No doubt, 2021 was a challenging year for us all. It began with the COVID pandemic still raging, and continued with a seemingly endless stream of bad news: The condo collapse in Miami, the Suez Canal forced to close, impeachment hearings divided the nation, the disastrous fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, and two new COVID variants emerged. Hurricane Ida, ferocious tornadoes, floods, and raging forest fires decimated our country, while Mother Nature manifested her fury against climate change and global warming worldwide with more earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, cyclones, landslides, typhoons, and tsunamis. And finally, even our NYE celebration was dampened by the sudden loss of the legendary Betty White. Last year was tough for everyone, but it was particularly hard on restaurants. Those who survived the pandemic and shutdowns of 2020 were finally starting to recover – only to be hit by a series of non-stop whammies: The Delta variant, followed by the ultra-contagious Omicron; Severe supply chain shortages; Dramatic food (and all supply) price increases; Drastic labor shortages; Decreased consumer disposable income due to unprecedented inflation under the Biden economy; Increased delivery service fees; and continuous loss of customer base as would-be customers opted to work from home (if at all) instead of their office. Wow! Yet somehow, many local restaurants survived, and thrived – and even opened anew. As always, we welcomed a veritable buffet of new restaurants into the Boca/Delray market – and we lost many, as well. And so, my fellow foodies, here’s your annual guide to our culinary comings & goings, in something I like to call, “The Restaurant Year in Review.”
Delray Beach took the early lead in the 2021 restaurant race, starting with the glorious new Avalon Steak & Seafood, taking the prime Atlantic Ave space formerly occupied by L’Acqua. This stunning “coastal inspired steakhouse” brings elegance and panache to the Ave., offering a fine dining experience, but with a friendly, informal approach. The menu shines with specialties like grass-fed, 28-day dry-aged Prime steaks, and a truly unique dry-aged bone-in Tuna “Ribeye.” Delray then made national news with the highly anticipated launch of Delray Beach Market, the largest food hall in Florida, sporting nearly thirty fast-casual eateries and bars, plus retail shops. Its grand opening even brought in Gov. DeSantis for the ribbon cutting. In addition to all the original restaurants (see my Sept/Oct 2021 Tastings article for a full review!), some new players subsequently entered the Market, including Freshop, Jamón Jamón, La Casona, Maison Bouchard, and Shì-Chang. A few months later, Delray Beach was again in the news, with the premier of The Ray Hotel in Pineapple Grove and its two culinary venues, Ember Grill (upscale steakhouse), and Rosewater Rooftop, a chill rooftop restaurant lounge with its own pool bar. The Pineapple Grove strip also welcomed Lulu’s Café & Cocktails (taking the former Banyan spot), Izza Pizza, Whit’s Frozen Custard, Oceanside Gardens, and Coco Sushi Lounge & Bar (in the former Kyoto and SoLita grounds) by Chef Jason Zheng and Tina Wang, the same creative couple who brought us Saiko-I and Yakitori in Boca Raton. The long-standing Delray Beach Marriott underwent a complete makeover, including a new name, “Opal Grand Resort,” and a new feature restaurant dubbed Drift. Downtown Delray also welcomed Amar Mediterranean Bistro on E. Atlantic (in the former Scuola Vechhia Pizza spot), and Throw Social, converting the former Prime and Il Bacio spaces into a sprawling multi-concept entertainment venue. Finally, Meso Beach House opened on December 30 (just barely making the list), offering its mixed Mediterranean menu in the capacious waterside venue formerly housing Che! (and Hudson at Waterway East before then).
Head west on Atlantic Ave. to check out the new restaurants in the Delray Marketplace (not to be confused with the Delray Beach Market!). Leading the way was Ganzo Sushi, offering the most creative and expansive pan-Asian menu in town, featuring Thai, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Poke, and traditional Japanese specialties along with its incredible sushi program. The Agency Kitchen & Bar took over former Burger & Beer Joint adjacent to the Paragon Theaters, which replaced the former Frank Cinemas with a complete new upgrade. Also new to Marketplace: Ocean One Bar & Grille, with a surprisingly affordable modern American menu (plus 3-for-1 drink specials!), and Tex-Mex newcomer Dos Amigos Tacos. Nearby, whiskey haven Warren American Whiskey Kitchen brought its intoxicating whiskey library (over 900 labels!) and creative gastropub fare to the new West Delray Plaza, which also welcomed Nekter Juice Bar and Carmella Coffee. Also new to the Delray scene: Red Crab Juicy Seafood, a Cajun-inspired casual crab shack concept; Joyfull Refresh Bar on Seacrest Blvd., Bambini’s Garden Pizza on N. Military Trail, and Teriyaki Express in Delray Square.
