The Coastal Star

Dining: 32 East’s Johnson bids adieu to Atlantic Avenue scene

Butch Johnson pauses outside his Delray Beach restaurant, 32 East, as he nears the end of a 22-year run on Atlantic Avenue. The buyers will make the site a Louie Bossi’s. Thom Smith/The Coastal Star

By Thom Smith

Sometime after Mother’s Day — 22 years after helping to launch the revolution that transformed Delray Beach from quaint beach town into international destination — 32 East will close doors for good. 

Once all the papers are signed, all the permits pulled, the “big timers” on Atlantic Avenue — Big Time Restaurant Group — will turn it into the third Louie Bossi’s. 

32 East owner Butch Johnson will look for another challenge.

Back in the ’90s, life was much simpler. The mom-and-pops still lined Atlantic Avenue. Bacon and eggs for breakfast at the Green Owl. Key lime and white chocolate cheesecake with raspberry sauce for a mid-afternoon treat at Splendid Blended. Close out the night with blues from Junior Drinkwater at the Back Room. 

Johnson was retired, content to manage his investments, run a youth soccer league in Boca Raton and catch a little live music in the evening. As fate would have it, while attending a party for parents of Gulf Stream School students at the oceanfront home of developer Tom Crocker, he met Leigh Gove.

Gove handled much of the construction work for Crocker and was building Carson’s Ribs in Boca. He asked Johnson if he’d like to supervise the project.

“Crocker’s wife owned a children’s clothing store in Crocker Center and my wife paid the rent every month with the [stuff] she bought,” Johnson recalled in 32 East’s cramped second-floor office to explain his acceptance rationale. 

Soon after, Crocker brought in Mike Bilton to finish Carson’s, and Bilton suggested that they team up to open a restaurant. About the same time, Johnson learned that the building at 32 E. Atlantic in Delray, home to the Back Room and antiques dealer Polly Noe, was for sale. 

“It was the right demographic. It was a two-lane street, plenty of commercial activity, but it was underutilized and it was just plain cheap,” Johnson said. “So it was Mike’s building expertise and Leigh’s building skill, and I did what I normally do, the hookup.”

To run the kitchen, Johnson hired Wayne Alcaide, who put 32 East on the culinary map before moving on to other ventures (now owner-chef of The Provincial in Apex, N.C., a Raleigh suburb).

Enter Nick Morfogen, an exquisitely trained New Yorker, who had come to South Florida to work in the Dennis Max empire. The relationship lasted into 2016, when Morfogen left to become executive chef at Pine Tree Golf Club in Boynton Beach.   

“Nick gave us 17 years,” Johnson said. “He still owns a piece of the restaurant, but he took the job at Pine Tree.

“You don’t work as many nights in a country club. He can take a golf cart to work. You just have to be good. And on his worst day, he’s better than any of the country club chefs around here. He’s in a good spot.”

Morfogen’s replacement, John Thomas, had worked on and off at 32 East and most recently had held forth at Tryst, the now-closed gastropub a couple of doors west.   

Thomas shouldn’t have trouble finding work, Johnson said, even though the scene along Atlantic is changing. 

“Five years ago, Nick and I could see what was happening,” Johnson said. “Places were getting more kid-oriented; more alcohol; bigger, more commercial restaurants. We didn’t fit. We were the food destination. We were in the age of the food-driven restaurant and that ain’t the way it is anymore. 

“For me, declining revenues were gonna drive us out. We thought about making it a steakhouse, maybe an Italian restaurant, but it still would have been food-driven, and once you establish who you are, then the expectation level is what you do. 

“You can’t really say, the price point is gonna drop by half and you’re gonna sell burgers and dogs. That’s not what 32 East is. We could have tried to reinvent ourselves, but I can’t get away with doing a drive-through taco stand.”

Big Time’s “Todd Herbst and Billy Watson came along and we started talking. They’re a $100 million company. We signed the deal in August. This ain’t the little village by the sea anymore.

“They’re trying to make this an urban center, like Fort Lauderdale. They’re building high rises everywhere.” 

However, should something come along, Johnson might consider it, but not on Atlantic. Maybe a couple of blocks north or south. Still easy to reach, still good quality and still comparatively easy on the tab.

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