By Eric Barton
There’s a sea of empty valet parking spots outside City Fish Market a few minutes to five on a Thursday. Inside, the bar is equally empty. But the bartender, the one with the handlebar mustache, offers a prediction. “Just wait,” he says. “It’s going to be crazy tonight.”
Soon, a Daryl Hannah look-alike is saddling up to the other side of the circular bar, which lords a few feet higher than most of the restaurant. Everything feels inspired by Bermuda in here, with white tile and wood everywhere and a giant stuffed tuna over the two-story fireplace. The singer of a two-piece band croons: “I’m in heaven, dancing cheek to cheek.”
A house-special raspberry martini – just six bucks at happy hour – arrives at the same time as my guide. Miami native Shari Gherman has promised to show me her adopted town of Boca Raton. She has planned an epic bar and restaurant jaunt from the City Fish Market in west Boca to the confines of Mizner Park.
“You ready for tonight?” she says with a devilish grin. Shari is a former magazine sales director who also raised two sons. She’s now president of the American Fine Wine Competition, an annual wine competition and a well-attended gala fundraiser. Shari has a granddaughter, but any idea of a schoolmarm grandma is lost when you have a drink with her. There will be laughter and stories of love lost and introductions to just about everyone in the bar.
Shari, you see, is part of the new Boca. It may have sprung up in the last generation or so while you weren’t noticing. The rest of the country may still regard this town as home to Jerry Seinfeld’s parents. But the lazy life of retirees of the past has been replaced by Baby Boomers who want nothing to do with shuffleboard courts. They do gastropubs and happy hours and luxurious restaurant openings. They do Boca.
We order a creamy fish dip and a tuna tartare. Shari sips a vodka martini with a splash of cranberry. By six, the bar has filled with a mostly singles clientele of a certain age, but we have places to be.
Piñon Grill is attached to the back side of the Town Center at Boca Raton and is outfitted like a dim, comfortable California spa. The bar is so packed that people are spilling into the entranceway. It’s three deep just to get up to a bartender. Turns out we’ve crashed a meeting of The Inner Circle Executive Club. Shari trades cheek kisses with a man in a sharp navy suit standing near the door to the deck. J.C. Perrin is a vice president at SunTrust Bank and has been a Boca resident since 1989.
“Back then, it was just a bedroom community for Fort Lauderdale,” Perrin says of his adopted town. “We had two bars: Wildflower and the Bounty. And the Bounty was attached to a Holiday Inn, so you can imagine how nice that was.”
Shari has pulled over a therapist friend named Virginia Crist, and she’s quick to explain how things have changed. The old Boca Mall gave way to Mizner Park in 1992, and suddenly the city became a destination. Then the glitzy development spread, up and down Federal, out Glades Road. Now Boca is a place where the medians just might have a better lawn than you do.
“Today,” Virginia explains, “people are snooty when they say they are from Boca.”
Shari has tried unsuccessfully to fight her way to the bar, so it’s time to head to the next spot. To get to The Capital Grille, we’ll need to cut through the mall, past the Lilly Pulitzer, Tiffany’s and Saks. The Capital Grille’s bar is nearly as jammed as Piñon, but this crowd is in sparkly dresses and sharply tailored sport jackets. A large group is here for a dinner pairing organized by Wine Watch, a wine boutique that came up from Fort Lauderdale.
Tom Ferraro helped organize the event. He’s a restaurateur, but most people know him as the guy who knows everyone. He’s talking about all the pricey chain restaurants that have come to Boca lately. “The restaurant companies, they started realizing something. We now have famous chefs opening up locations and high-end chains with only two or three locations across the country. They realized we have a lot of high-end people in Boca Raton.”
A few of the well-heeled Boca residents are here tonight, no doubt, and they start heading over to a table for 35 set up near the front windows. As they do, Shari sneaks a couple of tastes of a California blend set up for the dinner pairing. “I’m sure they won’t mind,” she laughs.
Before he heads for the table, Rod Coleman stops to share more cheek kisses. Rod Coleman is an attorney who moved to Boca in 2003 when his Realtor told him the place had more affordable homes than Coral Gables. “I had a few glasses too many and all of a sudden I hear myself say, ‘Sure, I’ll move to Boca Raton.’”
There was a Dairy Queen on Federal Highway back then, and Rod remembers thinking, “this town was built backwards,” with all suburbs and no center. Now there’s a downtown around Mizner Park. Rod says these days he can’t go a week without an invite to the next glitzy restaurant opening.
