How Ft Lauderdale got its beach, blvd. back

By Eric Barton

It’s Friday night happy hour at American Social on Las Olas Boulevard, and the end of the bar has become something of a pre-concert party. A group of friends agreed to meet here before heading down to Miami for a show, but they just can’t seem to leave. Every few minutes, somebody walks through the front doors, and the group has to say another round of hellos.

The newbies make their way past the concert-goers and then find a spot on the rows of bar stools or in between pillows on the couch-like booths along the wall. There are lots of untucked dress shirts and strappy dresses and sandals, professionals who managed just a quick stop at home before drinks. Every single person seems to know every other person.

What there are not: Bermuda shorts, floral print resort dresses and uneven tans. Not one of the people walking in has that wide-eyed lost look of a tourist trying to get a lay of the land.

Not too long ago, this would’ve been something a bit strange on Las Olas or Fort Lauderdale Beach, places where concierge desks sent tourists. Now, Las Olas and the beach have become our hangouts, our places to meet friends. They’ve become ours once again.

That was all by design at American Social, where owners Rick Mijares and Paul Greenberg designed a comfortable space to attract fellow locals. Back when they opened in June 2012, the street was still in transition, known more for Kilwins fudge than mixologist-style martinis. The fudge is still excellent, but so is American Social’s strawberry-balsamic martini. “Las Olas had room to grow and was kind of in need of something like this,” Mijares recalls.

Back then, Big City was an old mainstay, and YOLO had a killer following, but tourist-centered businesses dominated. Then Rocco’s Tacos made the east end of Las Olas trendy. More local-attracting restaurants followed, including Royal Pig, SoLita, Cheese Culture, Grille 401, Wild Sea at the Riverside Hotel, Lobster Bar in the old Jackson’s steakhouse and maybe one of your favorites that we’ve forgotten.

“Now, even in the slowest time of the year, in the middle of the summer, the place is still cranking,” Mijares says of his restaurant. “The locals are the ones who keep you going in the good times and bad times, so we wanted to cater to them.”

The explanation for all of it is that the building boom is finally paying off, says Randi Karmin, executive director at the Las Olas Boulevard Association. Workers in the downtown buildings and condo-dwellers are walking to Las Olas instead of driving up Federal Highway for dinner. Las Olas is now a genuine neighborhood.

The return of locals means boutiques that used to close early are now staying open late. And that has brought a new crop of clothiers, ones with high-fashion pieces. Consider the trendy sneaks at The Archives, the pinup-inspired duds at Bettie Page, and the wildly eclectic clothing at Elektrik.

“I was walking down the street the other day and it occurred to me that, wow, in the past few months, there’s five or six new clothing stores where locals would shop,” Karmin says.

They’re also doing something else few locals used to do: drive to the beach. At night.

The rebirth of Coconuts came first. Nobody thought Elliott Wolfe could turn around the old Intracoastal tourist trap until he did. He followed that trick by adding the trendy G&B Oyster Bar next to it with a wall of garage doors to let in the sea breeze. Then he started cooking paella overflowing with seafood on the patio on Fridays. It seemed like locals were following the scent of the socarrat, you know, that crispy, toasted rice on the bottom. If that wasn’t impressive enough, he added Foxy Brown on Broward Boulevard, near Las Olas; and Red Cow at the bend on Sunrise Boulevard.

Tim Petrillo, one of the owners of The Restaurant People (Tarpon Bend, YOLO, O Lounge), admits he thought Wolfe was crazy for taking on Coconuts. The two of them are friends, and when Wolfe mentioned it, Petrillo tried everything to talk him out of it. “I said, ‘What are you doing? You could do so much better than that old tourist trap.’”

Now it’s Petrillo doing the same thing. In May, his company opened S3 in the Hilton, on a stretch of Fort Lauderdale Beach better known for shops with crass T-shirts and giant margaritas. But he also had an idea about attracting locals. They built a YOLO-style fire pit out front and created an open-air bar overlooking A1A and the beach. They added levels to the space so that every table has a sea view.

“I’m a local person, and there haven’t been many places I would go to on the beach,” Petrillo says. “It’s our biggest asset, and people just didn’t come out here at night.”

Long after the concert crowd finally filed out of American Social, the entrance to S3 seemed like it was giving something away for free, with a crowd around the fire pit, the bar and hostess stand. There are no fewer than four young hostesses working there, ready to do a “this-way-please” as they lead the way with a series of menus.

Plenty of the banter within is laced with down-from-Philly accents, but you also might spot a coworker from the office or a yacht club acquaintance or see a familiar face from the Coral Ridge Whole Foods. There are locals eating roasted beets and seared duck. On the beach. At night. In Fort Lauderdale.

Next door, the W hotel’s Steak 954 has a late-night wait for a table. The swank downstairs lounge Whiskey Blue has a crowd sipping cocktails while watching a bachelorette party whoop it up.

Upstairs at the W’s football-field-sized Living Room bar, the big party is behind the curtains in the VIP room. A hefty, suit-wearing bouncer blocks the way. Another crowd lounges outside on the balcony on couches that are the size of family rooms. There’s a hum of cars from AlA below, the crash of the surf in the darkness and a sky of stars.

