Somehow, someone in Thailand a long, long time ago discovered that the sweet taste of coconut could be mixed with hot chili powder to create some of the most savory sauces to come out of the Southeast Asian peninsula. The taste can be exotic, uncompromising, and sometimes surprising. You can find all three at Thai Spice, an elegant restaurant filled with aquariums and Asian art and sculpture. All entrées -- from red curry chicken ($11.95) to scallops basil ($14.95) to the more expensive house specials -- can be served safe-and-sound mild to burn-a-hole-in-your-tongue spicy. Thai Spice is open weekdays for lunch and for dinner seven days a week starting at 5 p.m. Reservations are suggested for Friday and Saturday evenings. That's for good reason: This place is a first-rate restaurant that can be as busy as the streets of Bangkok.

Ponte Vecchio (Italian for "Old Bridge") doesn't look like much from the outside. It's at the end of a strip mall on busy Commercial Boulevard, right next to an empty lot that accommodates overflow parking on busy Friday and Saturday nights. But as in Italy, the outside of the building says nothing about the food and service inside. Once you walk into Ponte Vecchio's charming dining room, made to appear like a café along one of Venice's many picturesque canals, owner and chef Michel will happily warn: "If you want a great meal, you have to give it time to cook." And he means it. This isn't a place to grab a quick bite. Ponte Vecchio offers a true dining experience, complete with a tuxedoed maitre d' and a team of accented waiters bringing drinks, meals, and the occasional surprise from the chef. "From Michel," a waiter will say as he puts a small plate on the table with an unexpected, appetizing treat the chef has prepared. Although Ponte Vecchio's extensive wine list includes reds and whites from Italy, France, and California ranging in price from $25 to $100, the restaurant's Italian and Mediterranean dinner selections change from one night to the next. Indeed, though patrons can order from a two-page menu that includes salmon, veal, chicken, and pasta dishes ranging from $20 to $30, the maitre d' will generally encourage you to try the specials. And for good reason. Michel puts extra effort and time into developing these -- generally three dishes, one fish, one meat or poultry, and the other pasta -- that range in price from about $25 to $35. Your dining experience at Ponte Vecchio could last nearly two hours, and you'll savor every minute of it.

Maybe it's baby-boomer nostalgia that makes Maison Carlos seem so comforting. The place is decidedly old-fashioned in its tastes, exuding a worldly, early-'60s-era charm that was always more mirage than reality (Dean Martin really was a bastard, and those Playtex girdles were freaking uncomfortable). The lavishly gilt-framed marine paintings by Nantucket artist Robert Stark say it all: You're as far from the cutting edge as you're likely to get, at least on this side of the bridge. At Maison Carlos, somebody still believes in romantic, windswept seascapes; in vichyssoise (this faultlessly executed classic, $6.50, is prepared without the faintest whisper of innovation); in waiters who do not speak unless spoken to; in smoky-voiced jazz singers. That the owners, cast, and crew of Maison Carlos are all in their 30s or younger makes the experience of dining here even weirder. What's up with these cats? Oysters Rockefeller, for god's sake? Somehow, though, it all works beautifully. Settled back with your plate of crispy fried zucchini, sliced white bread with a dish of sweet butter, and a cold martini, you could be 8 years old again, having dinner with Mummy at the club (yes, our Mummy let us drink martinis). Start with the oysters ($11.50), follow with caesar salad ($7.50), and a plate of steak au poivre ($25.95) or spaghetti with jumbo lump crabmeat ($19.95). Then give Tippi Hedren a call and see if she'd like to join you for a stinger. They won't have to ask you how to make one.

