On a recent evening my wife and I parked at one of this city's numerous public parking facilities, and then strolled to our favorite restaurant, Jimmy's Bistro. Our route took us past an open art gallery, where the owner waved hello, and up an alley past the door of a restaurant kitchen where an elderly man in an apron, sitting on an upended crate and sipping a soda, greeted us softly as we passed.
From the distance, we could hear the thump thump thump of drums coming from Old School Square, where buskers often perform until late in the evening. The fragrance of tropical flowers kissed the evening air. At the restaurant, in the tiny, warmly lighted dining room, we enjoyed citrus duck and hanger steak in a soy-ginger sauce.
It is, after all, all about the food.
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Not content with being named America's Most Fun Small Town (USA Today and Rand McNally, 2012) or placing third in Coastal Living's 2015 Happiest Seaside Town awards, Delray Beach recently held a public workshop on making itself more "lovable."
That's about par for the course for this city of 65,000, which calls itself the Village by the Sea and sits on prime oceanfront real estate between Palm Beach (15 miles north) and Fort Lauderdale (25 miles south) along Florida's east coast.
That the place is "fun" is beyond dispute. Super-sized, on-demand (and free) golf carts ferry passengers up and down tree-lined Atlantic Avenue, which stretches east-west through the tropical downtown and ends at the city's public beach. Atlantic Avenue is lined with trendy boutiques and art galleries, but it's the dozens of open-fronted restaurants and bars along the avenue and its adjacent side streets that are putting Delray Beach on the map as a top new foodie destination.
According to Jason Binder, chef de cuisine at Brule Bistro Bar and Kitchen, winter visitors, who hail from cities like New York and Philadelphia and who know good food, have helped make Brule and other Delray Beach restaurants successful.
"We've never advertised," he says. "People know us only by word of mouth. We get people who expect good food here."
He also cites Brule's location in the Pineapple Grove artists' enclave, several blocks from Atlantic Avenue, for its part in the restaurant's success. "This is a more edgy, creative neighborhood. The energy makes us more creative, too."
Josh Perfit, general manager of the popular El Camino, where there is often a long wait to get in just for happy hour, says it is once-sleepy Delray's civic honors that have brought in a clientele, winter visitors and year-round residents alike, who expect good things.
"People here appreciate good food, uniquely prepared from scratch," he says over the lunchtime din. "Our craft kitchen produces virtually everything we use. Nothing is prepared outside. We make everything fresh every day. We braise our own meats for eight to 12 hours. We make our own infusions, our own tinctures, our own bitters for our margaritas."
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Delray's dining scene has become such an attraction that the company Savor Our City Culinary Tours offers customized group tours of the city's dining establishments with an opportunity to meet kitchen artisans and, of course, taste samples.
Local foodies credit one of El Camino's sister restaurants, Cut 432, a steakhouse (and one other game-changing restaurant, 32 East), with prompting Delray's gastronomic revolution.
El Camino was a logical extension for Cut 432's owners, the Modern Restaurant Group, which already had opened a second restaurant, the bustling and equally popular Park Tavern, serving American classics. However, they weren't sure if the space they had in mind for El Camino, just 2,200 square feet in a former mechanic's shop off Atlantic Avenue, would be large enough to turn a sufficient profit to warrant their investment.
After a year of construction — El Camino features industrial lighting, green leather booths and a bar built with old railroad ties — it soon earned its own honors, recently being named one of the country's top 100 restaurants by Open Table, the online dining reservation site.
Not all of the city's new restaurants are glitzy places where the patrons whip out platinum credit cards to settle up. The restaurant frenzy is also attracting new entrepreneurs like Lindsay Lipovich, who, with help from her co-owner father, Joe Lipovich, launched Lilo's All-American Café last year in a delightful, if miniscule, tree-shaded courtyard.
Kitchen manager and chef Tom Read credits fresh ingredients and low prices for the restaurant's success. "We don't have the space for a lot of storage, so we shop almost every day."
Lilo's isn't attempting to compete with Delray's larger and more expensive establishments, Read says. Rather, it "is a cute, friendly little place for excellent food at inexpensive prices," often as little as $3 or $4 for a freshly made-to-order sandwich.
The Billy Goat sandwich, made with goat cheese, fig jam and arugula on a ciabatta roll ($3, $4.50 with bacon), is especially popular. Two- and three-dollar tacos are also crowd pleasers.
Eating in Delray isn't confined to restaurants. The city, home to many festivals throughout the year, features several events dedicated solely to food and drink.
Among them, the Bacon and Bourbon Fest (March 18-19; delraybaconandbourbonfest.com) will "celebrate the pork and the barrel," in the words of its organizers, and feature the creations of invited chefs and distillers, who will vie for prizes and serve their creations and libations in downtown's Old School Square.
I expect we'll be heading to Jimmy's Bistro, listening to the thump thump thump of drums coming from the square.
Martin W.G. King retired to Delray Beach three years ago. He is the former editor of magazines and a weekly newspaper published in Washington, D.C.