You don't open a restaurant at 207 Royal Poinciana Way, Palm Beach, without some appreciation of history, of the turning wheel of fortune. And I can hardly eat there myself without nostalgia. I used to live upstairs in a beautiful, sunny room with a curved bay window overlooking the old post office and the heads of royal palm trees when I worked as a waitress in the restaurant below. It was Peter Dinkel's then, and they served steak tartare, which seemed impossibly exotic, and delicious grilled cheese sandwiches on the sidewalk patio between Sunday backgammon tournaments. The whole island smelled of jasmine and sea spray; I suppose it still does. I had a rich boyfriend who used to drive his antique Bentley drunkenly down the sidewalk, sideswiping the awning poles on the front patio. By the time Dinkel's closed, I'd moved up to other waitressing jobs, plating fried eggs at Coffee Ron's in San Francisco for late-shift cops and bookies. And Chuck Muer and Harold Kaplan had bought Dinkel's and turned it into Chuck & Harold's.
That was the Chuck Muer of the C.A. Muer Corp., the $65 million seafood empire that owned Charley's Crab, Gandy Dancer, and Big Fish. In one of the more romantic Palm Beach narratives, Muer, his wife, and two guests were lost at sea somewhere off Lantana in 1993, swallowed by the "storm of the century" while they were out for a pleasure cruise on their boat, Charley's Crab. Nobody ever found them; one imagines that in some perfectly fateful full circle, Muer's body became food for the fishes. A decade later, the restaurant passed to the Landry's chain, which ran it as Chuck & Harold's until it started to sputter, and then a couple of years ago, they spent $2 million transforming the place into an Italian restaurant called the Grotto.
The Grotto was a bad idea. Lively and long-lasting Cucina Dell'Arte was just a few doors down, and there were already lots of more established Italian restaurants on the island. Now, in another pleasurable twist of fortune, the gang that owns Cucina has taken over, swallowing their competition whole, and turned it into Nick & Johnnie's. With an apparent appreciation for irony, Nick Coniglio and John Kent Thurston have re-created the old black-and-white photo of Chuck & Harold that used to hang over the bar, complete with black bow ties, bottle of wine, and pepper mill.
I realize I haven't been particularly kind to Palm Beach restaurants in this column, for the reason that they mostly stink. Too many restaurateurs here seem to have developed the contagious illusion that people with money don't care about good food and that the ballyhooed glitz of their location, plus a few dropped names, an occasional Kennedy, Stewart, or Foster, will be enough to keep them sailing. Coniglio, Thurston, and their partners are more realistic: Judging from the service and menu at Nick & Johnnie's, they've concluded that they need to work their asses off. Experience has evidently taught them that the kind of success they're courting requires attention to detail, consistency, and general excellence. It's also taught them to make an unassailable key lime pie.
The first night I had dinner there a couple of months after they'd opened, the place was nearly empty — and at more than 200 seats, it's a big space to fill. The restaurant's nearly all patio: a narrow strip facing the sidewalk that hasn't changed since Dinkel's, now with a new awning; and an enormous, pretty room behind the bar topped by a white canopy, full of potted trees and twinkling strings of lights. You definitely need to book ahead if you want to sit in front, but the back room is hardly Siberia — in fact, it's lovely. Some tables are raised behind a railing and covered in white cloths; there are charming photos of colorful European hovels by Tony Aruzza. By our second visit, at the official start of the season, most seats had filled and a pair of twins was being toasted in a semiprivate alcove on their 70th birthday. My one complaint in this room is the unavoidable TV in an upper corner. It's physically impossible not to watch — you find yourself craning around your dinner guest's head, no matter how wittily she happens to be discoursing, so you won't miss a second of the Tums commercial running behind her. We've got TV in our cars, on our laptops, pulsing bluely from our cell phones. Can't we please get a respite over dinner?
Nick and Johnnie are circulating the story that the menu was inspired by a trip to California, but to me, it almost feels like a return to the Dinkel days, updated with a kind of breezy, ironic, knowing smirk. There's a lot of fish on the menu, including the "nice piece of fish," which is whatever they have fresh — yellowtail, perhaps — served simply grilled, and a "fish of the day," which might be grouper stuffed with crab meat ($38) or salmon dusted with fennel pollen and set on a bed of warm, vinegary red cabbage ($30). There's snapper Valenciana ($31) with capers and olives or a seafood jungle curry ($29), along with appetizers of crispy calamari ($14) and Mediterranean mussels in Pernod ($15). There are hamburgers and sliders and hot dogs, of course. But there's also a kind of down-home whimsicality running through it all — those calamari come topped with sliced, fried dill pickles and a side of "comeback sauce." At least, that's what my Louisiana-born and -raised friend told me it was — from a tradition that rages throughout the Deep South and apparently in parts of California. Old ladies shake it up in a Ball jar: mayo, ketchup, chili sauce, Worcestershire, mustard, and whatever else their secret recipes call for. A similar sense of humor sends out a plate of onion rings ($7) stacked by descending size on a spool, like the colored doughnut rings in a nursery.
None of this would be funny or charming if the food weren't good, but it mostly is. The dry-aged prime New York strip I had one night wasn't cheap at $40, but it was cooked exactly medium rare with a burnished crust and a memorable texture — neither tender nor tough but wonderfully chewable — and a fine, full-bodied mellow flavor; I liked the béarnaise sauce served with it and the crisp shoestring fries and the vinaigrette salad of baby arugula so much that I wolfed down every bite. I've been happy with all their salads — so fresh, green, and fruity. Another one had plump, sweet blueberries and crunchy fennel ($15), and a third was lush and silky with fresh sliced pears and Gorgonzola ($15).
The fish I've tasted too has been uniformly delicious. If the crab meat stuffed into a grouper fillet was a bit overwrought, there wasn't a thing wrong with that fat, moist piece of grouper, nor with a generous, snowy piece of snapper that had just enough Valenciana — tart with tomatoes and olives — to punch it up but not overwhelm it. The best fish I've tried was a fillet of wild Alaskan salmon lightly breaded, sautéed, dusted with fennel pollen, and served over snappy, sour, braised red cabbage. John Thurston, the executive chef, has a hand that doesn't fumble — everything is exactingly seasoned and executed to give up every nuance of flavor. The one exception was the seafood jungle curry, which tasted flat, salty, and soapy without any of the depth or character of a long-simmered sauce.
Desserts are marvelous and simple. Key lime pie ($8) is as good as the one I used to plate up at Dinkel's just because nobody has mucked around with a classic recipe: It's sour and limey enough to cut the sweetness of the condensed milk, set on a buttery graham cracker crust. They serve their flourless chocolate fudge cake ($8) in a cup because it's semi-liquid — it reminded me of the snack my sister used to make after school: melted bittersweet chocolate, butter, and sugar — we'd eat it warm, straight out of the pot with a spoon. Chocolate chip cookies ($6), crunchy at the edges and with melting chips, come with a tall, cold glass of milk. Somebody seems to understand that some desserts just don't need to be screwed up. That's a rare sense of restraint.
Service was beautiful on both occasions, with owner Nick stopping by to check on things and a bevy of pretty girls and boys setting and clearing without ever being obtrusive — and from hostesses to owner, everybody had a compliment for us. That may be a ruse, but it's a nice one. My guess is it's a pleasant trick Nick and Johnnie have developed over years of hospitality experience. And that's exactly what knowing your history is good for.