It takes guts to open a restaurant in a place where even the hardiest eateries have succumbed to the deadly Clematis Street pox. There isn't a restaurant on West Palm Beach's Main Street that has survived into adulthood; recent road construction, a late-night club crowd, parking horrors, and the apotheosis of CityPlace have apparently made it impossible to operate a profitable food-related business there. But Roy Assad and his wife, Evelyn, who also own the popular and acclaimed Leila Mediterranean Restaurant around the corner on Dixie Highway, love an underdog. Along with partner Cosmo Dishino and undeterred by last fall's hurricanes, which mangled the front of the building, they've taken the old Big City Tavern and turned the space into an open-air French bistro. With those pressed tin ceilings and velveteen crimsons, the place really looks the part; what's more, the food is astonishing. Nostalgic dishes like escargots in the shell ($12 dinner, $9 lunch), bouillabaisse ($26, dinner only), and duck a l'orange ($25 dinner, $15 lunch) are served alongside bistro standards like New York steak pommes frites ($26 dinner, $16 lunch). Chef Laurent Loupiac, who comes to West Palm via Daniel in New York and Alain Ducasse in Paris, is a real catch for our gold-digging little burg. The guy knows how to put together a brochette of sea scallops with crushed rosemary Yukon gold potatoes better than just about anybody. The service is as crisp as the starched linens on the tables, and with that wall of doors thrown open on a warm evening, a cold cocktail in hand, and a perfect little goat cheese tart on the plate in front of you, you might almost start to believe in downtown revitalization.

The best new restaurant in Broward County never sent out a press release. It didn't cost $2.2 million to open. It doesn't have a celebrity chef, and waiters do not ferry convoluted cocktails to tables full of PR ladies clutching Kate Spade handbags. There are no "small plates." No ceviche either. Or anything -- alcoholic or not -- called a "martini." The menu is not divided into sections and subsections with poetic titles, ecstatic blurbs about a chef who worked in Paris and Manhattan, or overwrought explanations about technique. This menu has two almost bafflingly understated categories: "Japanese" and "Thai." That and a blackboard of specials that you may have to squint to read. But in the gaping void left by an utter lack of braggadocio, here's what you might find on an average night at Kaiyo: (1) boned, stuffed, deep-fried chicken wings served with a subtle homemade chile dip ($5.95); (2) crab Rangoon with fruit sauce -- deluxe, peppery, and crabfull -- that should make other restaurants serving Rangoon weep with shame ($5.95); (3) a spicy Thai seafood salad ($7.95) that has been known to temporarily silence the most inveterate blabbermouth; (4) a Thai cook in the kitchen who won't reveal the ingredients in, or sources of, her secret recipes; (5) squid stuffed with ground pork and served in ginger sauce with bright vegetables; (6) a sushi chef who sometimes makes up brilliant roll combinations involving mangos and oranges on the spot; (7) a list of sauces (peanut, basil, red curry, garlic, ginger) that all actually taste completely and enchantingly different; (8) lovely service performed by lovely people; and (9) a menu where -- excepting the big sushi boats and the occasional market price fish -- no single item tops $14.95.

OK, we're going to assume that if you're reading this category, you need a place to take the grandparents. Down for the weather, they've promised to give you a break from your normal dinner of chicken wings and Schlitz. You'll need to take them to a place on their turf, and there's nothing better than codger-filled Manalapan, home to Ritz-Carlton's Soleil restaurant. Soleil is perfectly situated on an oceanfront terrace to give you something to stare at during Grandma's rants. If you go on Fridays, hit the $52 seafood buffet. On other days, start out with the citrus-poached shrimp cocktail accompanied with a "coconut scented cocktail sauce" ($15), since the only scents you're used to during dining are the ones that emanate from the sticky floors at Hooter's. Next, since Gramps is paying, go for Soleil's priciest item, the $36 rosemary-flavored rack of lamb, which comes with herbed gnocchi and red-wine braised carrots. Finish it off with the restaurant's award-winning chocolate mousse with a crème brûlé filling for $8.50. That's a total bill of about $80 with tax and tip, which just might take a day's work to pay for at the car wash.

