The Breakers Palm Beach is getting its groove back.
When your history goes back to the Gilded Age, leaning on your pedigree can become a bad habit. This is Palm Beach, after all, and for years, the Breakers could do no wrong.
But change has come. The biggest changes have been cosmetic. L'Escalier restaurant and the Tapestry Bar in the resort's main building have now become HMF. Named after Henry Morrison Flagler, HMF is a hip, clubby cocktail lounge with a DJ spinning hip-hop and a young crowd sipping classic cocktails. Around midnight, it resembles a scene from last year's "The Great Gatsby."
Across the street inside the Ocean Clubhouse, the second-floor Flagler Steakhouse has been transformed by the same designer behind HMF. Adam D. Tihany, who also designed Per Se and Le Cirque 2000 in New York, turned a dull golf-club steakhouse into a divinely modern, 120-seat restaurant. Boldly striped wall coverings and a wooden-beamed ceiling provide plenty of classic, clubby touches. But the colorful, oversized paintings of cattle and cowboy hats are anything but classic. Ponderosa meets Palm Beach in this $2 million redo.
The food — prime steaks are a specialty — is solidly three stars. But nothing I tasted would make me seek out Flagler Steakhouse ahead of, say, Cut 432 in Delray Beach or Prime 112 in Miami Beach.
We started with classic clams casino ($17) — here called Bronx-style, although I'm not sure why, and nor did our waiter. What were surely Littlenecks get the standard bacon and breadcrumb treatment. I often think this is a dish for people who like bacon more than they like clams, although it's a pleasantly salty bite with drinks. Grilled fresh artichokes ($22) are served with two kinds of dipping sauce: Green Goddess and Cascabel chili aioli. It's a nice touch.
Salads were incredible. Chopped kitchen sink Gorgonzola salad ($16) combines all kinds of vegetables (green beans, asparagus) with frisee and other greens in a simple olive-oil-and-herb vinaigrette. Garlic-roasted golden beets ($16) get mixed with arugula, double-cream feta and citrus vinaigrette.
I don't envy Flagler's kitchen having to juggle such a big menu. I counted nine prime steaks and more than 25 other entrees, including Italian dishes, fish and broiler offerings. They serve everything from a Chicago-style kosher hot dog ($19) to Alaska king crab legs ($55). This is a restaurant that wants to please as many palates as possible. Mostly, it does.
Tater tots and loaded baked potato are the only potatoes on the 14-item list of side dishes ($14). We settled on caramelized Brussels sprouts with Burgers bacon from Missouri and a center-cut cauliflower steak with lemon and raisins. The sprouts relied a little heavily on bacon.
Pan-roasted branzino ($39) is served with Meyer lemon butter and Romesco sauce. It's a nicely sized fillet, but just a bit overdone. So too was the bone-in, dry aged, 16-ounce New York strip steak ($62), although the flavor was good and the cut was lean in all the right places. Likewise, a 14-ounce rib-eye ($51) was top quality, although it wasn't cooked the way I'd ordered it. I wanted it charred — Pittsburgh-style — on the outside and medium-rare inside. But the char didn't materialize. Rack of Colorado lamb ($51) with a garlic-herb-and-Dijon crust was incredibly tender.
Master sommeliers Virginia Philip and Juan Gomez have put together a wine list that may be a little too extensive for a steakhouse. Desserts had an old-fashioned commissary quality: multilayered chocolate cake ($14), lemony cheesecake ($14) and an old-fashioned spiced carrot cake ($12).
Service had some of the old formality I remember from the Breakers, although the bus staff can use a lesson in not reaching over one guest to serve another. That said, wait staff wear nifty navy-blue uniforms designed specifically for the steakhouse by Cintas uniform's luxury division. The women look like they just stepped out of "Mad Men." The men look like 1950s bellhops.
The Breakers is cool again.
The Breakers Ocean Clubhouse, 2 S. County Road, Palm Beach
Cost: Expensive-very expensive
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily, brunch Sunday
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full service
Sound level: Conversational
Outside smoking: Yes
For kids: Highchairs, boosters, menu
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Complimentary valet