Although we never met, I owe much to Henry Flagler, the oil and railroad magnate who literally opened up Florida’s east coast. My earliest memories are enriched by the sights, sounds and flavors of Palm Beach, the magnificent product of Flagler’s luxury Island legacy.
Before I was old enough to legally buy a cocktail, I had seen enough movies and read enough Hemingway to make an educated guess that a glass of something good at the bar in a regal hotel would be a divine experience.
I was not disappointed.
Like many others after college, the delights of good wine served with food gradually evolved and became a platform leading to better dining. New adventures led to an appreciation of a higher life.
The two places in America that almost without effort practice joie de vivre are New Orleans and Palm Beach. Distinctive and different? Obviously. When you examine their respective culinary culture amid a unique environment that reflect local preferences, they are soulmates.
The dominant Palm Beach architectural design is Mizner Mediterranean, the creation by charismatic Addison Mizner, one of the most famous architects in America. Beginning in 1918, when he visited this tony resort town, Mizner started designing edifices in the Spanish style, based on his experiences in Spain and Latin America. This aesthetic continues to be the preeminent style of architecture in South Florida today.
The Breakers Hotel has a magnetic pull that brings me back when I need to recharge a tired palate and purge the ordinary and mundane. Here, I’ve been introduced to the titans of French winemaking, top American chefs who actually qualify for celebrity designation along with locals who practice an elevated lifestyle.
There are wine dinners and then there are Bordeaux wine dinners. The latter at The Breakers had me in the midst of Chateau owners and their winemakers to celebrate recent releases, all enjoyed the way these regal wines should be honored, with appropriate dishes.
This is where the brightest stars dined and partied. Jack and Jackie, Estee Lauder, Dukes and Duchesses, even rock stars. Once, after a soiree, I saw a red Ferrari drive up for valet parking. Sting, who resides at The Breakers in between east coast concerts, gave the keys to a very nonchalant attendant and I took it upon myself to make an introduction.
We dined together. Another Palm Beach memory.
Palm Beach is compact and pedestrian friendly. Centrally located, The Colony Hotel has its own distinct character. Polo is the hotel’s signature restaurant and music venue. Dancing is de rigueur and the cabaret atmosphere incomparable. A performance long ago by Barbara Cook included Broadway show tunes and the best of Cole Porter and George Gershwin. The voice of an angel.
A genuine bijou, Ta-Boo has for generations been a café and bar hangout for the rich and famous. Just when you think you’re immune from celebrity watching, you catch yourself staring at a George Clooney or Lady GaGa.
Strolling down fabled Worth Avenue is an adventure. It is the only place I’ve been on this planet where you can see a Bentley and Rolls Royce traffic jam. Come along for an imaginary tour. We begin in the opulent boutique, Ralph Lauren, a local landmark renowned for its spectacular fountain and marble entrance. A short walk away are galleries that carry the works of the top artists then and now. Looking for a Frida Kahlo original to brighten a dull wall? Somewhere on Worth Avenue, it’s there, waiting for that new home.
Lunch is a celebration here and the choices on Worth Avenue can make a decision a pleasant dilemma. Let’s go to BiCE, casually elegant, Italian gourmet, and a place that takes you to a romantic moment you recently enjoyed on Turner Classic Movies. Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart won’t be there, but bet the ranch a nearby couple will remind you of them. And, don’t dare overlook those white Italian wines. It’s difficult to find one that isn’t delicious and food-friendly.
No visit to Palm Beach is fully rewarding until you dine at Café Boulud in the heralded Brazilian Court Hotel. New York City’s celebrated chef/restauranteur has a worthy satellite here and for all my Francophile friends, this should be at the top of your dining list.
Paying tribute to Henry Flagler, the great capitalist who made Palm Beach and most of Florida’s east coast accessible to tourists, mandates a visit to Whitehall, his home and now part of The
Flagler Museum. Designed in the Beaux-Arts manner, Flagler’s No. 91 luxury rail car- the one he travelled with his wife on the Florida East Coast Railway-is displayed and during South Florida’s “season,” you can refresh at the Pavilion Café. A flute of fine Champagne blends seamlessly with the ambience.
Composer and song-stylist Hoagy Carmichael was once a lawyer who practiced here. Dissatisfied with his chosen profession, the Indiana native began writing and recording his music. Walking down Worth Avenue on a tropical evening, some say if you listen carefully, you can hear Carmichael’s popular classic “Stardust” being performed somewhere.