Bucket List Bliss

Written by Mary Ann Fitzmorris August 28, 2022 18:00 in Dining Diary

Ever since I can remember, I have been fascinated by the great edifices of the Gilded Age. These are America’s castles, and there aren’t many of them. Even fewer of that number are hotels, and all of these are historic luxury properties. It has been a bucket list item for me to experience them all, but none more than The Breakers in Palm Beach.

I checked it off on the list a few weeks ago, when my three sisters and I descended on it for what we call a “sister’s trip.”

These began in 2013 in Albuquerque, where one of us celebrated a 55th birthday with a check from her bucket list. We went to the Balloon Festival there, so she could do a hot air balloon ride. The four of us cruised together in 2014 to Europe and assembled again for a staycay in DC to celebrate the same sister’s 60th birthday. The tradition was in need of another entry.

Generally speaking, I am not a fan of Florida, with the exception of Miami. The weather seems even more oppressive than here, so I didn’t have a proper appreciation for Palm Beach until this trip.

We arrived at the hotel in the afternoon, but too early to check in. We were starving and went immediately to one of the many restaurants, one that surrounded one of the pools. It was called the Ocean House and the fare was casual. Mary Leigh had warned me about the $40 tacos because she had just worked one of those $$$$$ weddings there.

It was decided that we would order a few things and eat them as shareables, mainly because we wanted to experience the many delicious-sounding menu items. The staff could not have been more accommodating. It was gloriously delightful in the shade with ocean breezes, bottomless iced tea and Pina Coladas, great company, and terrific food. 

We started with Cuban-style nachos which came buried under dressings like shredded lettuce and tomatoes and cheese. This was a beautiful presentation, but the nachos themselves were also really tasty. The braised beef had a great flavor and that wonderful debris-like texture, the corn tortillas were crispy but not too hard, while the black beans added their own great flavor. Queso Fresco and chopped mango were liberally sprinkled on top. The housemade salsa was the perfect accompaniment. Delicious!

We stuck with the Mexican offerings and got guacamole and more salsa with an assortment of fried scoopers: plantains, taro chips, and housemade corn tortilla chips dusted with a piquant spice. Normally I go with boring chips, but all these dippers were so great we enjoyed the variety. The guacamole and salsa were so exceptional I thought about it all weekend and wanted to go back and get more, but everything we had that weekend was good enough to keep me from returning to eat something I already had.

Another thing that caught our attention was the grilled cheese sandwich, which was Swiss and American cheese inside with a Parmesan crust on the Challah bread outside. The kitchen was happy to slice it into bite-sized pieces to share. I’m glad we ordered this because it was as decadent as it sounded and too rich for just one person to consume.

For dessert, we had a slice of the Key Lime Pie to share. Key Lime Pie is a staple in those parts, and this was exceptional. A thick and mild crust that crumbled when you wanted it to, the filling was creamy and tart and custardy in exactly the best proportions. The whipped cream top offset the pungent citrus in a most desirable way. Dessert harmony!

That night we went to HMF, which is named after the founder Henry Flagler, using his initials. By day this is a gigantic and handsome space used mostly for people to wait for a table in the adjacent Circle Room. By night it is a sensational nightspot for people much younger than us. The vibe here is hard to describe, but let’s call it arresting and utterly glamorous, aided by the wait staff of beautiful younguns in cocktail attire. There is such an electricity emanating from this place, underwritten by a rhythmic beat, you can actually sense it as far away as the elevators. (Which are not close.) Inside, I felt old and inferior, but still happy they let me watch this scene, even from the outside, (metaphorically speaking.) Actually, we were in a great spot near the bar full of glamorous couples sitting comfortably in oh-so-stylish Donghia chairs.

Our gorgeous waitress was highly suspicious of us and kept advising us unsolicited about the insufficiency of our order.

We started with an Onion and Reggiano dip with fingerling potato chips. There was a crab dip in this “Bites” section that we should have ordered. We didn’t care so much for this onion dip. 

The waitress backed off with her admonitions about us leaving hungry when she saw us go crazy in the “Food Truck” section, ordering Chorizo and Shrimp Taquitos, and Wagyu sliders. Then two of us got sushi and Chinese shrimp fried rice from the “Bowls” section of this gigantic menu. We wanted 85% of the very appealing-sounding menu items.

Somewhere past the sushi, everyone was full, which was too bad because the fried rice bowl was the best thing on the table. The two sushi eaters felt the sushi wasn’t “fresh” enough, and no one really understood the taquitos. The beef sliders were fine but nothing special.

This was the worst meal of the weekend, but that doesn't mean it was bad. It just wasn’t extraordinary, as everything else was. Maybe the best thing about it was the bar snack of curried mixed nuts. I asked for more of these about six times and never got them. The same is true for water, even though everyone but me had a drink.