If your palate craves strong flavors and your belly demands a hearty meal, head to H&E Marina Deli. The mouthwatering food and no-nonsense service merit the sometimes difficult search for the deli, which is tucked away in the back of the Southport Shopping Center. The first two meals of the day come easy to these folks, who serve an array of breakfasts ranging from $2 to $5.25 and including a pastrami omelet and a crabmeat omelet (both $5.25). For lunch, there's a hot corned beef sandwich for $7.25, a veggie Reuben for $5.45, or a tuna, chicken, or whitefish salad sandwich for $6.75. The drink selection in the fridge is equally stacked with everything from chocolate milk and a variety of juices to Dr. Brown's sodas. It's a real New York kind of place. On your way out, throw a tip in the jar reading "Subway" and the crowd behind the counter will yell "Thank you" without looking up. But don't be upset at the lack of eye contact. As you'll know by then, they have important work to do. Open from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, Sunday from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.

You've complained for years that the major thing wrong with most diners is you can't get a vodka gimlet straight-up with your eggs over easy at 3:30 in the old a.m. Well, quit your bellyaching, you hopeless lush; the oldest diner in Palm Beach County not only hops around the clock on weekends but will gladly shake you up a creamsicle martini (if you must) or pop open a magnum of bubbly until exactly 3:59 on Saturday and Sunday mornings. So you can have your pancake and drink it too. And, dig it, you might just get those hotcakes bussed to your table by some freaky little slip of a nymphet with a bar through her tongue and bangs tinted blue. Thank nightclub entrepreneur Rodney Mayo for bringing civilization to the madlands of Dixie Highway, along with easy-on-the-wallet Howley's egg-with-French-fries-on-top sandwiches, steak frites, crab cakes Benedict, grilled Black Angus burgers, homemade apple pie à la mode, cups of espresso as black as the night is long, and a Pied Piper parade of babelicious artsy types who drape themselves around the retro-chrome chairs, dissolve into fits of giggles over the Jackalope heads hung on the bathroom doors, and swerve from counter to patio in their go-go boots, waving clove cigarettes. What with that filtered lighting and the Cure on the sound system, you might say it's just like heaven.

Robin: "Holy car collection, Batman!"

Batman: "Uh, yeah, Robin. That's what Daddy keeps around the restaurant for all the little kiddies."

There's generally nothing unique about a Waffleworks franchise, but the one in Hollywood is extraordinary. It's decorated with about 500 scale-model cars on the walls. You can imagine there's plenty to look at while your little angels wait for their Mickey Mouse-shaped chocolate chip pancakes ($1.99) or their M&M Waffle, Oreo Waffle, or Crunch Waffle (made with the Nestlé's stuff that Shaq claims to eat), all of which are $4.99. Visit on Halloween, when owner Sergio Goldvarg arrives dressed in his authentic Bat costume (often with his son, dressed as Robin, in tow); the kids go wild angling for photos. Parents don't have to feign interest either, since the Batmobile he arrives in is one of the actual cars used by Adam West and is an admirable collector's piece.

If you believe in reincarnation, you probably think you'll come back in the next life as a sky princess or a space wizard. But odds are just as good you'll eke out your latter days as a skink. Dramatic transformations are the stuff of the afterlife. Hell, even restaurants undergo major shape-shifting in their reincarnations. Thus did the Armadillo Café, a gargantuan and popular Southwestern food palace, bite the dust in the summer of 2004 and reappear six months later as KM at the Grapevine. The new place is a tiny neighborhood fooderie wedged into a gourmet shop, open on Wednesday through Saturday nights only and offering a drastically pared-down menu. But there's no net loss of flavor, imagination, and personality in these scaled-back digs. Among our favorites were a $27 lobster quesadilla and a special: the "wild" Tasmanian salmon, which went for $26 and was simply poached in white wine and butter, nestled in a bed of sautéed spinach, and served with slim, crunchy green beans and broccolini. Kevin McCarthy, one of the partners from the old Armadillo, now has breathing space to come out of the kitchen and gab with customers, to change the menu weekly, and to experiment with exotic fish from around the globe. Favorite 'dillo standbys join new creations, the atmosphere is cozy and congenial, and the plain-Jane looks of the place can't conceal a heart of purest gastronomic gold.

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