By Jan Norris
The James Beard Awards are to the culinary industry what the Oscars are to film folks.
Palm Beach County had four restaurants on the list of chef semifinalists this year — a record number for the county. Oceano Kitchen, owned by Jeremy and Cindy Bearman in Lantana, was one of them.
Jeremy told of finding out about the nomination for Best Chef South regional award through a text.
“I was on the phone with someone, and got a text from Rick Mace of Tropical Smokehouse. He wrote ‘Congratulations!’” Bearman said. Mace, who runs the West Palm Beach barbecue eatery, is a friend who also was nominated. “I sent him a text back that said ‘On?’ He said, ‘Your James Beard nomination.’
“It’s super nice to be recognized from an organization like that which is at the top of our industry,” Bearman said. “Especially for doing what we do every day.”
None of the Palm Beach County restaurants nominated won the awards, which will be presented June 5 in Chicago.
But prestige aside, Bearman said the Oceano staff strives to give diners the best experience possible. “We do what we do for many other reasons. We’ve been doing this for more than 20 years,” he said.
“If you’d asked me 10 or 15 years ago, I’d have a different perspective. When I ran my restaurant in New York, we got a Michelin star the first year. We pushed super hard, to keep it and to try and get a second one. If I lost it, it would be detrimental to the restaurant.”
With decades of success under their belt, the Ocean Ridge residents see awards now as something to acknowledge if they happen, but they’re not a focus, and the couple is no longer chasing them. “That takes a different personality,” Jeremy said.
“I won’t take away from the fact that it’s nice to be recognized and we would have loved to make it further and join everybody in Chicago. I’d like to have gone, but it doesn’t change what we do every day. It’s not something on our minds all the time.”
The publicity from the nomination did help the restaurant, he said. “We already had an established group of locals, but the news brought in some people who say they’ve lived here six or more years who never heard of us before. They love us.”
Bearman also talked about his venture in West Palm Beach, High Dive, that opened to great success briefly before the coronavirus shutdown. It failed soon after reopening.
“It makes it a little bit easier to endure knowing it wasn’t because we didn’t do things right,” he said. “Emotionally it makes it easier.”
Financially was another story, he said. “It’s tough to put so much time and effort into something and not have it come to fruition.”
But he looks on the positive side, he said. “It brought us back to sort of concentrate on Oceano, and it was like the tale of two restaurants during COVID, at least.”
High Dive was languishing without customers, but Oceano was “beyond” busy, selling pizzas and filling orders from its curated fresh menu that features specials daily. When they’re sold out, they’re out.
“We were doing almost as much as we had done previously, before COVID, with takeout,” Bearman said. “We were done with service by 8:30 and going home. It was really challenging to do it because our kitchen wasn’t set up for all this business as takeout.
“But we were a small restaurant and because of that, could pivot. We can be nimble.”
Success has continued at Oceano, located at 201 E. Ocean Ave.
“This past year has been the busiest year ever,” Bearman said. “We are at capacity — we keep saying that. But we’re on a two-hour wait at 5:30. It’s a tough spot to be in. It’s not optimal for a lot of our guests. It’s a double-edged sword. Great for us, but not our guests.”
There’s no chance to expand, at least not on Ocean Avenue, he said. For now, the couple will keep the same formula.
Bearman acknowledged all the other chefs and restaurateurs nominated.
“It just goes to show that there are a lot of dedicated chefs doing great things. Recognition can only make things better.”
Harvest Seasonal Grill closes, looks to west
Harvest Seasonal Grill and Wine Bar, a popular restaurant in a plaza off U.S. 1 in Delray Beach, has closed rather than try to extend its lease, but diners likely will not see the end of it in the county, owner Dave Magrogan said.
“We feel it would perform very well out west,” he said. “We’re looking at several locations — Wellington, west Boca, west Boynton. We feel it’s better as a community restaurant rather than a restaurant that competes with Atlantic Avenue, Mizner Park and things like that.”
Magrogan has no time frame for a move, but said, “There are some developments that are happening in Wellington and some other locations that we’re talking to the landlords on, right now. We enjoyed our time there in Delray, and we have some other businesses in South Florida. We’re looking forward to moving west.”
The restaurant was an upscale American grill that featured a seasonal menu.
“We were coming to the end of our lease and our landlord had a few other interested parties,” Magrogan said. “And rather than go through another slow season, the off-season, it was best just to shut the doors now while our landlord had a few other tenants that wanted the space.
“It was a good location, but the shopping center had gotten a little empty over the years so that made it slow. The empty stores didn’t help.”
The coronavirus played a role as well. Magrogan said that although Harvest did well recently, it never achieved pre-pandemic numbers.
Lake Worth Beach’s famed Benny’s on the Beach was at the center of a lease dispute, with the city asking for more rent money for the restaurant from owner Lee Lipton. Lipton said in April that he had negotiated four times with the city manager and attorney for the equivalent of $1.2 million in rent, but the city rejected the contracts. …
Lantern Local Tavern is the newcomer to the old Pearl’s Diner spot at 618 W. Lantana Road. Billing itself as an all-day diner (6 a.m. to midnight), it features “local value” and “elevated” tavern favorites. …
This fall, Boca Raton is set to get Michelin-starred chef and Beard Award winner Fabio Trabocchi, who will open Fiolina Pasta House Boca Raton. The restaurant, going into Town Center, will focus on handmade pasta as crafted by the female pasta makers of Italy.
Jan Norris is a food writer who can be reached at email@example.com.