Boulevard seems to be exploding with growth like a wildfire, but in reality, it’s been a slow and steady burn — led by restaurants.
New restaurants — Clay Conley’s Grato and Clay Carnes’
Cholo Soy Cocina in particular
— have ignited interest from investors in the area that’s become an extension of downtown West Palm Beach.
The area surrounding the Norton Museum of Art, and south through Antique Row at Southern Boulevard is attracting a number of businesses and art venues, but it’s the restaurants that pull on a steady basis.
It’s no surprise to Tom Prakas, a South Florida restaurant broker who takes at least partial credit for creating the now famous dining scene on and around Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach. It, too, began with only a couple of restaurants.
“People want to go to these cool urban areas. Not just hipsters. They want to go where the foodies go. (Dixie Highway) just happens to be a great artists’ row and design row.”
Restaurants then beget the other businesses that attract visitors to an area, other “pockets of entertainment,” he said.
Already the movement is there. The old Carefree Theatre has been razed and the new project slated for it: A seven-story building with mixed uses is planned to include a six-screen theater and two restaurants.
The Norton’s $10 million expansion promises an enhanced café. The behemoth Restoration Hardware going into the median between CityPlace and the convention center on Okeechobee Boulevard also will include a restaurant.
The hot and trendy chefs that typically start the movements help drive others, and Mr. Prakas points to Clay Conley and his hip Grato, a modern Italian that opened along Dixie in early 2016 to resounding success. Mr. Conley also is chef at buccan and Imoto in Palm Beach, and brought many of his island diners over the bridge. The restaurant and its bar have been among the hottest tickets in town since it opened in an old corner lighting store.
“We’d been looking in West Palm for a long time,” Mr. Conley said. But Clematis Street was priced out, and no buildings available.
“I like the fact the Norton’s there and expanding. And the theater, and the Greene school,” Mr. Conley said. “Our group really wanted to buy real estate. It’s a good thing to purchase the building you’re in.”
A low-key feel to the area helped seal it for him, but the explosive popularity of Grato caught him off guard, he said.
“We touted it as a neighborhood restaurant, but nobody (from the neighborhood) could get a table. It’s leveled out this season, thank God. You can walk in most nights with the exception of Friday and Saturday night in season.
“But it was a tough first season – every first season is tough, but that one was especially tough.”
His reputation at buccan helped draw clients from Palm Beach and beyond – a ready audience a help in going into an off-the-path area, Mr. Prakas said.
“If you get a name chef like Clay, they’llbringpeopletoaBlocation,”Mr. Prakas said. “They don’t have to be on Las Olas (in Fort Lauderdale). People will travel for good food and a great location.”
Diners who come to check out the newcomers are exploring restaurants already established on Dixie, including Table 26, the comfort-American with dynamic hosts who offer a more traditional white-tablecloth dinner atmosphere than the high-vibe, hipster Italian.
Eddie Schmidt, the host and manager of Table 26, says Grato has “by far” helped to bring in new diners all along the corridor.
“It’s healthy competition, and we welcome them,” he said. “Their menu is very, very different from ours.” Ultimately, though, “It offers more diversity for those coming to the area.
“If you look at Table 26, and Joy Noodle, and Maison Carlos — even Flanigans — there’s something for everyone,” he said.
Mr. Schmidt likes that it’s a neighborhood restaurant, drawing year-round from nearby neighborhoods Grandview Heights, Flamingo Park, El Cid and downtown West Palm Beach condos, including CityPlace.
He and chef partner Ozzie Medeiros opened for lunch recently to accommodate the downtown workers, conventioneers, and visitors from the new Hilton next to the convention center, gaining even more new fans.
“I would see how many people would go to CityPlace for lunch. But when you’re on a one-hour lunch break, and it takes 10 minutes to park and walk to the restaurant there, that takes away from your dining time. At Table 26, you can park right out front, get in, and our philosophy is a power lunch — in and out in 45 minutes.”
It’s doubled the brunch numbers at the 6-year-old restaurant, too, Mr. Schmidt said.
Lunch has picked up all along Dixie all around, and a popular stop is the new-this-year Cholo Soy Cocina. It’s where Food Network-winning chef Clayton Carnes turns out authentic handmade tacos with a number of influences — “indigenous,” and a mix of many Latin countries, as he describes them.
He and his dad worked to build out the tiny space with a backyard patio and garden once occupied by an antiques store. It bears the Antique Row label.
That name may change to Dixie Corridor, as the city of West Palm Beach gets on board with a project to enhance the road and curb the speedy traffic.
