By Craig Davis, Craigslegztravels.com
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla.
There were compelling reasons to return to the Norton Museum of Art even before we found out about the free admission.
The latter was a pleasant surprise when we approached the reception desk early on a Saturday afternoon. Turns out that admission is free every Friday and Saturday.
That was unexpected considering the venerable museum concluded a $100 million renovation and expansion in early 2019.
Gratifying to learn there is still support for the arts. The project, which totally transformed the museum while adding 12,000 square feet of new gallery space and a spacious sculpture garden, was funded by private contributions.
The freebie admission days are underwritten by three family foundations.
Art and a bite
That made for a more economical day out in West Palm Beach than we’d figured for the museum visit followed by an early dinner nearby at trendy Avocado Grill.
It was one of those thoroughly satisfying outings that we won’t hesitate to repeat.
On a previous visit to the Norton, we had lunch afterward at the Serenity Tea House and Café, which was another memorable find. Read about it here.
The question is, after a day of perusing art, are you in the mood for tea or avocados?
If you’re feeling like something green, head to Avocado Grill, a hip little farm-to-table tapas place in the Clematis district a block from the Intracoastal — it’s five minutes from the museum.
Start with an avocado margarita and fresh guacamole — either regular or ginger — and chips, and proceed through an assortment of enticing small or medium plates as appetite and taste dictates.
All of our choices were excellent — more on that later.
First, the museum:
A bigger, better Norton
Despite two previous visits to the museum, pre-renovation, I didn’t recognize anything about the Norton.
The entrance used to be on the south side of the building. Now there is a grand entry way facing west onto South Dixie Highway (U.S. 1). Anyone passing by can’t miss the 19-foot sculpture of a wheel-shaped typewriter eraser in the reflecting pool, though anyone of the Millennial generation may be at a loss to identify what it depicts.
The eraser may represent quaint technology, but it’s not as old or as massive as the 80-year-old ficus tree to the north of the entrance of the museum, which was carefully preserved during the reconstruction of the museum.
The place is spacious with exhibits on three floors, plus a new auditorium and roomy restaurant. The original east wing, which dates to 1941, displays America artists such as Jackson Pollock, Georgia O’Keeffe and Robert Motherwell.
In another area, contemporary American artists on display such as Mickalene Thomas and a special exhibit (through June 25, 2019) of Nina Chanel Abney called Neon.
The labyrinth of rooms surrounding a central courtyard are devoted to various artistic periods and themes. European galleries feature prominent names including Picasso, Monet (I could stare at Gardens of the Villa Moreno, Bordighera all day), Gauguin, Cezanne and Matisse.
The second floor is devoted to Chinese pottery and artifacts dating as far back as 600 BC. The third floor has oil paintings of religious scenes.
My favorite work in the entire museum is “Persian Sea Life Ceiling,” the ceiling-mounted collage created by Dale Chihuly for the Norton.
It consists of 693 pieces of blown glass all interwoven and presented as a stunning underwater scene in an overhead display. It was reassembled and re-hung as part of the renovation. It is hypnotizing to peruse the intricate piece and pick out the individual shells, starfish, sea urchins, sharks, sea grass and other individual components of Chihuly’s masterpiece.
The photography room was showcasing a history of portrait photography, with subjects ranging from Alexander Hesler’s Abraham Lincoln in 1860 to Richard Avedon’s Chicago Seven (1969 and Steve McCurry’s famous Afghan Girl (1984), as well as some 21st Century works.
Tasty and tasteful Avocado Grill
The Avocado grill is a haven for creativity as well, both in décor and dishes. In both cases, the emphasis is on the avocado. That may be more difficult to pull off than, for instance, a steak-themed restaurant, but French-trained chef Julien Germaud does so expertly with a menu that draws on fresh, locally sourced ingredients.
The setting is pleasant, too. It is a small space, though, so our arrival in late afternoon was well timed for immediate seating for an early dinner.
There are a half-dozen entrees on the menu, but the Avocado Grill is best experienced by sharing an assortment of small or medium plates.
Each of our choices was flavorful and the sum of them ample: grilled fish tacos (with guacamole, ginger sauce, fruit salsa and slaw), Korean BBQ steak in a lettuce wrap (outstanding!) lamb slider and an order of guac. They also have bluepoint oysters, individually priced – Fran had three.
We look forward to trying a completely different combination of dishes on our next visit. We’ll stick to the same schedule, though, following a visit to the Norton on Freebie Friday or Saturday.
If you go
Where: 1450 S. Dixie Highway West Palm Beach, a few blocks south of Okeechobee Boulevard.
Hours: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Friday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Wednesday, closed.
Admission: Free on Fridays and Saturdays; otherwise $18 adult; $15 for ages 60 and over; $5 for students; free for ages 12 and under.
Where: 125 Datura St., West Palm Beach
Cost: Moderate to expensive
For reservations: 561-623-0822, AvocadoGrillWPB.com