Driving south on Florida’s scenic A1A from Delray Beach, there’s a strip called Highland Beach that hugs the coast and serves as a gateway into Boca Raton.
For decades, the shore there has been sleepy, with scattered motels, but just over two years ago an old Holiday Inn was transformed into the Delray Sands ($229) — a sleek and hip hotel.
Its restaurant, Latitudes, is now packed with women in unexpectedly chic tops and young businessmen in brightly colored polo shirts. Since its debut, Latitudes has become one of the hottest spots in South Florida.
This unlikely newcomer is also a sign of an ongoing shift: Boca Raton, possibly best known for its comic characterization on “Seinfeld,” is no longer merely a town where your grandparents retire.
“Boca is going through a renaissance, the way Delray did years ago,’’ says Joel Altman, co-developer of the city’s new shopping and residential plaza, Park Place/Altis, which opened in December and contains 69,000 square feet of retail and restaurants including Phenomenom, a nitrogen ice cream shop and bakery.
Hotels are popping up fast, too. A Hyatt Place (from $179), with stylish suites and a rooftop pool, was unveiled in December; the old Boca Bridge Hotel was transformed into the updated Waterstone (from $309).
Next year, Mandarin Oriental is opening a luxe resort (with equally luxe condos), which will have 158 rooms and suites, along with a golf course, spa, club lounge and a rooftop restaurant.
The city’s best-known hotel, however, remains the Boca Raton Resort and Club (from $299), a Waldorf Astoria property that’s become more cutting edge of late. An area called “Sea Level’’ now fronts the Atlantic, offering cabana-style oversized day beds, complete with snacks, smoothies and reflexology — while a FlowRider machine at the Tower pool attracts a young surfer set. You won’t go hungry: There is an outpost of haute sushi spot Morimoto, a charming Tuscan restaurant called Lucca, fish-focused SeaGrille, California-themed Shaka, and a branch of the luxe ice creamery Serendipity. A newly renovated golf course opened in December, offering barefoot golf and afternoon tea.
Outside the resort, Boca has always been known for its restaurants — largely steakhouses and, of course, the infamous early bird specials. But the dining scene is rapidly evolving.
“When we first opened in Mizner Park [a posh retail and restaurant development] four years ago, there were a lot of vacancies in the area and prime time for dinner was 6:30,’’ says Hamid Hashemi, CEO ofiPic Theaters. “Now it’s full, and prime time has shifted to 8 or 8:30.” At iPic, moviegoers sit in first-class airplane-style seats and chow down on fare from restaurants like Boca’s trendy Italian joint Tanzy, whose chef grows her own herbs.
A new upbeat spot called Fries to Caviar is luring people to bustling Federal Highway with a hopping bar, magical garden and chef-driven specials. Nearby, two new spots are hitting downtown. There’s an offshoot of Louie Bossi, a buzzy Ft. Lauderdale Italian spot, opening in April. Ouzo Bay— which opened last week — is a high-end estiatorio in Mizner Park. Close by, old favorite Max’s Grille is keeping up with the boom by adding an outdoor lounge with live entertainment. Other restaurants worth a visit: New York Primesteakhouse, where diners dance and sing along with the pianist; City Fish Market, a perfect waterfront spot for sampling local catch and sister location Chops Lobster Bar;Rocco’s Tacos, a packed Mexican joint; and Deli on Rye, a celebrity favorite for those who need their New York fix.
Beauty has always been part of the Boca vibe, but now the aesthetic is more modern. Salon Oasis has every state-of-the-art hair treatment imaginable, including an instant process called Discipline, which defies frizz (key, in Florida), while Plush Blow Dry Bar adds 24-karat gold or diamond dust to a styling. Microblading, where an instrument recreates hair strokes to give the appearance of a fuller brow, is offered at a range of places, from edgy Ocean Nailsto Lifetime Athletic, the city’s top gym, a “mini resort” with pools, tennis and a medi-spa.
For higher art, the Boca Museum has a showing through July 2 of contemporary artists working in glass, called “Glasstress,” as well as an exhibition of works by Arte Povera pioneer Salvatore Meo.
And then, of course, there’s the beach. Boca has one of the longest stretches of unspoiled sand in Florida — including a prime area for snorkeling along Red Reef Park. Nearby, Gumbo Limbo Nature Center has a refurbished boardwalk that offers stellar views of both the ocean and Intracoastal Waterway. They also release cute turtle hatchlings. Bring your grandmother — she’ll love it.