Simon Doonan's Palm Beach
Published: July 2011
By Simon Doonan
It may not be hip, but this Florida resort town has perfected the art of old-school glamour.
Six years ago, on my 50th birthday, I was kidnapped. “Don’t ask any questions. I’m taking you to Palm Beach,” said Jonathan Adler, the pottery designer and my bloke of long standing. I was uneasy. Jonathan, who is 14 years younger than I, has always delighted in making ageist jokes at my expense:
“How was the Renaissance?Was it as fabulous as everyone says?” Were his intentions honorable or was he planning to commemorate my half-century by dropping me off at some Florida retirement community?Was I destined to spend the rest of my life wearing a toupee and playing mah-jongg?
My suspicions were, as it turned out, totally off the mark. Lush, flamboyantly attired, and hospitable, Palm Beach exceeded its arch and quirky reputation. So amused were we by the anachronistic fabulousness of the place that we plonked down the deposit on a dreamy 1970’s beachfront condo. We succumbed to what I can only describe as the Palm Beach Slim Aarons fantasy.
From the 50’s to the 80’s, society portrait photographer Mr. Aarons focused his lens on what he described as “attractive people doing attractive things in attractive places.” The resulting stagy, campy portraits—many featuring privileged Palm Beach poseurs of varying degrees of physical beauty—were flashing through my mind as we salivated over our new pad. I envisioned myself draped like some potentate on a floor cushion in one of the overdecorated cabanas that encircle the condo pool, while Jonny peeled me a grape. Matching caftans, etc.
Our more bohemian (and faux-hemian) friends—they take surfing holidays at eco-resorts—were mystified by our new purchase. “Why Palm Beach?” they would ask with a pained, oh-my-God-you-have-become-so-totally-bourgeois intonation. Now, after six years of escaping New York each winter, I feel qualified to answer that question.
Palm Beach is, first and foremost, completely and utterly boring, and that’s a good thing. Let me explain: every November I spend approximately one week standing on the freezing Madison Avenue sidewalk outside Barneys overseeing the installation of the holiday windows that my elves and I have been designing and prepping for the previous six months. Once the installation is complete and the tableaux unveiled, I collapse into a cab with Jonny and Liberace, our Norwich terrier. Overstimulated, exhausted, and barely sentient, we barrel toward the airport and the promise of the ultimate in sensory deprivation: our Palm Beach condo. Once ensconced, we stare into the middle distance, or at the hummingbirds as they hover among the lush vegetation below. Languid and fabulously inert, deliciously serene and unchallenging, the tropical hallucination that is P.B. (that’s what we snowbirds call it) provides the visitor with a rare refuge from the jackhammering whirligig of life on Earth circa 2008. This absence of chaos is Palm Beach’s most valuable asset. It’s a Valium, it’s a quaalude, it’s an opiate, it’s a legal bong hit. The complete lack of anything much to do, combined with the natural beauty of the place, will force even the most wound-up soul to surrender to the restorative power of reading, walking on the beach, staring up at the pelicans and buzzards, lounging, napping, and eating, which brings us to reason number two.
Food is king in Palm Beach. This change-resistant resort has avoided any culinary innovation of the past several decades. It is not the place to come for foams, test tubes, or chocolate martinis. In P.B. you will find a relentless emphasis on simple 1950’s digestible fare. Yes, it’s true that the majority of your fellow diners will all be d’un certain âge. Look upon this as a bonus. I do—to enter any restaurant at 56 and bring the median age crashing down is a sweet thing.
There are the more grandiose, chandelier-festooned eateries, where the women wear tiaras. My personal favorite, however, is on South Dixie Highway in West Palm Beach— La Sirena. Jonny and I always share the yellowtail snapper for two, followed by a torta mattina for him and a torta caprese for me. Our game plan is fairly transparent: we minimize our entrée carbs so that we can pig out on the house-made desserts. As you leave, please remember to generously tip the blond valet who boldly indicates available parking spaces to new arrivals with the aid of a large flashlight. We like her.