The W is like the grandfather of the Fort Lauderdale Beach rebirth. It opened in 2009 and brought a certain swank to the ‘hood. But for a while, there wasn’t much for locals around it, except maybe the invite-only Secret Garden restaurant, a cheap beer at McSorley’s or a late-night slice at Primanti Bros.

Now, though, there are signs of local life on the beach, and that means the W bars are hopping. “It’ll be busy again tomorrow night,” the bartender says. “And the night after that too.”

It’s like that again on Las Olas and the beach, and for a local, that’s a good thing to see.

 

WORTH THE TRIP

The Archives

1304 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-533-8201

These days, expensive sneaks have become a sharp way to dress down a suit or to show that, while you live in Las Olas Isles, you’ve still got a hip streak. The Archives, which seems to have imported its trendiness straight from Brooklyn, sells name brands including Huf, Mitchell & Ness, Obey and the Herschel Supply Co.

 

Bonnet House

900 N. Birch Road, Fort Lauderdale, 954-563-5393

With all the action on Fort Lauderdale Beach, it’s hard to believe that this 35-acre oasis is smack in the middle of it. Don’t expect the gaudy opulence of most pioneer era Florida estates – eccentric artist Frederic Clay Bartlett built Bonnet House in 1920 to be a retreat for creative types, and it sure feels that way. Even the most left brained among us can take inspiration from Bartlett’s art-filled studio.

 

Freedom Boat Club

20 SW Third Ave., Fort Lauderdale, 866-390-2628 

The ideal way to live in the Venice of America is with access to the waterways – especially when someone else is taking care of the boat at the end of the day. Freedom Boat Club offers membership packages starting at $200 a month, plus an initial sign-up fee, that gives you access to several types of boats, without all the hassle of ownership. After cruising the boat show, be sure to head to the intersection of the New River and the Intracoastal Waterway; during low tide, the party really starts jumping on the ankle-deep sand bar.

 

G&B Oyster Bar

429 Seabreeze Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-525-2421

If you’re from here, you know the boat show eats aren’t exactly up to par with the opulent yachts. Instead, take a short walk to this Coconuts sister restaurant. Garage doors open up one side of the modern-looking restaurant, and a case of cold-water oysters is a constant reminder that this place is about seafood.

 

Pelican Grand Beach Resort

2000 N Ocean Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-568-9431

Northerners flock to the W and Hilton to be in the center of the Fort Lauderdale Beach strip. But locals looking for a weekend getaway know that the Pelican Grand is just steps from all of that while maintaining the relaxed vibe of a Keys retreat. The brunch buffet comes with a sea view, and so does the open-air event space on the top floor.

 

IF YOU GO

American Social,
721 E. Las Olas Blvd.,
Fort Lauderdale,
954-764-7005

Kilwins, 809 E. Las Olas Blvd.,
Fort Lauderdale, 954-523-8338

Big City, 609 E. Las Olas Blvd.,
Fort Lauderdale, 954-727-0307

Rocco’s Tacos,
1313 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale,
954-524-9550

Royal Pig,
350 E. Las Olas Blvd.,
Fort Lauderdale,
954-617-7447

SoLita, 1032 E. Las Olas Blvd.,
Fort Lauderdale, 954-357-2616

Cheese Culture,
813 E. Las Olas Blvd.,
Fort Lauderdale,
954-533-9178

Grille 401,
401 E. Las Olas Blvd.,
Fort Lauderdale,
954-767-0222

Wild Sea Oyster Bar & Grille, 620 E. Las Olas Blvd.,
Fort Lauderdale, 954-467-2555

Las Olas Boulevard Association,
lasolasboulevard.com/association

The Archives,
1304 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale,
954-533-8201

Bettie Page,
1016 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale,
954-766-4343

Elektrik, 619 E. Las Olas Blvd.,
Fort Lauderdale, 954-306-2596

Coconuts,
429 Seabreeze Blvd.,
Fort Lauderdale,
954-525-2421

G&B Oyster Bar,
429 Seabreeze Blvd.,
Fort Lauderdale,
954-525-2421

Foxy Brown,
723 E. Broward Blvd.,
Fort Lauderdale,
754-200-4236

Red Cow,
1025 N. Federal Highway,
Fort Lauderdale,
954-652-1524

Tarpon Bend,
200 SW Second St.,
Fort Lauderdale,
954-523-3233

O Lounge,
333 E. Las Olas Blvd.,
Fort Lauderdale,
954-523-1000

S3,
505 N. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd.,
Fort Lauderdale,
954-523-7873

Whole Foods,
2000 N. Federal Highway,
Fort Lauderdale,
954-565-5655

W Hotel, 401 N. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd.,
Fort Lauderdale,
954-414-8200

Steak 954, 401 N. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd.,
Fort Lauderdale,
954-414-8333

Whiskey Blue, 401 N. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd.,
Fort Lauderdale, 954-414-8200

Living Room, 401 N. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd.,
Fort Lauderdale, 954-414-8200

The Secret Garden,
111 N. Birch Road,
Fort Lauderdale,
954-467-9639

McSorley’s Beach Pub, 837 N. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd.,
Fort Lauderdale,
954-565-4446

Primanti Bros., 901 N. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd.,
Fort Lauderdale, 954-565-0605

Bonnet House,
900 N. Birch Road,
Fort Lauderdale,
954-563-5393

 

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