The Restaurant Year in Review: GOOD RIDDANCE, 2020!

New Year’s Eve, 2020: As the world watched the ball drop, we all welcomed the start of a new year — and (hopefully) a whole new era. If there’s one thing we can all agree upon, it’s saying “Good Riddance!” to 2020. Let’s face it, 2020 sucked. Every day seemed to bring more bad news, from contentious politics and economic losses, to massive rioting and social unrest, to record-setting natural disasters (and don’t forget the killer African Murder Hornets!) — 2020 was a year we’re glad to see gone. But of course, the primary gravamen was the cursed COVID-19 Coronavirus, and its resulting health crises, economic devastation, business restrictions, and overall psychological impact. The pandemic affected everyone and every business, but the restaurant & hospitality industry was particularly hard hit. Restaurants who were accustomed to managing long lines, crowded bars, and requiring reservations were suddenly faced with mandatory shutdowns, partial re-openings, and a plethora of new health and safety requirements that were simply unfathomed just a few weeks earlier. Some restaurants learned to adapt, developing new models incorporating tactics like outside delivery services, contactless curbside pickup, and packaged ‘take & bake” meal kits. The pandemic even benefited certain operations (i.e., pizza parlors, already ideally set up for take-out and delivery), but it proved quite fatal for many others. As always, the Boca/Delray market welcomed many new restaurants last year — but we lost even more. And so, my fellow foodies, here again is your annual guide to our culinary comings & goings, in something I call, “The Restaurant Year in Review.”

The most exciting new opening last year occurred in Delray Beach, with the long-anticipated launch of Lionfish, taking the former Luigi’s Coal Oven Pizza spot on Atlantic Avenue. Sporting a classic-meets-contemporary design, inventive ‘Modern Coastal Cuisine’ focusing on fresh, locally sourced and wild-caught seafood, and a killer bar scene, Lionfish quickly became the Go To hot spot along the Ave. Also in the aquatic arena, Seafood Street Eatery opened on Yamato Road in February (just before the pandemic!), filling the desperately needed void for fresh seafood at affordable prices in a casual ‘mom ‘n pop’ setting.

Following the trend of recent years, 2020 brought us more American concepts, which usually take upon a more hip persona such as “contemporary American,” “upscale comfort food,” or “chef-driven gastropub” cuisine. Roadhouse opened in The Fountains Center on W. Camino Real (replacing Butcher Block steakhouse), featuring Chef Seth Warshaw’s contemporary twists on familiar classics, while still keeping it all Kosher. Downtown Boca welcomed The Standard in Royal Palm Place (in the former Domus Italian spot), with its take on “upscale American cuisine and unique cocktails.” In Delray Beach, Chef James Strine (Buccan, Grato) debuted his creative “New Florida Cuisine” at the new Taru in the historic Sundy House; while The Agency Kitchen & Bar opened in the Paragon Theaters, replacing Burger & Beer Joint (which had replaced Red Brick Grille) at Delray Marketplace.

Italian restaurants historically dominate our market, and 2020 was certainly no exception. Carmela’s opened in The Fountains Center in Boca Del Mar (replacing Mozart’s Café), showcasing Chef Seth Warshaw’s inspired seafood-forward contemporary Italian menu, that also happens to be Kosher; followed by Pizzeria Sophia, a full-serve family Italian restaurant and pizzeria, on US 441 in Delray. But the vast majority of new Italian eateries were not full-service ristoranti, but rather pizzerias and casual Italian operations specializing in take-out and delivery — reflecting, no doubt, the new norm under the pandemic. To wit, Angelo’s To Go opened in Mizner Plaza (in the former Doughboy Donuts spot), with Chef Angelo Landi serving up some of the best real-deal homemade Italian classics this side of Arthur Avenue for pick-up and delivery. Even more indicative of the times, Chef Koby Wexler introduced his unique Detroit-style pan pizza (a rare treat in Florida!) with Death by Pizza, open only one day each week, for pick-up only, and available only by online advance order. An unlikely business plan indeed, but apparently quite successful, as he continuously sells out, and avid fans order weeks in advance to get their Detroit delicacy. Other new pizza shops include Mama Sue’s Pizza & Wings on NW Boca Raton Blvd., Aunt LuLu’s NY Style Pizza & Kitchen on N. Hampton Drive, and the short-lived Anne Marie Bakery Pizza Café on N. Federal. Also on the Italian menu, the new Joseph’s Classic Market opened in Boca Town Center (relocating from its former Boca Center locale), offering a wide range of prepared Italian foods to go, in addition to its Italian market and grocery store.

