Two weeks ago, when the thermometer plunged below 20 and indoor dining was still off-limits in the city, intrepid New Yorkers continued to cling to vestiges of their social lives.
On East 60th street, patrons at the once buzzy Le Bilboquet were huddled in outdoor cubbies, wearing hats and scarves while nibbling on Cajun chicken and sipping Bordeaux. One block up, 10 tables at clubby La Goulue struggled to share four heaters while diners gripped bowls of onion soup for extra warmth.
But just a short flight away — in tony Palm Beach, Fla., where La Goulue recently opened an outpost that’s a mirror image of its Manhattan mother ship — all inside tables and seats at the bar are full. Patrons are laughing and living it up, seemingly oblivious to the perils of fraternizing during a pandemic.
“I have escaped New York!’’ declared the bistro’s owner, Jean Denoyer. “We take everyone’s temperature when they arrive and keep the doors and windows open so fresh air circulates.’’
Le Bilboquet’s owner, Philippe Delgrange, is also in Palm Beach, where he premiered his famous boîte’s Southern sister this week.
“[Palm Beach] is really working with you, not trying to put wood in your wheels,’’ he said, no doubt referencing how New York City restaurants are just now, after two months of closure, allowed to seat indoor diners at 25 percent capacity. “I have seen so many friends of mine, I can’t believe it. And all our New York staff is asking to come work here.’’
Denoyer and Delgrange are among the hordes of New Yorkers now enjoying life in Palm Beach County, where the influx of energy is palpable. Although masks are required inside commercial establishments throughout the county, people are, of course, allowed to remove them while eating or drinking, and there are no specific spacing rules — so it’s not unusual to see bars full of closely packed mask-less patrons.
Some northerners feel as if they have landed in a parallel universe, with old friends and favorite gathering spots transported to a sunnier setting.
Upper East Sider Joe Wagner, 63, arrived in South Florida in late January with plans to stay for two weeks, but decided to remain through March. He’s been enjoying dinner indoors at La Goulue. “Sometimes I feel a little unsafe. In New York, I was housebound. But it seems that so many people here are more relaxed because they already had COVID,’’ the real-estate developer told The Post. “They say, ‘Don’t worry, I have the antibodies,’ and I say, ‘That’s great, but could you back up a little?’ ”
Indeed, Palm Beach County’s COVID infection rates rose this week to 7.57 percent. In New York it has dropped to 5.08 percent from a high of more than 7 percent.
New York restaurants are finally allowed to welcome indoor diners at 25 percent capacity as of Feb. 12, but Palm Beach establishments are operating at full bore.
Café Boulud in New York is closed until the end of 2021 but, at its Palm Beach sibling, diners mingle in the lushly landscaped courtyard. New York restaurants Bice, Sant Ambroeus and Almond all have locations on the island. Even the defunct Upper East Side watering hole Swifty’s has been resurrected in Palm Beach.
While legendary New York spots like 21 and Cipriani are shuttering, a chic Monkey Bar premiered at the new Opal Grand hotel in Palm Beach County this week, and New York restaurant group Host (Campagnola, Bill’s Townhouse) is unveiling a new Delray Beach, Fla., steakhouse, Avalon, at the end of the month.
It’s hard to find an empty seat at any of the area’s hot restaurants.“I can’t believe the astonishing amount of people here this year — it’s like a prison break!” said John Lehmann, 59, who lives on the island and runs a sports marketing firm.
“I feel alive again. I could move here for the rest of my life,’’ enthused Long Island homemaker Erica Holzer, 47, at the oceanfront Opal Grand, where she and her husband are staying for eight weeks. “They take precautions but aren’t absurd. We went to the Monkey Bar and had a fabulous time. It’s just so freeing to be here.’’
That feeling of freedom goes beyond just restaurants, too. Fitness addicts can only take masked spin sessions with a virtual instructor at gyms in New York, but SoulCycle is now holding al-fresco classes on the green of the island’s Royal Poinciana Plaza. It’s next to an outpost of New York’s Paul Labrecque salon, where clients catch rays in the courtyard while their color sets and their nails dry.
Lincoln Center, Broadway and Carnegie Hall are all dark, but live jazz performances have just been announced for later this month at the Kravis Center in West Palm.
“It’s a relief to be here. It feels like we can finally breathe,’’ said Greenwich, Conn., event consultant Boo Huth, 60, who visited South Florida for nine days.
While the majority of those flocking to the area from the New York area are undoubtedly privileged, bargain airfares and hotel stays are allowing a broader spectrum of visitors.
“The irony is, living in Florida is actually one-third less expensive than living in New York — and younger people are realizing that,’’ said 70-year-old Gene Pressman, a former Manhattanite whose family founded Barney’s and who now lives in Palm Beach.
“Palm Beach used to be full of uptown [Manhattan] people but now the downtown people are here,’’ added Pressman’s wife, Christine, 48.
And after New York’s lockdown, Palm Beach’s social scene — and its lack of social distancing at some spots — can cause culture shock for new arrivals.
“People say it’s like the Wild West here,’’ said Todd Herbst, owner of the popular new Palm Beach restaurant Elisabetta’s. “They are surprised at how open everything is here. It’s as if COVID doesn’t exist, but we require all staff to wear masks and we don’t allow parties over 10 people.”
“I arrived here last week and it feels like a different world,’’ says Soho resident Charles Rosenberg, who works in commercial real estate. The 30-year-old plans to stay in Palm Beach for a few weeks. “But I think when the spring comes, New York will feel like this again.”
Still, Upper East Sider Joe Wagner is not ready to head north any time soon. “A friend of mine sent me a photo of himself at La Goulue in New York wearing a hat and two scarves, and saying that his fingers were turning blue,” Wagner said. “I sent him back a photo of my pool.”