10527621096?profile=RESIZE_710xTOP: At Fries to Caviar in Boca Raton, French fries pair well with a variety of roe, served with mother-of-pearl spoons. BELOW:  You can eat indoors at Fries to Caviar, or take advantage of the casual patio setting at the back of the restaurant. Photos provided

10527622285?profile=RESIZE_710xBy Jan Norris

Adaptation is the word in restaurants as remnants of the pandemic shutdowns still affect the industry. Fine dining is almost a thing of the past, for a number of reasons including lack of qualified servers and kitchen staff, as well as capital costs. You’re as apt to eat on a patio as in a white-linen dining room.
But chef-driven spots remain, bringing upscale, creative foods to newer, more casual audiences.
Example: caviar service on a patio with a burger. Check out Fries to Caviar in Boca Raton, billed as an American garden bistro “with a hint of fine dining.”
Fries to Caviar owner Philipp Hawkins elevated the way roe is presented to include a traditional caviar service with blini and chopped egg. But diners may instead opt for large plank fries served with creme fraiche and the roe.
With no formal restaurant experience, Hawkins dove into the restaurant world — and ultimately, the caviar industry — to learn about different fish eggs, quality and sourcing. The former casino security expert tries to demystify the food for a new clientele who come for a burger but are curious about the caviar menu.
He’s also adapting in other ways — lowering the price of caviar, to start.
“It should be accessible to everybody,” Hawkins said. “I know how much I pay — why do I need to be greedy?”
It is still a costly item, as is the mother-of-pearl spoon used to serve it. “Caviar should never touch metal; it dulls the flavor. So, we ordered the special spoons for each service,” he said.
To discourage pilfering of the delicate spoons, Hawkins said, the servers trained to describe the details include the sentence, “Our spoons are available for purchase if you’d like one.”
He also doesn’t want dining here to be a stuffy experience.
“At one point I thought about taking the restaurant to fine dining, but my chef Lily, who comes from a fine-dining background, said it would kill the business,” Hawkins said.
The atmosphere at Fries to Caviar is upscale casual, but people in dress clothes would feel at home.
“I remember going to Tarks, in Hollywood,” Hawkins said. “There were bikers at the counter, and gentlemen wearing suits. Two ends of the spectrum of society eating and enjoying each others’ company.”
That’s his ideal, he said.
Hawkins also is lowering the prices of other foods on his menu that are frequently found at much higher prices around town. He said it’s an expectation of doing volume to achieve a reasonable profit without gouging.
“My branzino is ‘catch of the day’ here. There are restaurants in the neighborhood who charge north of $85 for it. I know what they pay per pound. It’s ridiculous to charge that.
“I think some of the restaurant owners who’ve been in the business a long time have lost sight of what it’s like to be a customer. I call myself a professional customer,” Hawkins said.
“I may not have tons of restaurant experience, but I’ve eaten thousands of meals out, so I come into this with a different perspective.”
Fries to Caviar, 6299 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. Phone 561-617-5965; friestocaviar.com. Open for dinner from 4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; Sunday brunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Summer madness happy hour, 4-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.

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A number of other restaurants in the area feature chef-driven menus and fine-dining touches in more casual settings. Here are but a few:

10527622863?profile=RESIZE_710xConsistently fresh food, including these oysters, is a hallmark of Prime Catch in Boynton Beach.

Prime Catch, 700 E. Woolbright Road, Boynton Beach. The seafood, service and Intracoastal Waterway view qualify as top-tier; a fish sandwich is delivered with the same quality as a full entree. Servers are on top of things here. Florida fish is the specialty. The tiki bar dockside is the way to come-as-you-are and get the full experience of waterfront dining.

Brule Bistro, 200 NE Second Ave., Delray Beach. A casual sidewalk bistro (indoor dining, too) with an array of house-made foods from a chef who adds to the traditionals. Always check out the specials. Weekend brunch is a favorite for off-Avenue dining. Visit Brule’s sister restaurant nearby, Rose’s Daughter.

Driftwood, 2005 S. Federal Highway, Boynton Beach. The chef, Jimmy Everett, brings the unexpected to food and drink. Definitely a spot to order from the daily menu. Patio and inside bar and dining room — all intimate.

10527625458?profile=RESIZE_710xGrouper au poivre with roasted potato and cipollini onion and asparagus in a brandy-cream reduction is a favorite at Gary Rack’s Farmhouse Kitchen. It has locations in Boca Raton and Delray Beach.

Gary Rack’s Farmhouse Kitchen, 399 SE Mizner Blvd. (Royal Palm Place), Boca Raton; 204 E. Atlantic Ave., Delray Beach. A healthful approach to cooking “just good food” comes from these kitchens. Gary Rack wants us to dine, not just eat, he says. Make a meal of just their apps: Zucchini chips and buffalo cauliflower, or truffle-yaki brussels sprouts give an idea of what’s to come from the full menus. These are places where vegans and omnivores meet.

Max’s Grille, 404 Plaza Real (Mizner Park), Boca Raton. Arguably the beginning of upscale, chef-driven casual in the area is here. It adapts its full-on bistro menu with something for everyone. From sushi to pork chops with peaches, a signature tomato bisque and loaded chicken Caesar, plus a notable wine list, it’s Boca’s own icon.

Josie’s Ristorante, 1602 S. Federal Highway, Boynton Beach. Old-school Italian service and friendly bartending with modern casual dining are what you get, along with a chef-driven menu that spins off the classics. Salads are stars instead of afterthoughts, and pastas creative, well-prepared dishes you’ll remember. Don’t miss desserts. Josie’s does a lot of takeout.

La Cigale, 253 SE Fifth Ave., Delray Beach. People in the know seek out this Mediterranean spot in between the U.S. Highway 1 split. Outdoor dining under a tent is a result of the pandemic, but the serene dining room is a nice fit for the food. Classic service that doesn’t feel stuffy; dishes are explained and recommendations made. Great wine list, too.

800 Palm Trail Grill, 800 Palm Trail, Delray Beach. Chef touches abound at the Grill (the former Patio). Unusual ingredients and a thoughtful use of herbs, spices and flavors in both drinks and foods make this a hidden gem. A huge patio, comfortable even in summer, gives visitors and locals alike the tropical feel apropos to the name. Specialties include Maryland style crabcakes, and herb-crusted scallops. The Palm salad is a favorite for summer. Going for drinks only? Don’t miss the Black & Tan onion rings as a snack. (Dinner only, daily.)

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In brief: Longtime Palm Beach County diners know of the iconic Cafe L’Europe in Palm Beach. We were sorry to hear of the passing of Lidia Goldner, co-founder of the restaurant. A peppy Brazilian, she oversaw the beautiful dining room for years and made guests feel as though they were equal to all the dignitaries who dined there, as well as part of her family. …
Sorry, Delray, but a Planta restaurant isn’t in your immediate future. We had our avenues wrong in last month’s column — a new Planta Queen recently opened on Las Olas in Fort Lauderdale. No plans for Delray at the moment. The closest one is in West Palm Beach at The Square on Okeechobee Boulevard.

Jan Norris is a food writer who can be reached at nativefla@gmail.com

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