paper, each dusted with foie gras "snow" and slivers of apple. Seafood is distilled to its basest components, like with salt-encrusted sea bream that glistens with the flavors of the ocean. Even comfort food, like Michy's famous fried chicken and slow-braised short ribs, are wildly impressive.
The Village at Gulfstream Park
501 S. Federal Highway, Hallandale Beach. Call 954-378-0920, or visit thevillageatgulfstreampark.com.
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The Village at Gulfstream Park, a massive, billion-dollar outdoor shopping mall adjoined to the Gulfstream Race Track, has had some struggles in the summer heat. Authentic Italian eatery Tonino Lamborghini Caffe Corsa shut its doors, the mall's first closure, and several planned restaurants have pulled out. But the mall still has a dozen restaurants open, including: Cadillac Ranch, an American-style eatery with a mechanical bull; Caffe Martier, which features gourmet sandwiches and goodies; the Cheese Course, a bistro/shop with 100 varieties of cheeses; Jacob's Classic Market, a full-service specialty store and caterer; the Playwright Irish Pub, a pint purveyor exported from South Beach; III Forks, an elegant steak house; and Yard House, a chain beer and bistro pub. Lounge and tapas joint Bartini's is expected to open in October.
5050 Town Center Circle, Ste. 245, Boca Raton. Call 561-544-8000, or visit wildolives.com.
A partnership with local restaurateurs Lirim Jacobi and Dixon Li, Todd English's Wild Olives in Boca Raton is one of four eateries the celebrity chef opened in the span of a year in South Florida. Although Wild Olives is not fine dining per se, the staff has seemingly been trained to act as stiff-backed as if they were waiting on King Louis at the Court of Versailles. Many of the appetizers are decidedly simple — like asparagus frites, composed of bread crumbs faintly clinging to tender stalks of the vegetable, then dressed conservatively with a coarse-ground honey mustard. A flatbread "pizza" with figs and prosciutto — one of English's trademark dishes — is an overload of flavors with Gorgonzola cheese, rosemary, and cooked ham. The bianca pizza with mild rapini and sweet caramelized onions is well-balanced, with a taut, flavorful crust to boot. The entrées come on huge white plates presented with loads of little embellishments of fried crisps and copious mounts of greenery. The pan-seared grouper comes with a load of green sauce made of sweet peas, an orange-y beurre blanc, chanterelle mushrooms, and lots of leafy greens. The bone-in, brown-sugar-cured rib eye comes underneath a mountain of wisps and curls and whorls.