Given the astonishing affluence of Palm Beach, it is surprising that the town has relatively few restaurants of particular note. I would have supposed that a concentration of people for whom the final check is not a primary concern would have drawn flocks of aspiring young chefs, keen to make their names and their fortunes. Perhaps the sky-high cost of suitable premises is the primary deterrent. On the other hand, it’s not that there are few restaurants; it’s just that many are rather predictable in character. In the winter high season, places like the Palm Beach Grill (American classics including steaks and burgers) and Café L’Europe (Wiener schnitzel, calf’s liver and chicken Milanese) are so popular that tables are handed down from parents to children like treasured heirlooms. A disproportionate percentage of the snowbirds who arrive each December are New Yorkers, and they have even brought their favorite restaurants with them. Both La Goulue (East 61st Street) and Le Bilboquet (East 60th Street) have Palm Beach outposts that are similarly oversubscribed. However, even if Palm Beach cannot boast a vibrant cutting-edge food scene — maybe it’s just not that kind of place — it is still possible to eat extremely well. The establishments below number among my favorites.
Best Traditional Italian: Marcello’s La Sirena
This family-owned restaurant has a slightly unexpected location, beside U.S. Route 1, 3 miles south of downtown West Palm Beach. From the outside it seems an unremarkable structure, set back from an anonymous stretch of road. But since it first opened in 1986, Marcello’s La Sirena has enjoyed a considerable reputation, and it is one that remains entirely well deserved. Inside, diners are greeted by a striking quartzite bar, beamed ceilings, subdued lighting and tables covered with starched white cloths. The waiters are scrupulously polite and wear immaculate cream jackets. Everything is deeply traditional — this is the Italian restaurant that your parents took you to, in celebration of your mother’s significant birthday — but there is an immediate impression of professionalism and a dedication to excellence. Owner and chef Marcello Fiorentino, who took over the restaurant from his parents, serves a menu of elevated Italian comfort food, backed by an enormous wine list. (It arrived at our table in a massive leather binder, which made it look rather like the Book of Kells or some similarly weighty medieval manuscript.) We opted for classics: lobster ravioli and vongole al forno (baked clams), followed by yellowtail snapper oreganata and saltimbocca alla Romana. All were superbly well prepared and utterly delicious. To complete the experience of time travel, we then opted for zabaione with seasonal berries for dessert. One of the best things about Marcello’s La Sirena is that despite being slightly formal and somewhat conservative, it is thoroughly friendly and unpretentious. When I passed over the Italian reds, quite a few of which come with four-figure price tags, and instead selected a relatively modest $60 Vermentino, the waiter smiled and seemed genuinely enthusiastic about my choice.
Marcello’s La Sirena
6316 South Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach. Tel. (561) 585-3128