It’s been 10 years since the Palm restaurant opened in Orlando at the Hard Rock Hotel at Universal. It was the 22nd location for New York based The Palm Restaurant Group (there now are 30 if you count the Palm Bar & Grill at JFK airport). Its storied past made it worthy of attention, but the food and service of those early days in Central Florida hardly earned it much mention afterwards. It rarely crossed my mind when people would ask for my recommendation for a good steak. And occasionally when someone would ask me directly what I thought of the Palm, I would invariably mutter something like, “I forgot we had a Palm here.”
But now the company is instituting a “brand refresh” in celebration of the original Palm’s 85th anniversary. Most of the changes are subtle -- new tableware, leather menus, and a uniform tweak for the servers. Lighting is lower, which causes diners to speak more quietly, which in turn lowers the sound level.
And although it was not officially announced in the press release announcing the brand refresh, a renewed push to be a restaurant the locals will want to frequent seems to be part of the initiative, at least appeared that way to me when I revisited recently. I had a better meal at the Palm this time than the half-dozen or so times before. And the food, service and brand-refreshened ambience were sufficiently improved that it will almost certainly come to mind when someone asks for a steakhouse recommendation.
The funny thing is that the restaurant that opened on Second Avenue in New York in 1926 had no intention of being a steakhouse. It also was not meant to be called the Palm.
The first Palm was opened in New York by two friends, Pio Bozzi and John Ganzi. As the story goes, the Northern Italy emigrants intended to call their Italian restaurant Parma after their hometown, but when they applied for their business license, the bureaucrat taking down the information couldn’t understand their accents and thought they were saying Palm. (And you thought arrogance toward immigrants was a recent development.)
Indeed the original restaurant’s menu featured mainly Italian dishes. It didn’t start focusing on steak until later on. And the restaurant gained popularity arguably more for its clientele and for the decor, which came courtesy of the clientele.
Bozzi and Ganzi couldn’t afford to decorate the restaurant, so the walls were mostly bare. But its Second Avenue location was close to King Features Syndicate, and many of its early customers were cartoonists -- poor cartoonists, who, instead of paying money for their meals, offered to draw cartoons and caricatures on the walls. Soon they were filled with comic strips and drawings of celebrities and politicos.
With the drawings so much a part of the legend – and apparently the appeal – all the subsequent Palms have replicas of the original cartoons as well as newer drawings of local celebrities.
My guest and I started our recent dinner at Palm by sampling the array of breads in an overflowing basket, slathering each with lots of sweet butter. Our appetizer was one that I had had on my first visit in early 2001, the shrimp Bruno, although I don’t recall enjoying it as much as I did this time. It featured beautifully plump shrimp, butterflied and curled, sauteed in a tangy Dijon mustard sauce. Wonderfully firm and with vibrant flavors.
My friend had the osso buco, an ample serving of a veal shank braised into tender submission, served atop risotto with the meat’s rich sauces. The veal was terrific, and it was nice of the server to offer a small fork to extract the rich marrow (better on the bread than even the butter).
I went for the New York strip steak and I was not disappointed one bit. It was a gorgeous piece of meat, charred perfectly on the outside yet red and juicy inside, just the way I like it. To go with it, I ordered the three cheese potatoes side dish. I don’t recall ever having potatoes quite so au gratin’d. In fact, so gooey and thick were the cheeses that I can’t swear that there actually were potatoes underneath -- and I’m not complaining one bit.
The Key lime pie dessert was the only disappointment. Why, I wonder, would anyone want to drown out the lime by topping the pie with blueberries?
Our server was professional, knowledgeable and nonintrusive. I’m not a big fan of waiters handing out their business card, but it was done here in a subtle manner, tucked under the rim of my takeout container (there was no way I was leaving without a huge portion of remaining steak and the cheese that may or may not have contained potatoes).
You’ll want to know that valet parking is complimentary for diners at the Palm, and you there is an entrance to the restaurant from the porte-cochere, so walking through the lobby of the hotel is not necessary.
One thing hasn’t changed here: dinner is still a splurge. But with the improvements in food quality and overall dining experience, you’ll get your money’s worth.
The Palm is at Hard Rock Hotel, 5800 Universal Blvd., Orlando. It is open for dinner daily. This link will take you to the Palm’s website. The phone number is 407-503-7256.