By Eric Barton
Happy hour is almost over at Delray Beach’s Cut 432 when a woman pulls out a chair at the end of the bar. She’s in a red cocktail dress, the low neckline embroidered in what looks like 1-ct. pearls. Her hair is long and silver. Her nails were just done up in racecar red. Her heels could chop ice. She’s maybe 70, and totally glamorous.
“Did I make happy hour?”
“You just made it,” the bartender says, putting both hands on the bar palm down.
“Oh good.” The woman orders – get this – a three dollar wine. And it’s good too, a cabernet that tastes of plums and cherries. There’s also a dry merlot that’s a tad chocolaty.
The woman doesn’t order food, but if she did she’d score oysters Rockefeller or truffle mac for $5. There are sliders – two per order – that taste like chopped steak. You could quit your job, travel the country searching for the world’s best sliders, and still come back here.
“Oooh,” the woman coos after taking a sip of wine, making that sound someone uses only when happy hour has begun to help them forget a rough day.
Next to the woman is a man in an old shirt unbuttoned nearly to his stomach. His wife is in a sundress with flip-flops, the kind you buy from a store at the beach when you’ve lost yours. There’s also a guy in a suit with no tie, two guys in T-shirts, and a husband and wife pair that look out of the Versace catalog.
It’s Delray Beach in a cross section, a quirky place where the beach bum on a Harley might be a billionaire. It’s an approachable town with arguably South Florida’s best happy hour, the most lively bar crowd, and the most happening restaurant scene. That’s at least true when you figure it’s a town of about 60,000 people – and there’s seemingly a seat at a fancy restaurant for every one of them.
It all started back in 1993, when bureaucrats floated the idea of turning Atlantic Avenue into a six-lane hurricane evacuation route. The plan would’ve paved over Delray’s downtown, which, back then, shut down by five most days and spent summers boarded up. Locals rallied for something better, and Marjorie Ferrer came in to take over the Downtown Development Authority.
“Everyone went to the malls back then for the free parking. The first thing we had to do was trick people to come back downtown,” recalls Ferrer, who can take a lot of the credit for the city’s continued success. First, Delray added events, now a mainstay in Delray. Then they attracted high-end restaurants, cultivated retail space, and made sure there was plenty of ample, free parking.
Ferrer predicts they’re only halfway there. Class A office space is the next big goal. “We had 11 new businesses open last month,” she said in September. “It’s like Steve Jobs moving out of his garage. We’re just getting going.”
Over at the Buddha Sky Bar on that Saturday night, things are about to get hectic, and it’s only 6 o’clock. Private parties have somehow booked up the first and second floors of the swanky bar-restaurant-nightclub with the red rope line out front and oomph-oomph music pulsing. The only place for a drink is, possibly, the third floor, the sky bar portion of the Buddha Sky Bar. The hostess on the lower level radios up to her counterpart on the top floor.
“There are no immediate openings, but you can go up and check,” she says with a lovely smile.
Sideways ceiling fans spin slowly over the top floor, and a huge statue of a sprawled-out Buddha lounges at the end of the space. Miraculously, four seats open up at the bar, and the mixologist behind it offers to put together some pretty crazy stuff. Like the Asian coconut caipirinha, with cachaça, coconut syrup, lime juice, and ginger liquor. The food is no less daring, like the house-named rainbow roll, which boasts tempura salmon and Boursin cheese.
The aforementioned mixologist is a recent University of Miami grad who plays sax in a jazz band. He says the place recruited him from the bar he was manning in New York City. He had never been to Delray. “I love it, man,” he said. “It’s crazy.”
And the odd thing about Delray is that it has stayed consistently crazy for more than a decade, an eternity in South Florida. In that same time, West Palm’s Clematis Street and Fort Lauderdale’s Las Olas have had more ups and downs than a winter sail to the Bahamas.
Butch Johnson knows why. He’s the owner of 32 East, a place that has stayed consistently packed and reliably good since it opened in ’96. Johnson says Delray has remained a destination because of the quality of the restaurants.
“There’s a high standard on this avenue,” Johnson says. “When the economy dropped, a lot of places elsewhere dropped the quality of the product so they could lower prices. Not here.”
He ticks them off, the three good gastropubs, countless Italian joints, the casual dining spots. Every year, it seems there’s a new collection of hot places. “Think about the gastropubs,” Johnson says. “You wouldn’t think a high-end customer in Delray would go to a bar and eat burgers and hot dogs. But it’s a high-quality product, and when your quality is good, you’ll get them to come back.”
Atlantic Avenue’s success has spread north lately, down to an area off Northeast Second Avenue called Pineapple Grove. There are trattorias and art galleries. There’s an adult puppet theater. And at the end, in a fancy strip mall, is a tapas place where people wait for a table for two storefronts in both directions.
By 9 o’clock, every restaurant on the avenue seems to have filled every seat, including the fairly new Racks Fish House + Oyster Bar. The space spans both inside and out, with accordion windows left open nearly always. There’s an appetizer that’s not much more than incredibly fresh tomatoes and crispy hearts of palms, and it goes well before the well-seared scallops that sit on sweet-savory creamed corn.
Racks is one of the newer hotspots, but there are many more. People on Atlantic are walking quick as they head for them. Cars are cruising; valets are running full speed to wherever they hide the cars. Twinkle lights illuminate courtyards, and kids work off ice cream by playing tag in Old School Square. It’s Delray, the town that’s unendingly trendy.
Worth The Trip
Artist’s Alley in the Pineapple Grove Arts District
354 NE Fourth St., 561-330-4712, ArtistsAlleyDelray.com.
Studios in this slightly more industrial-looking side of downtown open up their spaces from 6-9 p.m. on the third Thursday of the month.
The 2013 Delray Affair attracted artists and crafters from 30 states and a dozen countries, and organizers expect even more April 25-27, 2014. The “Greatest Show under the Sun” stretches 12 blocks, from the Intracoastal to Old School Square Park. If crowded streets aren’t your bag, check out Delray’s smaller art festivals instead (visitdelraybeach.org).
9025 W. Atlantic Ave., Delray Beach,
Nightlife options used to end once you drove west from downtown. Now the Delray Marketplace offers dining, movies, and shopping at a downtown-like development anchored by the buzz around Burt & Max’s Grille.
Atlantic and Swinton avenues and parts east, Delray Beach, mydelraybeach.com/calendar/event
Delray expects 40,000 people at its New Year’s Eve celebration this year. But if you’re thinking of the drunken revelry of Himmarshee, this is something else entirely. This booze-free event is all about families, with a kick off time at 4 o’clock and entertainment throughout the night. Ten bucks gets you in with advanced purchase; $15 at the door.
and Japanese Gardens
4000 Morikami Park Road, Delray Beach, 561-495-0233, morikami.org.
It’s hard to imagine a more zen spot east of, well, the East. The expansive gardens and museum, a Japanese-style villa, were built to feel in harmony with nature, right down to exact placement of trees and stones. Go during a weekday to experience the calm, or check out the demonstrations, tea ceremonies and lantern festival for a lively look at Japanese culture.
IF YOU GO
32 E. Atlantic Ave., Delray Beach,
Buddha Sky Bar
217 E. Atlantic Ave., Delray Beach,
432 E. Atlantic Ave., Delray Beach,
Northeast Second Avenue and Northeast Fourth Avenue, Delray Beach, downtowndelraybeach.com/pineapple-grove-arts-district-shops-and-resturants.
Puppetry Arts Center
of the Palm Beaches
94 NE Second Ave., Delray Beach,
Racks Fish House + Oyster Bar
5 SE Second Ave., Delray Beach,