The sky had turned a Maxfield Parrish blue and the streetlights were glowing warmly. Like the other patrons on the patio outside this coffee shop in downtown Delray Beach, Fla., we turned our chairs to face the sidewalk. Inveterate people watchers, we, like the others, were waiting for the nightly parade.

Unlike Delray Beach’s better-known parades — St. Patrick’s Day (one of the largest in the Southeast), Independence Day, Halloween, Christmas — this parade wouldn’t have marching bands or floats. Instead, a nightly parade of bar and restaurant patrons would stroll by on their way to a rendezvous with a craft cocktail or a delicious dinner. Many of the women would be dressed in tight, hip-high dresses and stilt-like stilettoes while the men would show off in fancy untucked shirts with unbuttoned cuffs and crisply ironed blue jeans. All ages, races, ethnicities, genders and body types would be represented.

The parade and downtown restaurant scene in Delray Beach, the major locus of fine dining in Florida north of Miami, still amazes long-time residents, who remember when, not many years ago, Delray was a tranquil vacation destination that the chamber of commerce still bills as a “Village by the Sea.”

Delray, as it’s known locally, isn’t defined by its dining and nightlife scene. It’s awash with art galleries, studios, boutiques and stellar natural attractions, including its magnificent public beach and a park just rated the best in Florida. But its restaurant are getting a lot of attention.

The city’s best restaurant, 32 East, famous for its expert sommeliers as much as its creative cuisine, closed recently so its owners could pursue other culinary adventures. It had sparked the city’s renaissance: after it opened, other good restaurants followed, turning once dull and dusty Atlantic Avenue, the main thoroughfare, into a sparkling dining and nightlife district.

But many first-generation restaurants are more crowded than ever: If you’re planning to eat anywhere good in high season you’ll need to make a reservation. Most places welcome walk-ins before or after their prime dinner hours, roughly 6 to 9 p.m..

Tramonti, the destination of choice for Italian fine dining, is usually packed with well-heeled customers who appreciate its meat-heavy menu, with dishes served in an elegant dining room or on its covered patio. Other stalwarts along Atlantic Avenue include Vic & Angelo’s, also Italian but with a menu that’s slightly more fish-centric (it’s known for its classically prepared branzino); Taverna Opa, a Greek restaurant that offers a terrific happy hour as well as heavenly mezze plates; and Cut 432, a steak house that’s well regarded. The Office, whose décor includes artifacts from 1950s workplaces, attracts the nightly parade crowd despite its high prices for such menu items as its gourmet, $16-and-up (and five-inch-tall) burgers, the best in town. Strategically located at the busiest intersection in the downtown dining district, its patio is ideal for people-watching. It also has a popular outdoor bar (just don’t trip over the dogs tethered to their owners).

Around the corner from The Office, El Camino, at the entrance to the Pineapple Grove Arts District, is wildly popular for its scratch kitchen’s fresh takes on Mexican cuisine and its curated tequila and agave spirit collections.

Brulé Bistro, also in Pineapple Grove, prides itself on its fresh local ingredients and novel preparations; besides its grilled avocado small plate, I favor the crispy duck. Nearby, the patio at Banyan Restaurant & Bar wraps around the gigantic trunk of a banyan tree. Across from the beach, Caffé Luna Rosa, Italian with a clubby, wood-paneled interior, has long been a mainstay, offering a daily brunch as well as lunch and dinner. And at 3rd&3rd, a restaurant and bar in a neighborhood called Artist’s Alley, tattooed hipsters mix with the blazered yachting crowd, all attracted by the excellent apps and entrées and eclectic live music. Its shrimp-and-chorizo skewers are to die for.

