Picture this: An abandoned church on a busy Fort Lauderdale intersection is waiting for its second revival. But instead of being turned into a space for worship (again), it’s deconsecrated and transformed into something only South Florida visionaries would think of: a restaurant-nightclub experience.
That’s what you’ll find at the reimagined First Evangelical Lutheran Church in Flagler Village. It recently received an interior facelift so divine, it’s drawing a new kind of flock to Northeast Third Avenue for good food (and even better beats) since opening in the winter of 2021.
It all began a few years ago when hospitality extraordinaire David Cardaci and his wife and business partner, Vanessa, learned about the deserted space. “We had an opportunity to open a venue in a 100-year-old church,” says David. “Who wouldn’t take that opportunity?”
The co-founder of Knallhart Management Group—which is behind successful Fort Lauderdale concepts including Rhythm & Vine, The Wilder, and The Whole Enchilada—initially wanted to open something along the lines of a 24-hour diner. He called up noted Fort Lauderdale chef Giovanni Rocchio, who’s best known for formerly operating the Italian restaurant Valentino’s and the tapas-centric One Door East, both of which closed in 2020. David asked Rocchio if he was interested in taking a hiatus from retired life to help conceptualize the church’s culinary program. “I came to see [the space], and I said, ‘This could be something as special as Valentino’s,’” recalls Rocchio.
Things changed drastically after that phone call. “I realized I had to turn it up like 10 notches because it’s Giovanni,” David says of the illustrious chef agreeing to come on board. “He’s one of the best operators that Fort Lauderdale has ever seen when it comes to food. So, we did. We turned it up. I think we’ve built something Fort Lauderdale has never seen.”
Together, they designed a destination that they felt was lacking in town. “If people want to go out and have a good time, they want to have a night,” explains David, who believes people often gravitate toward Miami. “There are some great places here, but they’re good and safe. It’s nothing spectacular. We wanted to do something that you can find in major metropolitan markets around the country.”
The Holy Trinity
The building has kept much of its original architectural charm of stained-glass windows and vaulted ceilings but is now home to a cocktail room, restaurant, and club that offers food and drinks so good, it’s nearly a religious experience. Read on to learn about all three.
Officially opened in December, Holly Blue has become somewhat of a must-visit spot for foodies and out-of-towners alike. The menu is flexible in its offerings but consistently underscored by raw fish and vegetables. Holly Blue’s chef de cuisine Nicolay Adinaguev (who previously worked with Michael Schwartz and Starr Restaurants) and sous chef Harry Capacetti (who worked with Paula DeSilva and at restaurants such as the Miami Beach Edition and Unit B Kitchen & Eatery) conceptualized many of the dishes. Dubbed as “international American,” the food blends a mélange of Valentino’s classics with new flavors.
“We’re not sticking to one particular style of cuisine,” says Adinaguev. “We’re doing what tastes good and what we like.”
The menu will change depending on the seasons and evolve along with its clientele, with highlights like beef tartare with cornichon relish, Dijon mustard, a sous vide egg yolk jam, and truffle cream served with brioche. “It’s playfully plated and a classic dish,” says Adinaguev. The local burrata is taken to the next level thanks to Capacetti’s additions of crispy squash, cranberry compote, and pepitas. The cheese is seasoned with lemon salt and pink peppercorns, dressed in a truffle vinaigrette, and topped with pumpkin seeds. And while the mains range, they all pair compelling flavors with artful presentation. There’s roasted red snapper and cavatelli osso buco, pan-roasted prime tomahawk steak, and even a cauliflower steak for vegetarians.
It’s not just what’s on the plate that has diners singing Holly Blue’s praises—it’s also what they see around them. “I think we create transportive places,” Vanessa says of the brand’s approach to design. “You walk into Rhythm & Vine, and you’re like, ‘This isn’t Fort Lauderdale; this is a vibe.’ You feel that same [way] in The Wilder, and I think people are going to feel that here.”
Holly Blue’s walls are splashed in playful pink hues. The mid-century modern furniture is sleek, and dozens of hanging chandeliers add a sultry glow to the space, which takes cues from Vanessa and David’s past European adventures. The restaurant extends onto an outdoor veranda with a wooden deck, lush foliage, twinkle lights, and another bar. This space is poised to be the ultimate #SundayFunday hot spot once brunch rolls out soon—and that’s just the restaurant.
At the church’s entryway lies Marvin’s Room. The team’s interpretation of an authentic, old-school hangout, Marvin’s Room is an intimate cocktail lounge replete with leather and velvet seating. The menu deviates from the one at Holly Blue and boasts some extraordinary gems—like a $1,000 tipple served with a diamond necklace.
Rounding out the concept is The Angeles, the nightclub aspect of the church that David says can go head-to-head with any nightlife experience in the state. It features bottle service and a second-floor VIP lounge, plus the added thrill of partying in what used to be the chapel—stained glass still intact. But don’t expect big-name headliners stealing the show on weekends; the programming will instead focus on local acts and DJs.
For Fort Lauderdale locals, this reimagination is an answered prayer. No matter which concept you discover first, the team agrees you’ll be in for a surprise each time you stop by. “Maybe you met people for cocktails and you never made it out to the veranda, or maybe you didn’t know Marvin’s Room was there,” says Vanessa. “You could visit here three to four times and still have a memorable experience.”