BY THOMAS SWICK
There are main streets that have more restaurants than Hollywood Boulevard (maybe), but very few that have the variety. In a two-block stretch of downtown you can find the cuisines of Italy, Argentina, Ireland, Vietnam, Peru, Turkey, China, Mexico, Spain and the U.S.A. – plus a kava bar that specializes in the popular drink of the South Pacific.
And this is just the north side. If nothing here catches your fancy you can cross the street and find French, Colombian, Thai, Caribbean and Mediterranean food, the latter accompanied, in the evenings, by a belly dancer. A few steps away, on South 20th Avenue, is the Transylvania Restaurant, where a sign in the window advertises “The International Music of Jack: English – Latin – Italian –Portuguese – Greek – Bulgarian – Yugoslavian – & More.” (By “Latin” they probably mean “Spanish,” though perhaps this is that one-of-a-kind restaurant that caters to classicists.)
If your frame of reference is Disney’s EPCOT, Hollywood is a kind of real-life World Showcase – with a strong emphasis on the edible. And that’s not taking into account the food trucks that gather at Young Circle every Monday evening.
But Hollywood is about more than eating. There’s also drinking. Kava may not be to your taste; even the servers tell you that people imbibe it for its relaxing properties, not for its flavor. But there are wine bars – the stylish Hollywood Vine offers wine tastings every Tuesday evening. There is at least one hipster bar – PRL (the acronym for the former People’s Republic of Poland), an early South Florida supporter of the craft beer movement. And there is the inimitable Octopus Bar – officially, if fancifully, named the Octopus Garden Club – whose sidewalk stools are warmed by seasoned regulars.
Back in March this classic watering hole had a sign identifying it as Boardner’s, the legendary bar and nightclub in Hollywood, Calif.
“They put it up for the filming of Rock of Ages,” owner Barrett Windish told me, explaining that some scenes were filmed in town. “I’m going to try to keep it up until the movie comes out.” (In June, see related story pg 76.) But the lovely mirrored octopus still reigns above the blue awning.
Though it’s no longer the most interesting wall in town. Since the beginning of the year, artists have been decorating facades with paintings and murals as part of an initiative of the nonprofit group SmART.
Alex Terife, owner of Pizza Rustica (did I mention that you can also get pizza?) is one of the co-founders of SmART. One weekday afternoon he showed me the painting on the floor of his restaurant, the whimsical sculpture in the men’s room, and then – walking outside – the comical murals covering his back walls that only people passing down the alley can see (and that, he said, were going to be redone). Then he gave me a quick tour of the Ramada on Harrison Street, the front of the hotel resembling the wall of a gallery. A few doors down, at the corner of 20th Avenue, he pointed out the empty Art Deco building that is being made into an arts center. He told me about the SmART Art Mixers on Tuesday evenings that, by the time you read this, should be featuring artists (in the act of creating as well as selling art), music, and a green market in a blocked off section of 20th Avenue.
After the introduction of free parking in December, the distribution of art around downtown seems like an excellent idea, especially since, during the day, Hollywood Boulevard has a languid feel.
But by 5:30, the street was coming to life. Chris Eberle, president of the Downtown Hollywood Business Association, swept the sidewalk in front of his restaurant, The Big Easy Bar & Grille. Taking a break, he told me that lunch business declined when a lot of the downtown office workers – Realtors, for instance – lost their jobs. But things were improving, not just with the SmART initiatives but also with the music scene. A number of places along the boulevard now feature bands (and there are clubs, like Legends Café on Harrison Street). The Big Easy, he noted, offers music Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons (when it moves outside). “I like downtown Hollywood,” Eberle said, “I always have.”
Hollywood Boulevard, between Young Circle and the railroad tracks, is rich with trees that not only line both sides but cohabit with the parking spaces in the middle. They produce a dappled light that can remind you of the South of France. (And sitting at a sidewalk café in Aix-en-Provence you don’t get the urgent, romantic rush of a train passing by). It is a street with a rare and concentrated lushness, all its activity contained under a leafy green canopy.
I walked out from under the cover and into the sunlit ArtsPark at Young Circle. The playground on the north side was crawling with children (parents watching and chatting on the periphery), while more kids filled the south lawn with painted faces and legs still rubbery from sessions in the bounce house, a regular feature of the weekly Funtastic Fridays. Between the two groups, a band warmed up in the amphitheater for its 8 o’clock performance. (Free concerts are given in the park every Friday and Saturday.)
Downtown Hollywood appears to be the province primarily of locals; a lot of the tourists stick to Hollywood Beach, which has a similar, neighborhood feel (with waves). The famous Broadwalk is the anti-Ocean Drive, refreshingly lacking in glamor and pretension; somehow the people here seem more deserving of vacation.
The dining is almost as eclectic as downtown, with an Armenian restaurant, popular with Russians; and servings of poutine (fries, cheese curds and gravy) for the French Canadians. Sugar Reef serves fine French and Caribbean food and the organic brewery is called, with unimpeachable simplicity, Organic Brewery.
Back from the beach there are delicious Korean short rib and kimchee slaw tacos at the Taco Beach Shack – where you can lounge on sofas set in the sand (and then work off the calories with a game of ping pong). Across A1A, Taverna Opa, serves excellent Greek food in a raucous party atmosphere that you can escape if you sit at an outside table overlooking the Intracoastal. And just up the road is Le Tub, the rustic, open-air, waterside eatery with its decorative bathtubs and celebrated burgers.
The Beach is a casbah of small motels like the Atlantic Sands Beach Suites, which sits on a street – Hayes – that looks like the set of a ’60s surfer movie. Dori Lynn Neuwirth, the third generation of her family to run the motel, sometimes takes breaks from her chores to play Scrabble with guests.
To the south, the Westin Diplomat rises like a giant glass catamaran that has been stood upright on the beach. A pianist plays in the sun-washed lobby, just steps from the entrance to the steak and seafood restaurant Hollywood Prime. Rows of freeze-dried palm trees rise in the atrium. Outside, two levels of pools overlook the Atlantic.
It seems worlds away (but it’s only two miles) from World Supermarket on Federal Highway where Russian-speaking shoppers stock up on blinis, sausages, pirozhki and kvass (a fermented beverage made from bread). Hollywood has long been the winter home of French Canadians, and it is also known for its large Romanian community; it was here that Nadia Comaneci had her press conference, in December 1989, after defecting from Romania (to be with a roofer from Hallandale Beach).
More recently, the city’s Russian population has grown, bringing not only a supermarket but a nightclub. Tatiana sits in the middle of a strip mall on East Hallandale Beach Boulevard (just to the south) and entering from the parking lot one travels instantly from Florida to Moscow. Chandeliers hang from surprisingly high ceilings (the space was once a movie theater) and two-story murals decorate the walls. The Ukrainian borsht comes with a side of sour cream, and diners wash down their pickled watermelon and Chicken Kiev with Georgian wine. Singers belt out numbers in English, Russian and Hebrew. Then the lights dim and the high-tech show begins, a heady medley of ballet, tango, belly dancing, aerial acrobatics, and Russian folk dances that, when you think about it, is very Hollywood.