Published On: Tue, Jan 29th, 2019

2018 – The Restaurant Year in Review    

Square One – Dry-aged NY Strip

By Kenny Spahn

         Happy 2019!  The new year brings new hope and excitement, and allows us to briefly reflect upon the year that was.  And no doubt about it, 2018 was quite a wild ride, indeed.  We stood helplessly as massive forest fires, hurricanes, floods, volcanic eruptions, red tide, and algae blooms devastated our world; and grimaced at the never-ending stream of political, entertainment, and business scandals. We grieved the loss of many icons and heroes (including the last remaining male northern white rhino), and stood in shock and outrage at the news of yet more Islamic terrorist attacks and senseless mass shootings — especially one that hit so close to home.  But 2018 brought some good news, as well – from a spectacular Winter Olympics, Royal Wedding, and rescue of a young soccer team, to an unprecedented mid-term voting turnout, booming stock market, and growing social awareness on all fronts.

And of course, we still found a respite from all the madness by engaging in our favorite pastime – food and drink.  As usual, an abundance of new restaurants entered the Boca and Delray market last year — and a lot failed, as well.  It’s hard to find consistencies in this crazy business (especially in south Florida) – except for the fact that it’s consistently changing.  Some big guns like Benihana, True Food Kitchen, Loch Bar, and Tin Roof entered the scene — but as always, the vast majority of new restaurants came from independent local mom ‘n pop operators – the true backbone of the restaurant industry. We didn’t see as many new Italian restaurants or delis as usual last year, but Asian, contemporary American, and health-oriented concepts continued to be a dominant influence.  I also note a particular onslaught of poke, ceviche, and Peruvian-themed restaurants (Ricarena Latin Gill, Warike Peruvian, Kekoa Poke, Aloha Poke, The Poke Company), reflecting the still-hot national trend. But the big restaurant news of 2018 was not about the new openings, but rather the major closings.  In fact, 2018 might be called the year of restaurant closings, with an unprecedented number of major restaurant shutdowns around town, including long-time power players like 32 East, Uncle Tai’s, Truluck’s, Uncle Julio’s, Pinon Grill, and Blue Martini.  And so, my fellow Foodies, here again is your guide to our culinary comings & goings, in something I like to call, The Restaurant Year in Review.

NOW OPEN

As usual, downtown Boca saw most of the major restaurant action last year.  Most notably, Loch Bar opened in Mizner Park, taking the long-vacant spot formerly held by Gigi’s (and then Spin Ultra Lounge, then Karma). Loch Bar comes to us the same Maryland-based Atlas Restaurant Group, who brought us Ouzo Bay (also in Mizner Park).  Loch Bar adds a new hot dimension to Mizner Park, with the biggest and best raw bar in town, along with live music, a hip bar scene featuring craft whiskeys, and a great menu, including the best authentic Maryland Crab Cakes around.  Another upscale seafood emporium, Luff’s Fish House opened on nearby E. Palmetto Park Road, courtesy of Arturo Gismondi (Trattoria Romana, Biergarten, La Nouvelle Maison). The highly-anticipated Union 27 also opened on Palmetto Park, transforming the former 13 American Table into a stunning, sexy, and sophisticated hot spot. It took nearly a year for Union 27 to finally open, but the stellar cuisine, outstanding wine list, and warm, inviting atmosphere were clearly worth the wait — and a definite contender on  the “Must Try” list.  Royal Palm Place welcomed Vespri Siciliani, bringing a taste of authentic Sicilian cuisine and culture to the former Estia (Greek) locale; along with Wish, replacing The Wishing Well.

Loch Bar – Lobster Roll

Vespri Siciliani – Grilled Octopus

         

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Downtown Boca also saw the arrival of Roots Italian Kitchen, The Poke Company, Ricarena Latin Grill, Warike Peruvian Bistro, Ahtziri Mexican Grill, and The Tree Café, all on N. Federal Highway; along with PurGreens on Plaza Real, Oishii Sushi on NW 20th Street, and the short-lived Giusseppe Italian Market in Palmetto Place. Then in late December, Chef Steven Tart opened his inspired Stateside Sandwiches on S. Federal Highway (replacing Mobu Fusion Café). Chef Steven’ adventurous cafe features regional specialty sandwiches from across the country, using locally sourced, selectively crafted, and house-made food (even smoking his own pastrami and pork butt in-house!).  It’s like a compilation of the signature foods from all your favorite Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives spots all in one.

