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Sexton and the City

The old French saying about the more things change, the more they remain the same is certainly true in Vero Beach, but only to the extent that the distinctive contributions of the incomparable Waldo Sexton are considered, be they unique inn, unique restaurants or unique preserve of Florida plantings, ponds and paths at McKee Botanical Garden.

Since October 1995, Disney's 71-acre Vero Beach Resort has been respectfully working its wonders on the beachfront with a pair of Disney delights -- Shutters, serving three meals a day, including Saturday morning character breakfasts, and Sonya's, with non-character Saturday breakfasts, Sunday brunches and nightly dinners (Disney's Vero Beach Resort, 9250 Island Grove Terrace, 772/234-2180).

There have been other arrivals waving their own magic wands and raising the level of culinary diversity. But it's the spirit of Sexton that drives me, and I usually wind up staying at the Driftwood Resort, a timeshare expanded from Waldo's forest of driftwood assembled with his scratch-in-the-sand approach to architecture. It's been greatly expanded and modernized, but I can still attempt some kind of immersion in the ruggedness, sitting on a second deck behind aged driftwood rails, overlooking the oceanfront pool and inviting beach, planning my next meal at one of these favorite hideaways:

Waldo's (The Driftwood Resort)
3150 Ocean Drive

This started out to be Waldo's kitchen for what he originally built as a four-room cottage for his family. It quickly grew into a grand gathering of colorful tiles and statuary, stained glass from Palm Beach's Royal Poinciana Hotel and Bradley's Casino and everywhere bells, bells, bells. Carefully preserved and proudly presented, befitting its inclusion on the National Registry of Historic Places, Waldo's is still the place for outstanding Cobb and chicken salads, great burgers and crisper than crisp beet chips, as unique as everything else on the premises.

Ocean Grill
1050 Sexton Plaza

Waldo had crews clearing the right-of-way for A1A from the Sebastian Inlet all the way to the south county line, and they built the road leading to this dune-top outpouring of woods and wrought iron -- plus whatever else he discovered at auctions during the Great Depression -- which he built into the Ocean Grill in 1941.

What remained in his warehouses he used to elaborately furnish his ice cream parlor in town, which is now called the Patio Grill and Seafood Market (U.S. 1 at 11th Avenue; 772/567-7215), a reliable place to escape and eat. During World War II, Waldo made his grill into an officers club, and after the war new owners, rumored to be Chicago gangsters, took over. In 1965, the Grill had a real rebirth when the Replogle family from Milwaukee arrived, and today, after years of steady improvement and intelligent management with Mary Ellen Replogle in charge, a second generation is running the show and a third is in training. And they are all performing to the highest standards, to Golden Spoon standards, as four of us learned to our great delight when working through the filled-with-temptations menu -- superior steaks, including a 14-ounce Cajunized rib-eye blessed with bearnaise, terrific blackened center-cut pork chops with apple-gentled jalapeno relish, prime rib and rave-producing roast duckling, Indian River crab cakes, Canadian sea scallops Dijon, a trio of fresh fish, simply broiled with dill-butter brushings, grilled, deep-fried or with back bayou seasonings. Enjoy the uniqueness for lunch Monday through Friday or for dinner nightly, when entrees range from $18.95 to $32.95.

The Tides
3103 Cardinal Drive

Culinary Institute of America chef Leanne Kelleher is redefining Treasure Coast cuisine for the locals by merging magically the flavors from afar -- France and Italy -- with the not so far -- Southern plantation and the Caribbean. Chef's Table productions are a specialty. Formal setting, of course, and excellent wines. Open for dinner nightly, with entrees $18 to $34.

Jack Baker's Lobster Shanty
1 Royal Palm Pointe

With two other operations in Florida, in Cocoa Beach and Jensen Beach, this New Jersey lobster man is providing a splendid waterfront setting and reasonable prices, plus won't-quit seafood selections featuring lobster, of course, but also schools of fish and lots of shrimp creations, plus some OK steaks. Open daily for lunch and dinner, with entrees $11 to $28.

41 Royal Palm Pointe

Flair-filled discovery with such marvelous starters as Prince Edward Island mussels with basil-topped tomatoes and capers in shellfish broth and seared foie gras with brioche, roquefort-crusted filet mignon and steak Diane taken out of the doldrums with tri-colored peppercorns and calvados demi-glace. Dinner, with entrees $22 to $33, is served Wednesday through Sunday.

3001 Ocean Drive (Park Place building, Suite 107)

An extremely attractive setting in a new location across from Humiston Park and still specializing in superior service and the creative competence of executive chef Ben Tench, who brews sensational lobster chowder, serves sweet corn succotash and fresh herb remoulade with pan-seared jumbo crab cakes and pan-roasts herb-crusted chicken breast, bedding it down with orecchiette pasta and portobellos in a masterful marsala thyme cream sauce. Prime Black Angus New York filet is presented with roasted garlic mashed potatoes, sauteed ratatouille and bordelaise sauce. For finishers, there are souffles and Bailey's Irish creme brulee. Dinner entrees range from $26.50 to $32.50 and are served Tuesday through Sunday, nightly during season.

Those in the know should be wondering at this point why I skipped over their favorites -- the pair of Black Pearls, the Quilted Giraffe and Carmel's. Reason enough to go back soon.