The Coastal Star

Around Town: Big business, big names and a winning burger

By Thom Smith

These are the times that try men’s souls …  especially in real estate.
    Blackstone Group, which owns the Boca Raton Resort & Club, Hilton Hotels and a few other big-ticket properties, is buying Motel 6 for $1.9 billion. (Don’t look for the Boca Resort to be converted.) And across Lake Boca Raton, at the inlet, is the spanking new One Thousand Ocean, the luxury condo marketed by Blackstone subsidiary LXR. Forty-four of the 52 units have been sold — the most recent in July closed for $5.15 million, all cash. You can bet they’ll leave the light on for the remaining units.
    A mile up the beach on Palmetto Park Road, more big players have come to town. On July 26, the Capponi Group, a Miami-based construction and development company, and Douglas Elliman, the largest residential real estate operation in New York, held a joint ribbon-cutting at their new Boca Raton offices. Handling the scissors were Michael Capponi and Elliman’s Florida boss, Vanessa Grout.
    Down south, Capponi is a household name. For two decades he was the king of South Beach nightclub and social scene. Forget the A-list. His was A-plus until the late ’90s, when a wealth of problems provided a large dose of maturity. Capponi still enjoys the good life, but now he shares his good fortune — American Red Cross, Feed the Children, Kosovo war relief, Caribbean hurricane relief. On the business side, in 2010 he signed on some of the best in the business, such as Boca’s Ken Gross, and founded Capponi Construction. Boca is his next frontier.
While Capponi was going wild in South Beach, Grout was cheerleading at The Benjamin School in North Palm Beach. She, too, had goals that included a law degree at the University of Miami and an MBA at NYU. Along the way, she clerked for lawyer Roy Black, who defended William Kennedy Smith, and did legal work for a Miami real estate company before signing on with the Vector Group, the New York-based parent of Elliman.
    “From there I worked up the ladder,” Grout said.
    To say the least. Now 33, Grout went from new hire to president and CEO of Elliman’s Florida operation in four years. Most of the credit, she says, goes to those who work with her. The company’s dominance in New York had helped to ease the move into South Florida, and international interest — “not just from South America” — hasn’t hurt either. “We’re already making $30-, $40-million deals in Miami,” she said.
    “The company’s growth and vision are so strong,” she said. “I strongly believe Elliman will be the strongest real estate firm in South Florida. To that end we’re always looking for talented individuals who share our goals.”
    Grout’s not all work and no play, although finding talent to top hers will not be easy. In her spare time, she plays classical piano, speaks fluent French and runs. Last November, she finished the New York City Marathon in 4:37:52, not bad for a first-timer.
    “It was my first and maybe my last,” she said. “It may take me a few years to get over it.”
    And this month, the old cheerleading memories will come back as she heads for her 15-year class reunion at The Benjamin School.
Thanks to a concerted effort by residents, businesses and city officials, Delray Beach beat out five challengers to be named “Most Fun Small Town in America” in the second annual Best of the Road Competition sponsored by Rand McNally and USA Today. In contention were Corning, N.Y., Santa Claus, Ind., Denton, Texas, Buena Park, Calif., and Geneva-on-the-lake, Ohio, but after diving on the 100-year-old shipwreck just offshore, visiting Old School Square for a performance by homegrown country star Amber Leigh and cruising Atlantic Avenue in a ’57 Chevy convertible, the judges were convinced.