Union 27 – Lamb Chops

Stateside Sandwiches – Tri-Tip Sandwich

Meanwhile, Central Boca was definitely on a high roll, with a record number of new restaurant openings.  February saw the launch of Square One American Bar & Grill in Glades Plaza, converting the former iconic Brewzzi spot into a beautifully designed, elegant-yet-casual eatery.  With Chef John Greening’s inspired contemporary American  fare, a friendly ‘neighborhood hangout’ vibe, and a happenin’ bar scene, Square One has already become a major player in town.  Boca Town Center then welcomed True Food Kitchen (in the old Stir Crazy Spot), bringing its Phoenix-based rendition of modern American cuisine with a marked emphasis on health and nutrition. The nearby Boca Del Mar area saw lot of restaurant action as well, especially with the launch of SaiKo-i Hibachi & Sushi in the recently renovated Shoppes at Village Pointe on S.W. 18th Street (taking the beloved Gatsby’s old space). With its cutting-edge sushi, interactive tableside Teppanyaki tables, and lively outdoor bar scene (especially on Ladies Night Wednesday), Saiko-i has helped revitalized the former sleepy strip center into a vibrant new hub of activity.  Another Asian concept, Me-Sen Thai- Sushi soon followed across the street in the Village Towers (also on S.W. 18th Street), transforming the former Rise Asian Bistro spot into a hip and innovative Thai-sushi spot spiced up with the owner’s tongue-in-cheek humor. It’s friendly vibe, authentic Thai cuisine, and truly unique, off-the-wall sushi creations make Me-Sen my #1 Go-To place for sushi and Thai food. Meanwhile, Rise Asian Bistro moved a mile or so west into The Boardwalk (formerly Wharfside), also on S.W. 18th Street.  The Boardwalk underwent a dramatic renovation and expansion in 2018, with an entire new building housing a slew of new eateries including BurgerFi (the best fast-cas burger), Juice 2 U, Pizza District (excellent NY-style pizza and Italian food), Dunkin Donuts, and L’Chloe Cafe & Rolled Ice Cream a charming little European café featuring its signature “rolled ice cream’ creations. Full-serve Don Chepo’s Taco Shop also moved into The Boardwalk, assuming the short-lived Blue Moon space.  Movie Bistro took over the former Bogart’s space at Cinemark Theatres, and is definitely worth visiting on its own, even if you’re not seeing a movie.  Other new central Boca openings included All Ribs Costelaria and its successor All Meats Brazilian Steakhouse, as well as Siam Nippon Thai and its successor, Payathai, all in the The Shops of Boca Grove on Powerline Road; KeKe’s Breakfast Café in Palmetto Park Square, Kekoa Poke & Hawaiian BBQ on Glades Road (replacing Hummus Culture), and Moon Thai & Japanese, Aloha Poke, and a new Pollo Tropical on Saint Andrews Blvd.

Square One – Dry-aged NY Strip

Saiko-i – Chirashi Bowl

Movie Bistro – Bistro Burger

 

 

Saiko-i – Sushi Boat

Me-Sen

 

True Foods Kitchen – Butternut Squash Pizza

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Heading north a bit, the spring brought in a major national player, when Benihana brought its world-famous teppanyaki-style tableside cooking and entertainment (plus some outstanding sushi and a great bar scene) to the Home Depot center on Glades Road. Crazy Uncle Mike’s then opened on N. Federal Highway, taking the former Neighborhood Grill (then Moonshine Mollie’s) spot, featuring its inspired, eclectic cuisine plus in-house brewery in a cool laid-back setting – along with live music, a cool bar scene, board games, and other general frivolity. Other newcomers to north/west Boca include Robot Brewing Co. & Quixotic Lounge (in the former Funky Buddha Lounge spot), Galini Greek and Gourmet Market on N. Federal; I Love Mac & Cheese and Cinnaholic on NW 20th Street, Willie’s Sushi Bar & Bistro in the Polo Shoppes, and Hanna’s Kitchen on NE 2nd Ave.

Benihana – Teppanyaki Chef

 

Crazy Uncle Mike’s – Roasted Cauliflower

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Delray Beach also saw some action last year, with Tin Roof opening on E. Atlantic Avenue, taking over the former Smoke BBQ spot; while The Chopping Block opened (very briefly) next door, just a week after the former ROCK:BRG spot suddenly closed. Taverna Trela opened on E. Linton Blvd., continuing the legacy of Chef Bobby Orfanos’ beloved Zorba’s Taverna next door.  La Padella Italian and VegEats on East Linton, Proper Ice Cream on Congress, and Dr. Doodle’s Donuts on the Ave also took on a new Delray address.

