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There were worse places to be than Palm Beach late one morning last February. The sun was shining. The streets were sparkling clean. Pastel people shopped and dined alfresco, and cars with six-figure price tags coasted down Worth Avenue and Royal Poinciana Way. In this Florida island enclave, you can easily convince yourself that nothing ever changes.
It would be three more weeks before the pandemic halted travel and altered everyone’s way of life. But instead of closing up shop, like so many other American towns, or emptying out as it normally would have as winter turned to spring and then summer and fall, Palm Beach remained a refuge. Indeed, it became a magnet.
Real estate values rose all year. My snowbird neighbors, who annually abandon our Manhattan luxury co-op, didn’t return. And their sultry shelter-in-place wasn’t the only new thing under the sun. Something unexpected occurred: Damn the pandemic, Palm Beach started changing. As new residents elbowed in to the town’s ranks of rich retirees, fleeing the virus (and taxes) and abetted by the flexibilities of working remotely, the old resort town began to bloom, with new restaurants, hotels, stores, and galleries—and with them came younger folks and families.
The changes actually began just pre-pandemic, so anticipation had already been growing when I dined last winter at LoLa 41, the first of several restaurants to have opened. A new branch of a Nantucket sushi-and-seafood bistro with an eclectic menu inspired by the cuisine of countries on the 41st parallel north, it was so crowded that my party had to feast on our Portuguese-style grilled octopus and king-crab rangoon at a tall bar table.
LoLa 41 is in the island’s newest hotel, White Elephant, also a Nantucket transplant. Located in a 1924 Mediterranean Revival landmark, the former Bradley Park Hotel, it has been thoroughly reimagined, with only its exterior remaining. Bright and filled with freshly commissioned contemporary art, with all-day outdoor courtyard dining beside a pool and a fleet of BMWs free for use by guests, it’s a sophisticated addition to the Palm Beach scene. Though its opening was inevitably delayed, general manager Bernhard Duerrmeier sees that as a blessing. “We’re fortunate to have had the opportunity to implement safety steps in time,” he says.
Down the road, Palm Beach’s most famous hotel dowager, the Colony, has gotten a striking facelift. Its lobby, newly christened the Living Room, features a 15-foot-tall pagoda over a massive fireplace and bespoke de Gournay wallpaper, a pattern alive with local flora and fauna that was created as a collaboration with Kemble Interiors and Colony owner Sarah Wetenhall. “A parallel Palm Beach has evolved,” Wetenhall says. “It’s making being a Palm Beacher much less of a trade-off and much more of a trade up.”
Newcomers (many of them resettled New Yorkers) will feel right at home with their older brethren in three imported Manhattan restaurants. Last season, Swifty’s, New York society’s watering hole until its closure in 2016, was reborn in a pop-up off the Colony’s lobby; it has now become permanent, as has a second location by the hotel’s pool. La Goulue and Le Bilboquet, both perennials on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, have also chased their fans south. The former, opened in October on “the best corner” in Palm Beach—Royal Palm and South County—“looks like La Goulue, tastes like La Goulue,” says owner Jean Denoyer. Philippe Delgrange’s outpost of Le Bilboquet shows off a tropical Deco style and signature dishes like Cajun chicken and tuna tartare. “I thought about Palm Beach for a long time,” he says. “New York people go there. I follow them.”
The still newish Royal Poinciana Plaza, a chic open-air shopping mecca, added locations of the prominent Pace, Gavlak, and Acquavella galleries, as well as a Sotheby’s and stores from Asprey London and Badgley Mischka. “The Palm Beach ladies love fashion,” says Beth Buccini, whose Kirna Zabête boutique came to the Royal, as the plaza is known by locals, in 2017. Now Lingua Franca and LoveShackFancy have followed. Says Lingua Franca’s Rachel Hruska MacPherson, “You can get on a plane and be there in three hours. People with kids don’t want to leave the country now. It’s the perfect solution. And I really hate the winter.”
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If she is following the sun, the art world is following the money. Besides the big names at the Royal, Cavalier Galleries is expanding to a space a few doors down from Ta-boo restaurant; Coe & Co, a photography gallery from Nantucket, is entering its second Palm Beach season; New York’s Paula Cooper Gallery is running a pop-up on Worth Avenue from December until mid-May; and Lehmann Maupin, another art world colossus, will soon do the same, showing a selection of new works created just for the location, after regularly hosting Palm Beach events in recent years.
To Beth Rudin DeWoody, the visionary art connoisseur who opened the Bunker in West Palm in 2017 as “viewable storage” for her sprawling collection, the new arrivals confirm what she’s known all along. “Galleries see a lot of wealth and lots of interest in art,” she says. “They’re going where the action is.”
Palm Beach Essentials
The grandes dames of Palm Beach are the Breakers (rooms from $395) and the more intimate Colony (rooms from $260), while the oceanfront Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa (rooms from $699) is newer, but just as extravagant. Nantucket import White Elephant Palm Beach (rooms from $650) is the latest arrival, with 32 rooms in a historic estate on Sunset Avenue.
Manhattan restaurateurs have made La Goulue Palm Beach and Le Bilboquet the season’s most talked-about hot spots. Swifty’s, another New York expat, serves fresh seafood and experimental cocktails at the Colony. The Breakers has opened Henry’s Palm Beach, a New American bistro with a nostalgic menu of comfort foods like beef Wellington. Try LoLa 41 at White Elephant for sushi and poke.
At Royal Poinciana Plaza, find Kirna Zabête, Lingua Franca, and LoveShackFancy. Notable newcomers to Worth Avenue include Alvin Valley—the designer known for perfecting women’s pants—and St. Bart’s import Marina.