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 salsa at this modest and friendly joint isn't the finest only because it's free and plentiful but also because it's damned near perfect. Color: A bright, beautiful pink from the combo of diced tomatoes and onions. Taste: Like God has decided to prove to the world that he really does exist. Texture: Crisp and fresh. "We make it five times a day," says Eduardo Argueta, general manager of the Riverfront location. "And we throw away what's left at night and start fresh the next day. It has to be fresh to be tasty." But at Olé Olé, it's not just about the salsa. The fare is all first-rate. If you're with a friend or two, try the fajitas for three, which runs only about $23 and comes with a mountain of your choice of chicken, shrimp, or steak (or any combo of the three). And enjoy the margaritas. They're always strong enough, of good quality, and totally authentic, like the rest of the place.

Hamburger Heaven

This place is famous for its stellar beef, which is the very heart of good chili. Hamburger Heaven has long been one of Palm Beach's only moderately priced lunch spots, with crowds waiting in line far out the door to enter the 60-year-old diner. Most of 'em have come for the burgers, like the aptly named Beverly Hills, which comes with avocado and ranch dressing. But Hamburger Heaven's chili ($2.95 a cup or $5.95 a bowl) makes a good rival; it has big chunks of ground beef, red beans, and a sauce that's tangy but not spicy. Even though Hamburger Heaven is most certainly a diner, its chili doesn't have that diner feel -- you know, the sticky, murky texture that comes from being in a crock pot for a week. This sublime dish has a smooth consistency so that the floating chunks of beef and beans stand out. It's astounding, but if you simply can't pass up getting a burger when you visit Heaven, try the San Antonio ($9.95), which is smothered in jalapeños, cheddar cheese, raw onions, and, as you guessed, a mound of chili.

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.

When it comes to creating the perfect barbecue experience, there's more involved than putting a rib on your plate. Alligator Alley has all the requisite trappings: a down-home vibe, the Meters on the jukebox, and icy Native Lager on tap (because a barbecue joint without beer is like a bistro without Bordeaux). As for the main event, it's true the menu lacks the baby backs and quarter birds that are the cornerstone of many a rib shack. That's because owner Carl "Kilmo" Pacillo has mastered -- mastered -- the pulled pork sandwich ($6.95), and you won't find a more delectable example in South Florida. Period. Three made-from-scratch sauces -- sweet, tangy, and Carolina-style -- add just the right spice to the tender, oak-smoked meat, which emits a pungent, primal flavor that stands up to copious saucing. A healthy dollop of creamy cole slaw (included with the sandwich) cools down the fire sublimely for a three-way balancing act worthy of Ringling Bros. Along with the pork po-boy, the Alley serves up a killer chicken breast sandwich ($10.95) that is also smoked out back in a house smoker just big enough for a few items. The alligator ribs are always fresh and tender, and Kilmo's gumbo is award-winning. If you're smart, you'll finish the feast with a slice of tangy, locally made key lime pie. Calling Alligator Alley a bar is a disservice; it's a vital part of the community. Calling its menu "bar food" is outrageous -- it's an epicurean wonder. UPDATED: This location is now closed.

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.

Sure, the baloney sandwiches in prison offer more nutritional value, but this menu item could come in handy when your wallet's thin: "The Inflation Beater: two stale heels of bread wrapped around a freshly frozen ice cube." Cost: 2612 cents.

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.

Howley's
C. Stiles

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.

Oh Cyrille, Cyrille, how we adore you, you big rouille-making brute you, with your leek tarts, your duck confits, your chicken pot pies, your soufflés au fromage! Our hearts simply break in two over your mystical lentil soups ($4.50) and surreal espresso milkshakes, your plates of assorted cheeses ($15.50), not to mention the BLT that is like a reinvention of the BLT ($11.50), a sandwich that somehow both confounds and enchants. It's as if you dreamed of mayonnaise, awoke, went to your kitchen, and in a moment of tortured genius conceived a sauce so tender and sad that it would suffice as the last meal -- with a simple boiled egg, perhaps -- for your dying beloved. All this we divine in you, Cyrille, and yet -- we are less than nothing to you, and you once told us (admittedly, you were a bit in your cups at the time, and we had been perhaps overlavish with our praise, embarrassing you) that you "didn't give a damn" whether we liked your cooking. You are so French in that slightly haughty but magnetic way that it makes us swoon, Cyrille. But most of all, how thrilled we are that this bright and lovely little café is now yours entirely, since you have bought it outright, and that you serve a prix fixe dinner (which is very expensive but no doubt worth every blesséd franc) from Thursday to Saturday, but only for four persons or more, and only for two tables per night, and only if reserved in advance. We wouldn't expect any less, Cyrille, from a man of your qualities.

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