Towns once known for retirees, and a retiring nightlife, find a healthier, beating heart
By Eric Barton
As you might expect from a nutritionist, Michelle Kaplan is holding a plate of vegetables: cauliflower, red peppers, a cherry tomato. There is no sign of dipping sauce here.
Kaplan is 47-years-old and in better shape than many college kids, looking like her birthdays are ticking backwards. She fits in among a crowd of about two dozen people in the second floor event room above Farmer’s Table restaurant in Boca Raton. They had come for a wellness event, with booths for local businesses promoting yoga and organic foods.
“I gravitated to Boca because people here are just really healthy,” says Kaplan, who runs a company called Dawn Michelle Nutrition. She chomps down on a piece of cauliflower, appearing to not miss ranch dressing. “Everybody in this town is looking for the fountain of youth.”
All around her are people who have mostly passed the halfway point of life, but they look like they’re all training to beat a personal best in marathons or yoga poses or bicycle hill climbs, or maybe all of that.
Sure, the athletic type is the kind of person who would be drawn to a Wednesday night event titled “Learn to Live Your Best Life.” But that’s also just Boca Raton. This is a town that, in just a generation, went from sleepy retiree village to a city where the parks are always packed, where yoga studios seem to outnumber pizza parlors, and where every restaurant and bar seems to fill up with the forever fit.
It wasn’t always this way, recalls Melissa Weaver. At 39, she can remember at Pope John Paul II High School driving to west Boca for bonfires in the woods. Sunbathers had Spanish River Park to themselves. Now, every park in town seems busy at any moment, with moms bringing kids to the Sugar Sands Park carousel in the morning and joggers hitting the trails after work.
“Boca is one of your wealthier areas, so people can afford to be out and about,” says Weaver, who owns a nanny service called Family Matters. “People who live here are in the income bracket where they can do yoga in the morning or a run in the afternoon.”
People here can also afford to make the best of their time outside, namely a couple of choice beach clubs. There’s the upscale Seagate Beach Club in nearby Delray Beach, with a grand Bahamian-style, oceanfront, members-only restaurant. The pool, just over the dune from the beach, feels like it ought to be out back of a Ritz.
Then there’s the Delray Beach Club, packed all the time with families. It turns into a party on Friday nights, when parents grab fruity drinks at the bar, musicians perform beachy tunes, and kids dart between the ocean and the massive pool.
You see the same faces at those pool clubs as you do over at the Whole Foods, says Crystal Romero-Sherman, an insurance agent with Century Risk Advisors. She went to Spanish River High and lives in central Boca.
“Boca has all the characteristics of a small town, because you run into people you know all the time,” she says. “But then it’s also a city with a lot of things going on.”
What’s changed since her high school days is that there are more young couples with kids settling in Boca. “All these young families have breathed new life into the city,” Romero-Sherman says. “The younger generation has decided this is just a great place to raise kids.”
You see that younger generation during your average Saturday night at any of the Town Center-area restaurants. Like Piñon Grill, where you see those young parents, in their 30s and 40s and with a stable of babysitters to call upon so they can escape to happy hour. They mingle with people a generation older who also look ready to fit into their skinny jeans. They sip the lemony Boca Skinny Martini and then get a table to eat cedar-plank salmon with a kale salad that’ll make you forget the fries.
Liz Linden has some thoughts on why Boca has developed this new healthier image. She’s the executive director of the Lynn Women’s Health & Wellness Institute at Boca Raton Regional Hospital and a Boca resident for 3 ½ years. “I’m from Gary, Indiana, so heck yes I think Boca is a healthy place to live.”
She says the obvious answer about why people are healthy is the weather, which means there’s more opportunity to be outside. Maybe it’s also about the fact that everyone here seems to be so well made up. They’re in shape and they’re mostly dressed well, which explains the chic outfitters in town, including Lord & Taylor, Martier, Tommy Bahama and the dazzling jewelry and watch boutiques of Les Bijoux, all within healthy walking distance of each other in Mizner Park.
If you’re standing in line at Brooklyn Boys, as one tends to do in west Boca, and everyone around you looks fit and healthy, not to mention well dressed and bejeweled, it stands to reason you’ll want to look fit, healthy and well-turned out yourself.