“SORRY, WE’RE CLOSED”

The restaurant business is inherently risky (especially in south Florida), and what the restaurant gods giveth, they also taketh away.  But 2018 proved even more lethal than normal to our local restaurant scene, and we saw many long-term institutions close shop.  In fact, last year’s major restaurant closings drew even more attention than the new openings. Most notably, the venerable 32 East shut its historic doors on Atlantic Ave for the last time in May, leaving us all a fond and bittersweet Mother’s Day gift.  32 East was a true landmark — it was not only one of the best restaurants around, but unquestionably one of the most significant.  The launch of 32 East back in ’96 was the impetus for transforming the rather downtrodden Atlantic Avenue into the vibrant social scene we know and love today, paving the way for the hundreds  of other establishments that have since come & gone. And 32 East set the standard for cutting-edge, chef-driven cuisine with a constantly changing menu featuring locally-sourced artisan ingredients and craft cocktails  — decades before the trendy “farm-to-table,” “gastropub,” or “chef-driven bistro” themes entered our vernacular.   A few months later, Boca Raton bid a sad adieu to Uncle Tai’s, the beoved Chinese dynasty in The Shops of Boca Center 32 years (one of Boca’s longest lasting restaurants), that was finally forced to close due to excessive rent increases. Even the “safe bet” Chili’s closed its well-established location in nearby Boca Village Square. And Mizner Park, the epicenter of Boca’s dining scene, saw the demise of three major players last year. First, Uncle Julio’s shuttered its popular Tex-Mex hacienda in March. Shortly thereafter, the highly regarded Truluck’s cracked its last crab leg after its long reign; and then the high-profile Junior’s folded its cards, leaving Mizner Park with a third major space vacant.  Meanwhile, the popular Boca Town Center lost two major restaurant tenants, as well: Pinon Grill; followed by long-term night life hot spot Blue Martini, which called its last “Last Call” on New Year’s Eve.

Other restaurants who never got to flip their “Sorry, We’re Closed” sign back around include The Wishing Well and Estia Greek in Royal Palm Place; Los Tacos by Chef Omar in the Fifth Avenue Shops, La Rosa Nautica on NE 20th St, Pei Wei and TW Steak & Seafood, both in Boca Del Mar Village, Gretl’s Bistro on N. Federal, both Wendy’s and Jimmy John’s on Saint Andrews Blvd., and D&D Flatbreads in the Polo Shoppes.  Delray Beach diners are also mourning the loss of trendy Max’s Harvest in Pineapple Grove and the beloved Zorba’s Taverna on E. Linton, along with Caffe Martier and Gelato Go on the Ave.

But at least those restaurants got to stick around a while – many others weren’t so fortunate. The Chopping Block on Atlantic Avenue, for instance, closed just a few months after taking over the former ROK:BRG, which also closed in under one year. Pellegrino’s Italian Ristorante & Market likewise folded its cards shortly after it opened (after nearly a year of preparation) in Palmetto Place in downtown Boca — but its successor Giusseppe Italian Market died at even younger age!  Ditto for American Craft Kitchen & Brewery, which closed about 3 months after it opened on Glades & Dixie, replacing The Brass Tap¸ which likewise lasted less than a year. Many other hopeful newcomers who never even got to celebrate their first birthday include My Delicious Deli in the Garden Shoppes, Mobu Fusion Café and Roots Italian Kitchen on Federal Highway, 4th Generation Market and Hummus Culture on Glades Road, Blue Moon Mexican Café in the Boardwalk, Lina’s Taverna on St. Andrews Blvd., and both Siam Nippon Thai and All Ribs Costelaria in Boca Grove, plus Blue Island Fish on Linton, and other new Delray Beach eateries. (Whew!)

           So once again, the passing year deposited and took away many gems into the culinary kaleidoscope through which we gaze.  And 2019 promises to take us on further culinary adventures, with several exciting projects already in the works. And so, my fellow foodies, here’s wishing you all a glorious New Year — full of health, happiness, and of course, Good Eatin’!

 Kenny Spahn is a renowned food critic and culinary columnist.  He also heads up Restaurant Placement Group, an exclusive recruiting and consulting firm for the Restaurant and Hospitality industry. Visit:  www.RestaurantPlacement.com

 

About the Author

- KEN SPAHN is an award-winning Food Critic and Culinary Author, and a renowned restaurant & hospitality authority and consultant. He has authored over 800 food-related articles; appeared on numerous TV, radio, online, and print venues; served as Celebrity Judge at culinary competitions; taught Hospitality Management courses at local colleges; appeared as a guest speaker at industry events; consulted and recruited for hundreds of restaurant, hotel, and food service operators; and has been intricately involved in countless food, wine, culinary, and restaurant events. Mr. Spahn is widely recognized as one of Florida's most knowledgeable and well-connected restaurant professionals. Ken Spahn is also the Founder and President of RESTAURANT PLACEMENT GROUP, the exclusive recruiting, consulting, and placement firm for the Restaurant, hospitality, and food service industry. For more information, visit: https://www.restaurantplacement.com Boca Raton Tribune is honored to have Mr. Ken Spahn on its team!

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  1. Wow, this article is so intriguing! I have some new restaurants to go try! I wasn’t aware that some of these restaurants closed, so sad! The pictures you posted give me a great idea of what I should order when I visit.

    Keep up the delicious articles!

  2. Amy says:

    This article was very informative and I look forward to trying out the new restaurants!

    Thank you.

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