Of course Boca Raton also saw its annual onslaught of new restaurant openings, with most of the action taking placed downtown, as usual. Most notably, Corvina Seafood Grill opened in Palmetto Place, bringing a new upbeat and sophisticated spark to the E. Palmetto Park Road area. With its chic setting, lively patio and bar scene, and spectacular seafood-forward cuisine (by Celebrity Chef Je Tunks), Corvina unequivocally gets my vote for “Boca’s Best New Restaurant.” Big news came with the long-awaited reopening of the Boca Raton Resort & Club (renamed “The Boca Raton”) and its new restaurants, The Flamingo Grill (steakhouse), Marisol (Greek), Sadelle’s (bagel deli), MB Supper Club, and Mulligan’s (golf course café). And speaking of hotels, the Waterstone Resort launched its new SeaSpray Inlet Grill, Boca’s first Dockand- Dine venue, offering Chef Kelley Randall’s “elevated Florida coastal cuisine” and cool cocktails amidst a totally chill outdoor waterfront deck. Mizner Park finally filled one of its six vacant restaurant spaces, with Calaveras Cantina, the high-energy Tex-Mex emporium in the former Junior’s spot. Just across the street, Mizner Plaza (NE 2nd Street) welcomed 2nd Street Bagels & Deli, cranking out a surprisingly large array of good (really good!) NY bagel deli cuisine, including its own handmade bagels; along with the curiously-named Long Story Short Café, plus Raaw Gourmet Meat Market. Nearby Royal Palm Place added to its restaurant roster with Moreilia Gourmet Paletas (gourmet popsicles), Kixi’s Café (breakfast café), and Alley Cat (sushi).
Downtown Boca also welcomed Tucci’s Kitchen (by the Tucci’s Fire N Coal Pizza folks), Uncle Pinkie’s Deli, and D’Cuban Bistro (taking the short-lived Bonjour Vietnam spot), all on E. Palmetto Park Road. Meanwhile, Eat District opened in the Fifth Avenue Shops on N. Federal, introducing its own “create your own bowl” concept with a unique pan-Asian flair. Enticing ingredients like Korean Steak Bulgogi, Thai Coconut Chicken, Lemongrass Shrimp, Garlic Korean Potato Noodles, and Kimchee make the options endless, and truly unique. Also check out the other non-bowl specialties, like Vietnamese Pho, Crystal Shrimp Dumplings, Japanese Gyozo, and Thai Sticky Wings and Coconut Soup – and the cool robot who delivers your food (I could eat here every day!). Fifth Avenue Shops also welcomed Arun’s Indian Kitchen / Taco Masala, with a full fast-casual Indian menu (but no tacos!). Local Seoul Asian Kitchen (taking the former space of the beloved Stateside Sandwiches), Boba Street Café, and Stoner’s Pizza Joint also opened in downtown Boca. A bit further north, Chef Anthony Hoff opened Los Bocados on N. Federal, giving Boca a taste of his exceptional fast-casual Mexican cuisine that has developed a cult-like following since originally opening in Parkland a few years ago (in a convenience store!). Other new eateries in the north part of town include La Rural Argentine Steakhouse, Kousine Peruvian Kitchen, Sunset Sushi, and How Ya Dough’n pizza parlor (all on N. Federal Hwy), along with Café Mon Ami (Kosher French Bakery Café), the short-lived Val’s GF Café, and Proper Ice Cream in the Park Place Mall on North Military Trail. Central Boca also got in on the action, starting with long-delayed arrival of Walt’s American Grille & Bar in the Shoppes at Village Point on SW 18th Street. Featuring its contemporary twist on classic American comfort food, sophisticated setting, and lively happy hour scene, Walt’s has sparked new life into Boca Del Mar. Walt’s then got a new neighbor, when The D in Delicious, a gourmet chocolate shop, also opened in Village Point. And just across the street, UB-Thai took over the former Me Sen spot on SW 18th Street, offering a new hot spot for sushi & Thai. Heading up the street a bit, The Fountains plaza on Powerline Road welcomed Oak & Ember (in the former The Venue spot), giving us a new upscale, independently owned steakhouse (a rarity nowadays), that also happens to be Kosher. The short-lived Eiden Wok, and its Chinese take-out successor, Bao Boca also opened in The Fountains. Other new entrants in central Boca include Souvlaki Fast in the Regency Centers on