City Profile — 02 December 2012
A travel writer’s journey to Palm Beach

 

BY THOMAS SWICK

Almost immediately after I took a seat at the bar at būccan the young man to my left introduced himself, recommended the pizzas, gave me the name of his wealth management firm, and asked if I was looking for someone to help handle my money. Not even on the island for 30 minutes and I was already having a Palm Beach experience.

Ted was dressed in a dark pin-striped suit, a white-collared blue shirt and a yellow tie. He had been talking to the two women on his left, one of whom worked as a tennis pro at The Breakers. Ted asked if anyone needed a refill; I was not even half finished with my club soda.

My margherita pizza arrived on a small wooden board. It was sublime; the crust, miraculously, both crisp and moist. It occurred to me that if Ted’s financial advice was as good as his culinary tips, I would be a fool not to let him invest my money. Then I remembered I had no money.

“Aren’t the pizzas delicious?” the young woman on the other side of me asked. She had long black hair and lived in Palm Beach Gardens, though she had been born in Portugal. She and her companion had had the pork lover’s pizza. Her companion was from Argentina, and looked like either a polo player or a Ralph Lauren model of a polo player.

Ted finished his wine and offered his services as my guide to Palm Beach nightlife. (I hadn’t expected such friendliness in Palm Beach.) As we headed to my car, I silently thanked the woman in Northwood who had told me būccan was the place to go on the island.

My visit to the Palm Beaches had begun quietly that afternoon across the bridge at CityPlace, where I strolled the arcades of what appeared to be a small Italian town that had mysteriously been filled with American businesses – shops, restaurants, a movie theater – and dotted with English-speaking visitors. There was even a church (now a theater) on a piazza (outfitted for concerts). Upstairs at Barnes & Noble hung a montage of vintage postcards, including one of the Luzianna Café, with exotic Moorish arches, at 220 Clematis Street.

Clematis appeared a few blocks north of the mixed-use facility, providing an almost seamless transition from new planned town to organic main street. I drank an iced tea in the café of Habatat Galleries, reading the newspapers scattered on the coffee table and then gazing at the glass art in the front room. A few doors down I peeked into O’Shea’s Irish Pub – like Irish pubs everywhere, dark and beer-scented – and admired the surfing décor at LongBoards.

East of the railroad tracks the street turned historic: J.C. Harris Co., est. 1913 (“the oldest independent men’s clothing store in the state of Florida,” said Robert K. Harris, shortening a pair of slacks), Michael’s Jewelers, Meyer’s Luggage, where Richard Meyer, seated just inside the door, announced: “I’m the one who brought Louis Vuitton to this country – in 1959.”

Across the street, Liberty Tax Service came with a rare and antiquarian bookstore.

Continuing east, I smelled food. There were a few august, unscented establishments – Pioneer Linens (celebrating its centennial this year), the Don & Ann Brown Theatre – but they were outnumbered by restaurants and watering holes: Duffy’s, Feelgoods, Fuku, Don Ramon (selling Cuban coffee to passers-by, Little Havana style), Rocco’s Tacos, which looked to have taken the place of the Luzianna Café (minus the tiled arches). Grease Burger Bar had a statue of a cow on its awning and one of a well-tailored, mustachioed man inside.

“Is that Henry Flagler?” I asked a man sitting at the bar.

“It’s Jack Daniels,” he said.

Leo was an investor in the restaurant, and lived within walking distance. “It’s like old town America,” he said of Clematis.

 

Two miles north of downtown, streets planted with trees and pretty lampposts ran west off Dixie Highway. Low-slung buildings in yellow, ochre, purple, and green housed galleries, boutiques, antique shops, cafes. Banners hanging on the lampposts proclaimed: “Northwood Village – Historically Hip.”

Outside the French bakery Bistro Bistro I ran into a trio heading for pizza at Café Centro. The lone male, an artist by the name of Sam Perry, said that Northwood had the potential to become “a little Wynwood.” He pointed across the street to Harold’s, a “coffee lounge” that regularly hosts evenings of music and poetry. He told me about the Art & Wine Promenades, held the last Friday of every month. One of the women, gallery owner Dee Carnelli, mentioned the owner of the Thai restaurant Malakor who goes out in the middle of the night and paints old buildings. “He did the post office,” she said, pointing to the white building with blue trim a few doors up.

This was news to Sam. “It’s the opposite of graffiti,” he said admiringly. “That’s hilarious. That’s like conceptual art.”

Then the other woman, who also runs a gallery but who lives in Palm Beach, told me of būccan.

 

Ted directed me through the quiet, high-hedged streets of Palm Beach, the darkness heightening the feeling that we were moving through an automotive maze. We drove past the gardens of The Society of the Four Arts and then Henry Flagler’s former home (now the Flagler Museum) before hanging a left into a kind of strip mall but one with Ionic and Corinthian columns stuck onto its facades. The doors of the Palm Beach Grill were snappily opened for us by valets.

