Picture this: You've been invited for dinner at a friend's house. He's prepared a lovely meal — a salad of baby lettuces and herbs from the garden and a whole roasted pork loin dressed with sage and thyme. Midway through your pork loin — so juicy and tender — your host gets up. He removes the empty chairs from the room. He licks his fingers, snuffs out the candles on the centerpiece, and turns up the chandelier to its brightest setting. And then he hovers over you, waiting and watching as you chew your last few bites.
There will be no dessert.
There's nothing worse you can do as a restaurant than make customers feel unwelcome. Yet that's exactly what happened at the Restaurant at 251, a five-month-old organic Italian restaurant in Palm Beach. We were having a great meal until the staff began swarming around us, removing settings from the surrounding tables and then stuffing them hastily into the wine room. My crispy, pan-seared wild salmon with quinoa pilaf ($32) tasted like some fabulous, bizarro version of Rice-A-Roni — highly enjoyable, that is, until the DJs began testing the pulsing strobe lights overhead. My sister was beaming over her fusilli alla vodka ($18), spiral noodles cavorting in a piquant sauce emboldened by pancetta and porcini, but less so with the cocktail waitresses who had shuffled in for their shift and were now flirting with the bartenders by our lone table. The room in which we had spent the past two hours — and $220 — was being transformed midmeal into a nightclub. Although we were the last customers in the place, it was all of 8:45 on a Saturday night (an ungodly hour on Palm Beach, I know). No one was banging down the door to come dancing.
As odd as the experience was, the reasons behind it were even more confusing — and downright scandalous. The Restaurant at 251 launched in April under the name da Francesco's. But since, an internal dispute has netted lawsuits, led to the strange name change, and even culminated with a visit from the Palm Beach police. Unfortunately, I learned about all that after our night there.
When we arrived earlier that evening, there was no signage of any type out front; all we saw was a pair of velvet ropes leading up to an unmarked doorway. I asked the maitre d' what happened to da Francesco's, and he looked a bit flustered.
"No, no. We changed the name of it," he said with a nervous laugh.
"But it is the same restaurant?" I asked, hoping for reassurance.
"Oh, yes," he responded. "Restaurant and lounge." He pointed to an adjoining room masked behind a toffee-colored curtain.
The relationship between the two halves of 251 is as tenuous as the shroud that divides them. The nightclub known as 251 Sunrise spent six years as a favorite stomping ground of Palm Beach's elite. That ended in 2004 after years of noise complaints from neighbors.
In February, former 251 Sunrise manager Gus Renny struck a deal with Frank Cilione, the West Palm Beach restaurateur behind the now-defunct Tsunami in CityPlace. Renny would run the club under a separate company, and Cilione and his partners would take over the dining room. They figured operating as two businesses would skirt the town's restrictions on nightclubs.
The restaurant then hired Seth Kirschbaum, former executive chef of Sublime in Fort Lauderdale, to create a menu of organic, rustic Italian fare. There are trays of olives marinated in herbs and spices, tuna carpaccio, and antipasti platters with prosciutto di Parma; multigrain pizzas and organic pastas made with local cheeses and tomatoes; and simple entrées like rosemary grilled free-range chicken and grass-fed New York strip steak with porcini mushroom sauce.
As incongruous as organic dining and nightclubbing may be, the menu oddly seemed to fit within the lounge's halls. The space was attractive and chic without feeling pretentious. Creamy white walls were bathed in soft candlelight, which flickered playfully off the gold-rimmed mirrors and cast a generous glow on dishes like baked clams oreganata ($12), the lustrous shells of which were snowcapped with delicate, olive-oil-drenched bread crumbs and peppery oregano. After leaving vegetarian Sublime behind, Kirschbaum may still be getting reacquainted with animal protein, as the squeaky pearls of meat were overdone. Likewise, a Caprese salad with smoked mozzarella and heirloom tomatoes ($13) showed nothing above the ubiquitous iterations of the dish you can get anywhere else, mostly because the cheese itself was too dense and dry.
But give the man some free-range turkey and a bit of grass-fed beef and he'll create meatballs that would do no less than turn any practicing vegetarian to the dark side. We gobbled them down as part of a polpette pizza ($19), sliced into big chunks and set atop a whorled cloud of basil-infused ricotta and bright-white onions cooked al dente. The crust is so gloriously taut that it practically flexes like a bodybuilder in your hands. It was everyone's favorite dish and among the best pizza I've sampled in South Florida. My sister cooed about it to our waiter, a charming guy named Matthew who told us he gets customers who come for the pies alone. Matthew's knowledge of the affordably priced wine list netted us a stunning bottle of Pitars pinot grigio from the Friuli region of Italy ($38).
When we had first arrived, only two other tables in the restaurant were occupied. But as we worked through our starters, both filtered out. By the time our entrées showed up, we were entirely alone except for wait staff. I shared a bite of salmon with my sister, who agreed that the juicy piece was cooked to a vibrant pink inside, even if it was underseasoned. Her boyfriend savored ruby pieces of New York strip steak as he slid them through a bulky red wine and porcini mushroom sauce ($32). Things were, by all counts, pretty good. Then, around 8:45, the nightclub conversion began.
The black-suited clouded the room, removing tables, clearing space, blowing out candles. Within moments, they had torn the place apart and our evening along with it. Even Matthew, who once had been so personable, so lively, could barely look us in the eye as he braved the fray to ask us if we'd like dessert. We politely declined, and Matthew immediately dropped the check stowed in his front pocket. It was a good thing too: I don't think I've ever wanted to pay a bill and leave faster.
In the days following, a report from Palm Beach Post gossip columnist Jose Lambiet would detail the fallout at 251. The city had cautioned the owners that it was illegal to run two businesses under one roof, so Renny staged a coup at the restaurant. On September 3, police were called to prevent Cilione's people from entering the building. The cops told the restaurant owners they'd be arrested on trespassing charges if they returned. The excised team filed a lawsuit September 11 in Palm Beach County Circuit Court.
The one constant throughout the mess is the chef, and Kirschbaum says his new boss, Renny, has a clearer vision of the place. The restaurant is planning an October relaunch with a redesigned menu and concept that will "retain the focus of the lounge while melding something fun, young, and hip with rustic Italian highlights." He added, "We're really going in a great direction. The old owners were not restaurateurs, or failed ones. They were never around, and the management was terrible."
No matter what happens with the legal battle, 251 better figure out a way to make diners feel like guests and not like they're subsidizing the owners' late-night party. At least they're working on getting a sign out front, though it still needs approval from the city. There's only one small problem: What will it say?