“There’s power in persuasion,” Linden says, “so in this town, you feel engaged to be healthy. You feel like you ought to get out and do things.”
Maybe the spot where her point is most obvious is Mizner Park, which is no longer slow in the summers and is downright crowded whenever the weather is nice. On a winter night, you’d be lucky to snag a table for two outside the Cheese Course, a fine spot for charcuterie and wine, or grab a table without an hour wait at Max’s Grille, a reliable standard. If there’s a Boca meet market for the recently or forever single, it’s the bar at Max’s, where those holding the stem of a wine glass probably have to get up early for Pilates or for their road bike meet-up.
Maybe nobody watched the transformation of Boca into a health-conscious town more closely than Joey Giannuzzi, who grew up in Wellington and moved to Boca in ’77. Six years ago he opened Green Gourmet, a casual organic restaurant, long before organic restaurants were trendy.
“Back then, I was lucky to get a shipment once a week of organic vegetables,” Giannuzzi recalls. “And forget grass-fed beef. It had a 14-day lead time. Now, I can get any of that every day.”
There’s also, Giannuzzi guesses, more yoga studios and organic markets per capita than anywhere else. “That’s because people in Boca are well traveled. They’ve seen these things elsewhere, and when they come home they want them here,” he says.
Giannuzzi closed the Green Gourmet so that he and partner Mitchell Robbins could open Farmer’s Table in November. Located in the Wyndham Boca Raton hotel, Farmer’s Table specializes in organic and locally sourced ingredients. And it’s packed, pretty much all the time. People go because it’s good but also because it represents a healthier take – the skirt steak, for instance, skips the pommes frites, instead plating it with roasted winter vegetables and grilled bok choy.
“That’s just the way people want to eat in Boca, healthier,” Giannuzzi says. “I see people in my yoga class of all ages, and they all look good. People take care of themselves here.”
Maybe that’s just modern Boca and Delray, towns where everybody seems to have found their own personal fountain of youth.
Worth the Trip
1901 N. Military Trail, Boca Raton, 561-417-5836, farmerstableboca.com
Maybe seasonal and farm-to-table sound like trendy restaurant buzzwords, but this is a spot where it becomes clear why those things are important. Fresh vegetables and well-sourced meats turn into stellar dishes, like the grass-fed burger with fig-onion jam or the stir-fry Buddha bowl stuffed with chunky noodles and crispy veggies.
Seagate Beach Club
401 S. Ocean Blvd., Delray Beach, seagatedelray.com
Unless you’re one of the lucky few to actually have a house right on the beach, the next best thing is beach club membership. In fact, maybe beach club membership is better, considering this one is one of South Florida’s most exclusive, prettiest beachfront locales. Initiation will cost you $25,000, yearly dues run $4,300, and the cabanas you’ll surely want to rent are extra.
404 Plaza Real, Boca Raton, 561-368-0080, maxsgrille.com
Restaurants typically don’t remain this good for this long, but the crowds that always gather here are evidence that Max’s has figured out the recipe. It’s hard to go wrong at dinner, with items like chili-roasted fish tacos and a killer chopped salad. But the real scene is at the bar, from happy hour to closing.
327 Plaza Real, Boca Raton, 561-362-0606, miznerpark.com.
Mizner is one of those rare entertainment districts that’s always happening. During the day, shoppers dart between the boutiques, like Martier and Lord & Taylor, and the jewelry showcase that is Les Bijoux. At night in season every restaurant seems to have a wait, and the iPic redefines going to a movie with electric recliners and fine food served throughout the show. Outdoor concerts and a veritable park in the center complete the feeling that this is an all-day destination.
Spanish River Park
3001 A1A, Boca Raton, 561-393-7815
First, there’s the beach, a glorious stretch of sand with sea-grape bushes blocking the view to civilization. Then there’s the Intracoastal on the other side, with water so clear you can spot massive tarpon swimming past and crayon-colored starfish dotting the bottom. And finally there’s the park itself, mostly shaded and untouched wilderness, full of picnic spots, nature trails, and a few places to pretend you’re a pioneer in Florida.