“We’re so happy for you guys,” judge Anna Haas said in a note to the Delray Beach Marketing Cooperative after the winners were announced.  “It was such a hard decision, but we just kept feeling our hearts pulled towards Delray. At the end of the day, it’s not just the activities, it’s the people. You guys deserved the title.”
    It’s a pity the judges couldn’t enjoy one of the best deals of the year, the annual Tastemakers of Delray Beach. For a $30 passport bought at any of the 24 participating restaurants, participants enjoy food and beverage pairings Aug. 9 and 10, plus special Tastemakers promotions at the restaurants through Sept. 30. Take your pick, from Sundy House and 32 East at the west end to Deck 84 and Boheme to the east to Max’s Harvest, Solita and Off The Ave on side streets, this party delights the senses.  For details, check out
    Beach, Barbeque & Books is a crucial fundraiser every year for the Delray Beach Public Library, and especially this year with its centennial only months away. Set for Aug. 18 at the Delray Beach Club, this party for the entire family will be highlighted by a beach volleyball clinic and demonstration featuring Steve Grotowski, fresh from competing in the London Summer Olympics, plus several players affiliated with Incite Brands and other top-ranked East Coast professionals. Tickets — including one clinic, all the barbecue you can eat, nonalcoholic beverages, entertainment and swimming — are $50 for adults, $25 for 14 and under, and free for 3 and under. ( or 266-0775)
    It’s time for Boca Festival Days, a monthlong program organized by the Chamber of Commerce that pairs businesses and nonprofits to raise a little money for them and to bring a little zing to hot August nights. For a list of events, go to
    One of the earliest bashes is Wine and All That Jazz, returning to the Boca Raton Resort & Club Saturday, Aug. 4. More than 100 fine wine tastings, food from Bogart’s, Blue Martini, Deck 84, Maggiano’s Little Italy, Oceans 234, the Resort & Club, Nipote’s Desserts, Red The Steakhouse, Rosso Italia and others. $50 or $100 for the VIP treatment that includes a casino (395-4433).
    It’s always one of the hottest events of the Festival Days — pun intended — and this year’s Boca Ballroom Battle, set for Aug. 17 at the Boca Raton Resort & Club, will be no exception … even with not one Whelchel on the dance floor. Boca Mayor Susan Whelchel won the second battle and son Jay prevailed two years ago. But while the family is blessed with gifted athletes, the others are less terpsichorean.
    Asked if her husband, John, might consider giving it a shot, the mayor laughed, “only if it has something to do with golf.”
    The competition nonetheless will be fierce. In the spirit of Dancing With the Stars, the eight contestants have been practicing since May at Fred Astaire Studios, including Kristin Calder, who had delivered her third child only two months prior.
    Calder, who runs public relations for the Bethesda Hospital Foundation, will compete against Darci McNally from Lynn Cancer Institute, community volunteer Beth Osborne and philanthropist Lisa Pechter. Male challengers include Peter Baronoff of Promise Healthcare, JKG Group President Bob Gittlin, South Palm Beach  County YMCA CEO Richard Pollock and HSBC Bank’s Fernando X. Rodriguez.
    The Battle benefits the George Snow Scholarship Fund, which this year awarded $500,000 to 73 recipients. For tickets — $150 for members, $225 for non-members — call 347-6799.
    Since we have our dancing shoes on, we’ll head across the Camino bridge on Aug. 25 to Carmen’s at the Top of The Bridge Hotel for “Dancing in the Sky IV,” a benefit organized by Shopping for Soldiers to help injured and ill soldiers, homeless veterans  and their families in Palm Beach County.
    In addition to the dancing, guests can enjoy hors d’oeuvres, a complimentary drink, chef’s tables, dessert and coffee. Tickets start at $40 ($45 after Aug. 20) and reserved tables are available. (860-3173)