I was looking forward to making my displeasure known at tip time, But I noticed that a 20% tip was already on the bill, which totaled $240. Immediately I thought of the $40 tip I left at the Ocean Club earlier. That meant that the wait staff had a 60% tip. We all liked them so much I didn’t even cry about that, but I would have been very upset to have tipped extra on this bill. 

The next morning we sat in the Circle Room, which is an appropriately named stunning space with views of the ocean. Between the Circle Room and HMF is a place perfect for the setup of the breakfast buffet that is included in the room.

Naturally, it is gorgeous and offers anything your heart could imagine, including Benedicts and raw fish, berry cups, and oatmeal, though no grits. The omelet station has everything but more people to cook omelets, though that is true of all omelet stations everywhere. These were particularly good omelets because they are properly cooked, something that can rarely be said.

There were dessert pastries and savory pastries and donuts and yogurt, but my only question for a breakfast buffet is, “How is the bacon?” It was fantastic, thick and smoky with a hint of sweetness, and the person serving it didn’t even judge my portion requests. (As I have unabashedly stated before, me at a breakfast buffet with bacon is not pretty.) I also had some pork sausage, another breakfast meat I never eat except on such occasions. Sourdough toast is another thing I eat nowhere but at hotel breakfasts, and a manager overheard me asking for it. He approached after the server told me they didn’t have it and offered to go get some from another part of another kitchen. That’s service! I thanked him for saving me from myself.

It was hard not to admire the beauty everywhere in this room, which was a feast for the eyes. We marveled at the craftsmanship from this early 20th-century era, which will never be seen again.

The delicious food and exquisite surroundings were matched by impeccable service, so good that we added 20% to the fixed tip.

Such a grotesque consumption of food left us full all day. We went to the beach for a bit and had nothing but a Pina Colada that was as divine as it looked when it went by to another patron. We got four immediately after we saw it and savored every sip.

By late evening we started to get a little hungry, so we found our way to a restaurant in the kid section of the property, simply called “The Italian Restaurant.” We weren’t expecting much but found here the pepperoni pizza of our lives. We tried to order that shared way, but the waiter told us it was not permitted, and also that the kitchen was closing in five minutes. He was exceptionally apologetic to deliver such news.

We quickly ordered two pizzas, hoping it would be enough. A board of housemade focaccia with three spreads came to the table. The spreads were sun-dried tomato, pesto, and garlic with herbs. This breadboard was delectable, and we got another. 

Soon the pizzas arrived. One was mushroom and the other pepperoni. These were misshapen sort of flatbreads loaded with cheese and whatever was ordered. Very generous with the ingredients. But it was the pepperoni that was attention-grabbing. It was large, plentiful, and spicy, and it made for the very best pepperoni pizza any of us had ever experienced. The crust was that New York/Neapolitan hybrid and the ingredients were so generous that I almost had too many mushrooms, one of few things that can be “too plentiful,” to me.

The next day was Sunday, and that presented a dilemma for me. In the Fitzmorris household, no limits have ever been placed on food expenses, but I recognize that we are an anomaly. Sunday Brunch at the Breakers is a “thing” and I would love to have done it. But my sisters are like most people, who would be stopped in their tracks by a price tag of nearly $200 per person. This supports the menu of caviar and lobster and stone crabs, etc., as well as 30 desserts. Definitely for the “money-is-no-object-crowd,” which boasts many members in Palm Beach and at The Breakers.

The sisters were brought up in the same household as I, where “getting your money’s worth” was a familiar theme. I don’t want to even think of the gluttony required at that price. We were happy to realize that the breakfast buffet we relished the day before was also available on Sunday before the big extravaganza.

We sat in another part of the gorgeous Circle Room, got to admire magnificent craftsmanship from a different angle, and ate half as much as the day before.

After checkout we had some time before leaving, so we spent it reading more about Henry Flagler and his hotel, and visiting parts of the property we hadn’t seen. In the Seafood Bar, with more great views of the ocean, we had to see the bar that is an aquarium. You literally eat or drink on top of an aquarium filled with smaller fish and eels, etc.

Naturally, we didn’t stop after gawking at this novelty, trying to snap a pic or two behind the bar completely filled with patrons. We had to eat here, right? Another extremely affable staff member showed us to a window table, where we proceeded to get crazy over the menu, keeping our “shareable” plan.

This time we had crab cakes and swordfish tacos. I resisted the urge to get Parker House Rolls for $12, and we all exercised discipline by not getting the blue crab nachos at nearly all the adjacent tables. We spent a hundred dollars on just two apps, so I did a little sloppy mental math that made me dizzy thinking about the bill at another table, where four people had an appetizer and an entree each, as well as drinks.

I enjoy watching other people spend money. It’s painful when I do it myself. And it was torture for my sisters, who are amused at my spendthrift ways.

There are ten restaurants plus the Sunday Brunch to experience at this historic and elegant resort. I will just have to return. That’s the problem with my bucket list. Nothing ever really gets scratched.