A newcomer, Death or Glory, has generated a lot of buzz and features a noteworthy rum collection and an inventive menu with lots of vegetarian options. It’s in a 1925 craftsman bungalow around the corner from the bright yellow, 93-year-old Colony Hotel & Caban᷉a Club, a green-certified Mediterranean revival landmark that offers drinks and live music on its verandah. Inside, a cavernous lobby is filled with overstuffed chairs arranged around a gargantuan working fireplace that’s appreciated by patrons who enjoy their beverages inside on the rare chilly night. The walls are adorned with bold, brightly hued paintings of Floridian wildlife.

Where to eat and drink

Restaurants mentioned in this story, in alphabetical order

3rd & 3rd: Casual, eclectic live music and cuisine, 301 NE 3rd Ave., 561-303-1939,

Brulé Bistro: Cheerful bistro serving creative cuisine, 200 NE 2nd Ave., 561-274-2046,

Caffé Luna Rosa: Italian, a Delray institution, 34 S Ocean Blvd., 561-274-9404,

Cornell Café at the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens: Pan-Asian cuisine and paid admission to the gardens, 4000 Morikami Park Road, 561-495-0233,

Cut 432: Steak house, 432 E Atlantic Ave., 561-330-3232,

DADA: Live music and a modern comfort food menu, 52 N Swinton Ave., 561-563-8871,

Death or Glory: Food and drink in a landmark cottage, rum and tiki bars,116 NE 6th Ave., 561-808-8814,

El Camino: Excellent happy hour hotspot, 15 NE 2nd Ave., 561-865-5350,

PūrGreens: Health-conscious smoothies, bowls and dishes, 45 NE 2nd Ave., 561-276-7387,

Taverna Opa: Authentic Greek cuisine, 270 E Atlantic Ave., 561-303-3602.

The Office: Mainstay of the downtown scene, 201 E Atlantic Ave., 561-276-3800,

Delray has long had a love affair with artists, attracting plein air painters who found an abundance of subjects in the city’s seaside setting. Now, much of the art has some élan. My wife and I have often toured the exhibition spaces in Artists’ Alley, where once-derelict warehouses are now home to studios and galleries. They throw open their doors on the first Friday evening of every month, serving complimentary wine and hors d’oeuvres (get there early) to visitors who traipse about.

Delray is also a sporting town. Besides all sorts of swimming, surfing and sand volleyball events, nationally televised matches at the 8,200-seat stadium at the Delray Beach Tennis Center have attracted major players, including, in a previous era, Chris Evert and John McEnroe and now the Williams sisters (Serena and Venus) who, as teens, trained in Delray. The Delray Beach Open, featuring Frances Tiafoe and Nick Kyrgios, starts Feb. 15. Courts can be rented by visitors.

The performing arts aren’t neglected either. The City of Delray’s Crest Theatre presents name singers and comedians. (DADA, a restaurant that serves modern comfort food in a quirky cottage or a treed garden is across the street and open late) On Friday nights in winter, an outdoor amphitheater nearby rings with the sound of rock, pop and soul. Meanwhile, the Arts Garage, a nightspot on the first floor of a municipal parking facility, offers jazz and blues and the occasional play. You’re expected to bring your own food and drink. Fortunately, the health-conscious PūrGreens restaurant is just down the street and will have a smoothie, snack or protein or veggie bowl ready for you to pick up provided you order in advance.

Also a draw, the 16-acre Morikami Museum and Japanese Garden, built on the site of an ill-fated early-1900s settlement of Japanese pineapple growers, offers shady walking trails through gardens representing six periods in Japanese history. The menu at the onsite restaurant, the Cornell Café, offers sushi and Japanese entrées, among other Asian items, but is open only to guests with paid admission to the park. Tickets for the lantern festival, held each October, sell with lightning speed.

USA Today and Rand McNally named Delray Beach the “most fun small town in the United States” in 2012. Now, Money magazine has rated Delray’s Wakodahatchee Wetlands the best park in Florida. At the wetlands recently, we found flocks of snow-white wood storks, graceful blue and tri-colored herons and an alligator eyeing them — perhaps for a tasty dinner.

After all, this is Delray Beach. Alligators have to eat, too.

Martin W.G. King is a freelance writer.