Boca resident Elaine Jahnsen has a burger with her friend Danny Catalano at Boca Burger Battle.

When it comes to home cooking, it looks like Boca is the place …  for burgers, anyway. In the first Boca Burger Battle, held July 14 in Sanborn Square, 20 restaurants from Pembroke Pines to Palm Beach Gardens competed. But when the smoke cleared, the 10 judges awarded Boca restaurants first and third in the traditional division and first and second in the alternative group.
    The chefs offered a kitchenful of ingredients including knockwurst, turkey sausage, fried eggs, cucumber salad, roasted pear, grilled eggplant, pickled onions, pickled tomatoes, stouts and ales and some potent spirits (Jack Daniels was a sponsor).

The Rebel House’s Tuscan burger won first place.
 Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star

    Setting a high bar in the traditional category was the entry from one of Boca’s newest and totally untraditional restaurants, The Rebel House — a Tuscan-style burger with Charm City Sauce, pickled tomatoes and crispy onions on a toasted sesame bun. Taking a close second was Gimme a Burger, a popular Deerfield Beach joint, with prime Angus stacked with applewood-smoked bacon, pepper jack cheese and fried egg, set on a challah bun; followed by Boca’s Big Joe’s Burgers & Wings with his Big Joe burger — a thick patty with house-made tangy blue cheese and bacon.
Winning the alternative division was The English Tap & Beer Garden’s ahi tuna slider with wasabi mayo and seaweed salad on a mini baguette. Taking second was Boca’s 4th Generation Market with an American cheeseburger made with and served alongside an English beer, while Irie Spice, a Fort Lauderdale bistro offered a turkey burger with a cilantro-lime sauce, tropical slaw and mango dressing.
 Rebel House also took the People’s Choice vote, followed by Super Dave’s Diner and Red’s Backwoods BBQ. Organizers were thrilled with the turnout and promise a second burger battle next summer.
    Not all news in burger-land is good. After six decades on County Road, Palm Beach’s legendary Hamburger Heaven has closed. Landlord troubles, claimed owner Cynthia Rosa, who promises to reopen somewhere else, possibly Palm Beach Gardens.
    Back to the subject of wine, L’Escalier at The Breakers once again has received Wine Spectator’s Grand Award for its superb wine service, one of only 75 restaurants worldwide to be so honored. Of 17 South Florida restaurants earning the magazine’s second-tier Best of Award of Excellence, five are in Palm Beach County: Arturo’s in Boca Raton, noted for its California, Italy and Bordeaux selections; Café Boulud, Palm Beach (France, California); Café l’Europe, Palm Beach (California, Bordeaux, Burgundy); Fifth Avenue Grill, Delray Beach (California, Bordeaux); and Marcello’s La Sirena, West Palm Beach (Italy, California, France).
    Constantly rated among the top restaurateurs for food and wine in South Florida is Angelo Elia. His Casa D’Angelo in Fort Lauderdale, with a cellar boasting 20,000 bottles, is on Wine Spectator’s second-tier list for the 12th year. Its Boca Raton sibling, also called Casa D’Angelo, again earned the magazine’s Award of Excellence.
    His newest baby, D’Angelo Trattoria in Delray, is not yet 2, but Elia is giving it a fatherly nudge with its first premiere wine dinner on Aug. 7. Chef Rickie Piper will present four courses, highlighted by braised lamb shank and paired with appropriate Italian wines for a mere $50. Obviously, reservations (330-1237) are a must.   

Bartender Mark Neumann speaks with customers at The Little House in Boynton Beach. Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star

    At 823 square feet, The Little House isn’t the biggest restaurant on the planet, but it’s a big deal in Boynton Beach. Its grand opening is still a couple of weeks away, but in mid-July Chrissy Benoit opened softly to make sure the breakfast burritos, Benedict Benoit, mac and cheese and Indian butter chicken cook up just right and the 20 craft beers flow from their taps at the  right temperature.
    It’s a far cry from the 1940s and ’50s, when it was a small frame cottage a few blocks away and Ruth Jones was raising a carload of kids in it. The city’s Community Redevelopment Agency bought the cottage and moved it six blocks to Ocean and Fourth hoping it will give the downtown area new life. The Jones kids are grown and Ruth is still around, so when Benoit opened the doors for business, she was there and spent several hours greeting customers and regaling them with stories about the old days.
Definitely a good start.
    Thom Smith is a freelance writer. Find him at

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