“To me though,” he says, pointing a finger in the air, “Boca hasn’t changed. It’s still a small town. You can still go to a bar and see everyone you know.”
Shari agrees, and there’s still more to see in Boca. Just one more taste – of a luscious late-harvest dessert wine – and then it’s time to head east. It’s finally dark when we sit down at a table in the bar at Max’s Grille. Shari orders a glass of red zin that comes out smelling like a kitchen sponge. She suggests to the server that the bottle is old.
“Not likely,” the ponytailed girl says with a smile. “We had ladies’ night last night.” But she graciously agrees to replace it and comes back to chat us up. She grew up in Boca, came back four years ago after a stint in New York, and has been at Max’s ever since. “This place has been here 21 years,” she explains. “It never slows down.”
As if proving her point, we watch as stragglers from happy hour pair up and are replaced by a somewhat more sober post-dinner crowd. Meanwhile, our server returns with a fruity glass of pinot that smells like spices. There’s also a gooey-crispy flatbread with mushrooms and truffle oil.
Brief talk ensues of actually ordering a full dinner or maybe even calling it a night, but Shari has other plans. We do a circle of Mizner to assess the scene and decide on Jazziz Nightlife. It’s in a space so vast you may need to catch your breath on the hike to the bathroom, with a stage elevated in the back corner. A woman in an ocean blue dress and a voice as smooth as pudding is leading a four-person band.
We sit outside under the ceiling fans and water fountains, songs drifting out through the open windows of the bar. The waiter and Shari get into a friendly yet spirited debate about the benefits of zinfandel vs. cabernet grapes, and Shari reluctantly agrees to go with his cab-franc suggestion. We order a glass of port too, and also a caramel-soaked bread pudding served in a shiny pan.
It’s nearing midnight by the time Shari pushes the bread pudding across the table. She’s talking about how it’s easy to get to know people in Boca, about how grandmothers here have busier schedules than their granddaughters.
“Where to next?” she says with that devilish smile. And it’s clear she’s not joking.
Worth the Trip
Boca Museum of Art
501 Plaza Real, Boca Raton, 561-392-2500, bocamuseum.org.
Yes, this 44,000-square-foot museum is one of South Florida’s finest. Yes, it’ll surprise you with avant garde work you’d expect from city museums. But another big reason to go: It’s one of Boca’s places to be seen – and that means also a great spot for people watching.
301 Plaza Real, Boca Raton, 561-299-3000, ipictheaters.com.
Combine a movie house with a fancy restaurant and creative bar and you end up with iPic. The electric recliners and in-movie service has become so popular that shows sell out days ahead of time, even with tickets that cost up to $24 each.
Elsewhere the Intracoastal Waterway is murky and cloudy. But during high tide in Boca, crystal clear ocean water makes Lake Boca a perfect spot to see starfish, nurse sharks and barracuda. Rent a board from Precision Paddleboards (877-954-4787), or go all-out with a rental from Windridge Yacht Charters (800-636-9910).
Gumbo Limbo Nature Center
1801 N. Ocean Blvd., Boca Raton, 561-544-8605, gumbolimbo.org.
More than 100,000 people a year come to check out the boardwalk nature trails, butterfly garden and sea turtle rehabilitation program. Check the center’s website for a near-daily schedule of classes and activities.
Middle East Eating
Boca is home to some stellar delis, like Ben’s Kosher Delicatessen (bensdeli.net) and Zinger’s Deli (zingersdeli.com). In recent years, Boca has also become home to Middle East immigrants who have attracted restaurants like Maoz Vegetarian (maozusa.com), Anatolia (amcdine.com) and Sagi’s Mediterranean Grill (sagisgrill.com).
If You Go
The Capital Grille 6000 Glades Road, Boca Raton,
City Fish Market 7940 Glades Road, Boca Raton, 561-487-1600, buckheadrestaurants.com/city-fish-market.
Jazziz Nightlife 201 Plaza Real, Boca Raton, 561-300-0730, jazziznightlife.com.
Max’s Grille 404 Plaza Real, Boca Raton, 561-368-0080, maxsgrille.com.
Mizner Park 327 Plaza Real, Boca Raton, 561-362-0606, miznerpark.com.
Piñon Grill 6000 Glades Road, Boca Raton, 561-391-7770, pinongrill.com.
Town Center at Boca Raton 6000 Glades Road, Boca Raton, 561-368-6000, simon.com/mall/town-center-at-boca-raton.