The bar was packed with middle-aged men and somewhat younger women. Ted got us drinks – red wine for him, club soda for me – and greeted friends, or strangers; it was hard to tell with him. A woman from New Jersey told me she comes down every weekend and then was whisked away to a table by an elderly gentleman in a blue blazer. A woman sitting at the bar in a pink, tight-fitting Bebe blouse with silver sequins told me in an Eastern European accent: “These people think they know Palm Beach.”

“But they’re from Palm Beach,” I replied, confused.

“No,” she said. “The people from Palm Beach are there” – she looked to the dining room – “having dinner.”

Ted suggested we check out The Polo Lounge at The Colony hotel. On the way up Royal Poinciana Way we saw a parked police car. “It’s good you’re not drinking,” Ted said. “If they suspect something they’ll pull you over. Unless you’re driving a Rolls.”

We headed down South County Road, past the flag-topped towers of The Breakers and the gothic arches of Bethesda-by-the-Sea, past būccan (a small crowd now animating the sidewalk) and across Worth Avenue to The Colony hotel. Knocking on the door of the lounge, by the purple-lit swimming pool in the back, we were told that the Motown Friday Nights were on a brief hiatus.

We turned onto an empty Worth Avenue and stopped at Ta-boó, where six people sat at the bar: a trio of women sipping cocktails and two men and a woman farther down. Ted immediately struck up a conversation with one of the men who, it turned out, was from Kentucky, where he raised horses. He said that if we visited Cucina Dell’ Arte (it was on our itinerary) and went to the men’s room, we would see a picture of Nick, one of his old horses. While he and Ted talked, I noticed on the wall a painting of a monkey, which I assumed was Addison Mizner’s pet, Johnnie Brown. Ted gave the man his card and then, on our way out, stopped by the three women, kissing each one’s hand in introduction.

Back in the car I confessed that I felt a bit underdressed for a night in Palm Beach. “No,” Ted assured me, “you could be a Napa Valley whale.”

I gave him a quizzical look. He explained that a “whale” is a wealthy investor.

Our next stop was The Chesterfield Hotel, where an older crowd danced in The Leopard Lounge. Ted approached two women at the bar, positioning himself by the senior one, who, we learned, was a mother having a drink with her daughter. The daughter had a degree in theology and high praise for the singer. “I usually associate lounge acts,” she said, “with Bill Murray on Saturday Night Live.”

We bid the ladies goodnight and walked up the street to The Brazilian Court, whose bar was quieter than Ta-boó’s. So we got back in the car and headed down Cocoanut Row again to Royal Poinciana Way. A giant disco ball rotated above the bar at Cucina and hip hop blasted from speakers. I zigzagged my way through the first young crowd since būccan to the men’s room, where, hanging on the wall next to an oil painting of a horse, hung a photograph of “Cucina Nick.”

I dropped Ted at his office – “I have a couch,” he had told me, “like Don Draper in Mad Men” – and headed back to Clematis which now, after midnight, was alive with women in high heels and pencil dresses taking small, determined steps toward clubs.

 

The following week I returned to West Palm Beach because I wanted to meet the stealth painter of Northwood Village. Before heading up there I stopped at the bookstore on Clematis, where owner Thorne Donnelley showed me his impressive collection of coffee table books on cars and boats as well as first editions of James Thurber and Evelyn Waugh. He said he hoped to start readings come winter and, by summer, begin constructing a replica of John Paul Jones’ ship Ranger. (In addition to running his tax and book business, Donnelley is chairman of the Palm Beach Maritime Museum & Academy.)

In Northwood Village, I found Billy Manthy standing on the side terrace of Malakor. I asked him what the name meant.

“It’s Thai for papaya,” he said, mentioning that they make a green papaya salad (a staple in Thailand that’s not easy to find in South Florida). Then I asked him if he really goes out at night and paints buildings.

“Yes,” he said. “If I go and ask they say ‘no’.” No one has ever complained. “It’s an investment,” he said. “What I do will come back to me.” He also goes around and puts Christmas lights on buildings. “I use a glue gun,” he said, smiling.

He took me inside the restaurant. One wall was covered with a landscape of palm trees and temples, which Billy had painted; the other, where plaster had been scraped away, revealed two murals from the original establishment, the Hurricane Bar and Grill. They were the work of Phil Brinkman, the man who had become famous for the nose art he painted on fighter planes during World War II. Each mural showed two men drinking calmly on a terrace while a hurricane raged; glasses remained on the table but uprooted houses sailed overhead. It was like being taken to someone’s attic and shown unearthed Thurber cartoons.

But the treasure was no more surprising than anything else I’d seen in the Palm Beaches.  ν

 

 

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