A traffic strategist was hired to redesign the road, and plans submitted include narrowing the road from four to three lanes. Bike paths and pedestrian walks would be added along with some much-needed on-street parking and landscaping for the store-front-heavy area.
This is all good news to the established restaurants such as Rhythm Café, an eclectic American that took over the old Ranch Drugstore lunch counter 20 years ago.
Partners Dennis Williams and Ken Rzab have a long established following — many from the nearby El Cid neighborhood.
Mr. Williams notes the recent uptick in diners, from conventioneers and business types to the tourists.
“Our biggest draw is Trip Advisor,” he said. The travel ratings site often lists them as No. 1 for West Palm Beach restaurants, he said, and diners reading the site — usually tourists - seek them out.
He tells how the neighborhood has changed. Before moving into the converted drugstore, the restaurant began in a smaller space a few blocks north, across the street from the KFC.
“When we first took over, it was a bad part of town. It was pretty rough. For diners, it was definitely off the beaten path.”
Now, he said, they’re a destination and have a loyal clientele. The parking lot next to them is a big draw, and he’s sure extra parking will be welcomed by other restaurants as well.
The building across the street, an old Burger King, has been six different restaurants since Rhythm has been there, most recently the Gulfstream Bistro and Seafood Market. Now, Mr. Williams said, it’s been sold to the owner of the Field of Greens salad bar, who has plans for another restaurant once it’s rebuilt.
“We heard they’re going to build something from the ground up. We’re excited to see the eyesore go away.”
Up the street, Laine Farias of Maison Carlos calls Dixie Highway the “perfect location for us.”
With her spouse, Carlos, they’ve operated the small French and Italian bistro since 2009 at their storefront location, moving from Clematis Street, where they had been for five years.
“It’s a good fit for us,” Mrs. Farias said. “Even though it’s smaller, it’s more manageable. There’s no storage space, so Carlos shops daily — which is what we’re about — everything is fresh.”
They’re only open for dinner — better to spend time with their 8-year-old son, Alex, who is an avid tennis player, and helps as a greeter in the restaurant these days.
New restaurants along the street are good for everyone, she said. “I think anytime there’s more of you in numbers, it’s helpful for everybody.
“And we’re different from them. Depending what you’re in the mood for, you may not come to us. We’re not hip and trendy — we’re a quiet dinner where you come for dinner and good service.”
Audrey Farrelly agrees that diversity in the restaurants and all the new shops going in help bring new diners to her Serenity Garden Teahouse & Café.
“There’s definitely more foot traffic. There are more people coming to the area, and more things to bring people here,” she said.
With the Norton under construction next door, Ms. Farrelly is drawing a bigger lunch crowd from those visiting the still-open museum. It’s a big change from when she took over the teahouse in 2013.
“If you looked at this even seven years ago, there was nothing going on around here. Then Table 26 came in, then Grato — now Cholo Soy. It’s all bringing in a lot more people.”
She’s happy about it. “I’m all for competition — the more the merrier. It’s better for us all.”
She cites the new shops that also will bring foot traffic — the kind that winds up in a teahouse tucked on a tiny side street off Dixie.
Shoppe 561, a local artisans’ marketplace, moved nearby from Belvedere Road. The Hive, a home furnishings and gift store whose owner bought the former Ambrosia restaurant, along with a windows and door building nearby, will soon expand onto the Dixie corridor. Part will be the McCann Design Group; the old restaurant may become a smaller Hive retail space. Its main showroom is on Palm Street, perpendicular to Dixie.
The old Sears property at Prospect Place has been sold to a developer who has floated plans after a complete teardown that include several condo buildings, plus retail spaces and restaurants streetside.
Other restaurants are expanding.
Kitchen, owned by Chef Matthew Byrne and wife Aliza, which recently expanded its space on Belvedere Road, will build out a Mediterranean-Middle Eastern seafood restaurant, Patina, near Grato.
A coffee house is said to be planned for next door to Grato.
With all the growth, other chefs and restaurateurs are eyeing the surrounding areas, according to Mr. Prakas.
“Rents are attractive, lower than Clematis and Atlantic. It’s starting to get a buzz,” he said. The corridor could spread as far south as Lake Worth along Dixie Highway; the areas to draw from are expansive, he said, giving it a pedigree of sorts.
“It’s half Palm Beachers, half Northwood, or other parts of north West Palm. Even Delray. Restaurants like Table 26 and Grato — it creates a core, and I see that happening here.” ¦