As always, several Asian concepts also entered the fray. Most notably, the long-awaited return of The Blue Fish in Mizner Park, in the choice space previously occupied by Rack’s Downtown Eatery. Longtimers may fondly remember The Blue Fish from its old Atlantic Avenue locale, and were excited to see their former favorite return to the area — but unfortunately, it did not last long. On a different Asian note, Tacowa Korean BBQ & Taco opened on E. Palmetto Park Road in the former East Side Café spot, offering its unique fusion of Korean street food (i.e. Bibimbap, Bulgogi, Kimchee) and Mexican tacos. Vietnamese food fans can now get their Pho fantasy PHO-filled with the create-your-own Pho menu at Dragon Pho on NW 20th Street, along with other Vietnamese specialties from spring rolls to Boba tea. Wok Boca opened in the Polo Club Shops with a traditional Chinese American menu. On a more eclectic note, Hawkers Asian Street Fare introduced its veritable smorgasbord of various Asian street foods, including Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Korean, Vietnamese, and Malaysian.

We also got a nice shmear of delis and cafes, including the January launch of La Boulangerie Boul’Mich, a delightful French café (difficult to pronounce, but easy to love) in Boca Town Center, with its delicious artisan Baguette sandwiches, egg creations, croissants, and other French delights to accompany its stellar coffee bar. Carmela Coffee Company later opened on N. Federal (replacing fellow coffeehouse R1 Coee & Tea), offering a full coffee bar, along with sandwiches, salads, panini, and such.

But last year’s most prevalent segment continued the 2019 trend, bringing us even more fast-casual build-your-own-bowl offerings. The concept is basically similar, with each place offering its own take on health-oriented bowl creations comprising a variety of bases, proteins, toppings, and sauces. Check out CoreLife Eatery in Lakeside Centre (on Glades Road), with its healthy selection of salad and grain bowls, and its unique specialty — broth bowls. On a more refreshing note, SoBol opened nearby in Boca Lyons Plaza (also on Glades, and also in July), featuring its delicious array of (‘so damn good you’ll forget they’re healthy’) fresh-made acai and pitaya bowls, smoothies, and Belgium waffles, along with a full coee & kombucha bar. Zuco Juice Bar opened on SE 7th Street, bringing its healthy array of fresh-squeezed juice concoctions (made fresh to order, and grab ‘n go bottles) to downtown Boca; while Fit Fuel Smoothie & Coffee Bar introduced its smoothies and coee bar to West Boca Plaza, along with Crepes, sandwiches, and salads. Bear’s Food Shack opened on North Federal in January, and soon thereafter morphed into the new Aloha Food Shack, combining all the above (grain bowls, acai bowls, poke, salads, smoothies, wraps), along with tacos, breakfast wraps, a full bar, and live entertainment. On the opposite end of the spectrum (i.e., not-so-healthy), new BurgerFi on Linton Blvd., and JB’s Burger in Boca Town Center presented us with more options to get high-quality burgers, fries, and shakes.

Meanwhile, Greek and Mediterranean foodies can now fill their pitas at Olive U Mediterranean Grill in Park Place on N. Military Trail. Olive U offers a similar build-your-own-bowl concept, but speaks with a decided Greek/Mediterranean accent, with proteins like gyro, shawarma, and falafel; bases such as pita bread, cinnamon rice, and hummus; and add-ons including tzatziki, hummus, baba ghanoush, and stuffed grape leaves. Also new on our international menu: Runas Peruvian Cuisine in Royal Palm Place; the short-lived El Sazón de mi Tierra on W. Glades Road; and Indian Harvest (replacing fellow Indian Tanjore) in Royal Palm Place. Other new venues in town include Ash Cigar Bar & Lounge on N. Federal, with (unlike most cigar bars) a creative tapas restaurant, and new desserteries Mindy’s Munchies on Glades and Midnight Cookies & Cream on SE 20th Street.

The restaurant business is notoriously brutal, with the highest failure rate of any industry (just read any of my previous “Restaurant Year in Review” articles!), but last year’s pandemic, and its resulting shutdowns, job losses, economic hardships, remote working, loss of tourism, and general health concerns brought an unprecedented level of restaurant closings. We witnessed the demise of long-standing institutions and hopeful newcomers alike, as the restaurant Gods showed no mercy. Even the big national chains fell victim. Most notably, Sweet Tomatoes’ wonderful ‘Salad & More’ buet was a perennial favorite and constantly busy. But the model was not conducive to pandemic dining, resulting in the demise of not only its longstanding Boca Del Mar shop, but the entire national chain. Other big guns to fold their cards (locally, at least) include Brio Tuscan Grille in Boca Center, The Outback on SW 18th Street, and both Zinburger and Boston Market in Boca Town Center.