St. Andrews Blvd, Vivo Pizza & Pasta and then its successor Carma Cucina in the Shops of Boca Center, and the ill-fated Balux Boca night club, which quickly closed its restaurant component. Meanwhile, the west side got a major boost with opening of the new Uptown Boca development on West Glades. Leading the pack was Lazy Dog, the only major national player to enter our market last year. Lazy Dog has already become west Boca’s top dog, offering crowd-pleasing scratch-kitchen cuisine, huge outdoor patio, friendly service, reasonable prices, a great bar scene, and a laid back ‘ski lodge’ setting. The extensive menu touches nearly every genre, from light bites, healthy bowls, and irresistible pull-apart Pizza Sticks, to hearty entrees and luscious desserts (including ample gluten-free, vegan, and kids offerings), plus special Family Meals to share. But Lazy Dog’s real claim to fame is its chef-driven renditions of classic American comfort food, like Bison Meatloaf, real-deal Chicken Pot Pie, Fried Chicken, Campfire Pot Roast, Ham & Broccoli Mac ‘N Cheese, and its incredible Butter Cake. You can even take home some frozen TV Dinners (hand packed in house daily) in old-school aluminum trays, including dessert (talk about childhood memories!). Uptown Boca’s other new tenants include Bonesh Grill (relocated from its long-standing Powerline Rd. location), Bolay, BurgerFi, Carmela Coee, Chik-Fil-A, Just Salad, Oliv U, Sloan’s Ice Cream, and Lynora’s (Italian). Skyfin Asian Bistro, The Pie House, RaRa’s Pizza & Wings in Loggers Run, and Uncle Loui G Italian Ice also now sport a new west Boca address.
SORRY, WE’RE CLOSED
Restaurant failures are an investable part of the business — but the restaurant gods were particularly brutal in 2021, striking down battle-tested warriors and promising young newcomers alike. In downtown Boca, an unfortunate re caused the long-standing Kanpai on N. Federal Hwy. to shut down “temporarily,” but its future remains uncertain. Nearby newcomers Bonjour Vietnam and Local Seoul Asian Kitchen each closed in less than one year, along with veterans True and Frank & Dino’s. Central Boca witnessed the demise of the popular Monet Cafe (after 31 years!) in the Garden Shops, which also lost Burger King. Boca Del Mar diners also bid farewell to Tijuana Flats in Palms Plaza, Mei Sen on SW 18th Street, and Madison’s NY Grill on Glades Road. Uchi Sushi (Glades Rd.), Vivo Pizza & Pasta (Shops of Boca Center), and Val’s GF Café (Spanish River Blvd.) also died, before they could even celebrate their first birthday.
Delray Beach lost a beloved treasure, when Doc’s All-American finally folded its cards after 70 years. The iconic 1950’s Burger & Shake joint first opened in 1951, and was Delray’s longest-lasting restaurant. But Doc’s was more than just a restaurant – it was a true institution, and a nostalgic taste of simpler times (a la Arnold’s Drive-In on Happy Days). Another long-standing veteran, 5th Avenue Grill, served its last steak after 30 years in Delray. Mellow Mushroom, the grooviest pizza and craft beer joint you’ll ever find — especially with its 1960’s theme and historic album collection, finally fell victim to the economy after its 15-year run (bummer, dude!). Downtown Delray also lost Che! on E. Atlantic Ave, Prime Steakhouse and Il Bacio on SE 2nd Ave, and Banyan Restaurant and Bar in Pineapple Grove, along with newcomers IncrediBowl, Professor Pops, Surry Co. Smokehouse, Tekka Bar, and Tiffin Box (all within their first year) in the new Delray Beach Market; while Apeiro in the Delray Marketplace also closed its doors.
Yes, 2021 was challenging, but also brought new life and excitement to our local dining scene. And this year looks to be even better, with several new major ventures already underway. And so, my fellow foodies, here’s wishing you all a delicious 2022, full of health and happiness — and of course, Good Eatin’!
Kenny Spahn is a renowned food critic, culinary author, restaurant authority, and veteran contributor to Simply The Best since 2004. He is President of Restaurant Placement Group, the exclusive recruiting and consulting firm for the Restaurant and Hospitality industry. www.RestaurantPlacement.com.