For French rusticity—a rusticity that seems to be fizzling in France—we also like Bistro Chez Jean-Pierre. The vegetable soup and the shiitake salad are highlights. But more than that, Chez Jean-Pierre is the ne plus ultra of chichi Palm Beach exhibitionism, making it perfect for people-watching. Every woman is freshly coiffed in the style known locally as the “Palm Beach helmet.” These pampered types are accompanied either by their husbands or by their interior decorators. The latter are recognizable by their monogrammed velvet loafers. (Whenever I am in Chez Jean-Pierre, I always think of the following old joke: “Palm Beach is very Gay Nineties...all the women are ninety and all the men are gay.” Ba-boom!) If a casual night out is in order, we call Ed, the maître d’ of the insanely popular Palm Beach Grill, and beg for a reservation. Order your banana cream pie when you sit down. The locals are addicted to it.
As Jonny and I began to think about decorating our winter getaway, we made an interesting discovery: stylish Palm Beachers invariably dump their cast-off furniture and tchotchkes off at the South Dixie Highway vintage shops in West Palm Beach. Many of the residents decorated their groovy retirement pads during the swinging 60’s and 70’s. As a result, the available vintage furniture—Lucite end tables, Paul Evans chairs!—is some of the most collectible and glamorous in the world. There are zillions of great stores: my short list includes Shi & Erhard, Harris Kratz, Sabina Danenberg, C. Bell, Galere, and Objects in the Loft. If you’re into doodads like ridiculous sconces adorned with ostrich feathers, then Dolce—the most wacked-out emporium on the strip—is your kind of place. (Many a Dolce objet trouvé has adorned a Barneys holiday window.) A couple of doors down, Belle & Maxwell is a homey lunchtime restaurant filled with exhausted interior decorators and their clients ingesting salads and generous wedges of homemade key lime pound cake baked by a lady called Brady, who moonlights as a showroom hostess at the aforementioned Dolce. We like her, too.
When not out on the beach in front of our pad, or lunching at the beachfront café at the Four Seasons, we are often to be found on the trail along the Intracoastal Waterway. This gorgeous nature walk has the bonus of enabling us happy hikers to see the lavish homes of the residents. The 1960’s Regency pads, with their black glazed driveways and drive-through hedges, are one of the indigenous delights.
“Is there no real bona fide gritty excitement to be had in Palm Beach?” I hear you ask with a quiet desperation. Well, there is one guilty, pulse-quickening pleasure. If you like to watch bejeweled socialites duking it out for parking spaces—or, as Slim Aarons might have put it, “ancient people doing aggressive things in expensive automobiles”—there is no better place than the Publix supermarket parking lot, where you can enjoy the bumper cars to your heart’s content. Who says there’s no excitement here?
Where to Stay
301 Australian Ave.; 561/655-7740; thebraziliancourt.com; doubles from $619.
1 S. County Rd.; 561/655-6611; thebreakers.com; doubles from $550.
2800 S. Ocean Blvd.; 561/582-2800; fourseasons.com; doubles from $599.
Where to Shop
4906 S. Dixie Hwy., West Palm Beach; 561/533-6505.
3700 S. Dixie Hwy. No. 8, West Palm Beach; 561/832-4550.
3717B S. Dixie Hwy., West Palm Beach; 561/832-3611.
3901A S. Dixie Hwy., West Palm Beach; 561/832-8180.
3611 S. Dixie Hwy., West Palm Beach; 561/659-0403.
4900 S. Dixie Hwy., West Palm Beach; 561/533-5992.
431 Bunker Rd., West Palm Beach; 561/588-7288.
3230 S. Dixie Hwy., West Palm Beach; 561/228-8996.
Where to Eat
132 N. County Rd.; 561/833-1171; dinner for two $170.
6316 S. Dixie Hwy., West Palm Beach; 561/585-3128; dinner for two $100.
Palm Beach, 2800 S. Ocean Blvd.; 561/582-3740; lunch for two $70.
340 Royal Poinciana Way No. 336; 561/835-1077; dinner for two $80.