American-themed restaurants are always a major segment of our dining scene, but last year witnessed the loss of Burger & Beer Joint in the Delray MarketPlace, Smoke BBQ on N. Federal Highway, Butcher Block and its sister Butcher Block Express in the Fountains Plaza, and Charley’s Philly Cheese Steaks in Boca Town Center. We also bid a sad arrivederci to some Italian amici, including upscale Domus (Royal Palm Place), and Scuola Vechhia, the area’s only authentic Napolitano pizzeria, on Atlantic Ave; along with Anne Marie Bakery Pizza Café (N. Federal), and Mama’s Pizza & Pasta (Hampton Drive).

Casual delis, cafes, and sandwich shops took a particularly hard hit last year – due, no doubt, to the dramatic decline in lunchtime business from nearby office workers, who suddenly found themselves working from home (if at all). I was particularly sad to see the wonderful JJ’s Café & Deli (which replaced former deli, My DELIcious Deli) in the Garden Shops close. Long-time veterans Boca Breakfast Club in Royal Palm Place and Toojay’s in Polo Club Shoppes likewise bit the dust, along with downtown Boca newcomers East Side Cafe and Meet Point. Other fatalities include LocalGreens in Delray Place Center, both R1 Coffee & Tea locations (N. Federal Highway and Military Trail); and Toast Café, Beehive Kitchen, Bear’s Food Shack, and The Tree Café, all on North Federal Highway in Boca.

The harsh reality of 2020 was equally shared by an array of our international eateries, including Asian (Hashi Sushi & Thai on Glades, Asia in Fountains Plaza, Tobu in Town Center, and the short-lived Wok Boca in the Polo Club Shops); Indian (Tanjore in Royal Palm Place); Brazilian & Latino (All Meats Brazilian Steakhouse, Ricarena, Little Brazil, and then its successor El Sazón de mi Tierra); Continental (The Winemaker’s Table); and Kosher (Mozart’s Café in Fountains Plaza). Our collective sweet tooth also now has a few less temptations, with the loss of FroYo Frenzy in Royal Palm Place, Jupiter Donuts on Spanish River Blvd, and Doughboy Donuts in Mizner Plaza. Several drinking establishments finally called their final Last Call last year, including Delray’ beloved 45-year veteran The Frog Lounge; along with Paradise Sports Lounge and The O.G. (both in Delray), and Mad Robot Brewing Company in Boca’s Paseo’s Plaza, which took over the former Funky Buddha Lounge.

The most tragic loss, however, was Stateside Sandwiches in downtown Boca. But, it did not close due to the pandemic, but rather the sudden and untimely passing of Chef/Owner Steven Tart. Stateside Sandwiches was totally unique and simply incredible (as I described in my July/Aug 2019 STB review, it wasn’t just another sub shop, but created “gourmet meals on bread”). Chef Steven was a kind, benevolent, and generous soul with a true culinary gift and a sincere passion for the art — and he will be dearly missed.

And speaking of closings, we must pay homage to Skyline Chili in Ft. Lauderdale, which served its last 3-Way and Cheese Coney after fifty years. The iconic mainstay on Federal Highway was one of the longest lasting restaurants in south Florida — and it was the very first, and for several decades the only place outside of Cincinnati with authentic Cincinnati-style chili. Even more heartbreaking was the sudden closing of the legendary Mai Kai a few blocks down on Federal Hwy. Mai Kai is a true national treasure (registered in the National Registry of Historic Landmarks), has garnered innumerable awards and accolades including “The Best Tiki Bar in the World” award, and boasted the largest rum menu in the country. Mai Kai and its distinctive ‘Tiki Hut’ structure stood as a distinctive landmark for over sixty years, making it one of the nation’s longest lasting independent restaurants that owns its own land and building. Unfortunately a massive roof collapse forced Mai Kai to shut down “for renovation,” but its future remains uncertain. Let’s hope and pray we don’t lose this cherished landmark…

Conversely, some hopeful new ventures didn’t even last one year. Wok Boca in the Polo Club Shoppes, for instance, closed just a few months after it opened. Meet Point also died after a few months. Other newbies who never got to celebrate their first birthday include Anne Marie Bakery Pizza Café, JJ’s Café & Deli, East Side Café, and Beehive Kitchen, to name a few. Whew! No doubt, 2020 was one for the books. And even though it restricted and limited our dining options and led to the loss of so many restaurants, it also brought us a full menu of new restaurants — and new ways to enjoy them. And now, with the industry starting to recover, mass inoculation programs already underway, loosening of restrictions, and tremendous pent-up demand, 2021 is starting to look very promising. In fact, several new exciting ventures are scheduled to open by the time this issue is published. And so, my fellow foodies, here’s wishing you a wonderful (and COVID-free!) 2021 full of health and happiness — and of course, Good Eatin’!

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