Fort Lauderdale may not get the foodie attention of Portland or Austin, but for the locals, that means fewer lines at places that could contend anywhere.
Ever since Louie Bossi moved from sister restaurant Big City Tavern to open a Las Olas restaurant that bears his name, Louie Bossi’s has been swamped. It’s true at the boozy brunches, the three-deep-at-the-bar happy hours, and a dinner scene that spreads out on the front patio and comfy back piazza. Also on Las Olas is El Camino Fort Lauderdale, a cavernous dining room that combines industrial chic with Mexican flair that always seems buzzing.
No Fort Lauderdale chef appears to be getting more attention these days than Food Network “Chopped” champion Adrienne Grenier, the locally bred head of Fort Lauderdale Marriott Harbor Beach Resort & Spa’s 3030 Ocean, where fresh fish and inventive menu items shine. While hotel restaurants used to be tourists-only, you’ll find locals crowding beachfront spots including Geoffrey Zakarian’s Point Royal in the Diplomat in Hollywood, the Asian fusion of the Hard Rock casino’s Kuro, the food-market-meets-upscale Burlock Coast inside the Ritz-Carlton, Fort Lauderdale, and the stunning ocean views from the patio of Conrad Fort Lauderdale Beach’s Terra Mare. And did we mention Stephen Starr’s new Mexican place El Vez at the W Fort Lauderdale? Because you should definitely hit that one too.
At Valentino Cucina Italiana, where artfully plated dishes are served at what may be the handsomest dining room in town situated along South Federal Highway, the restaurant attracted a more casual crowd with an adjoining sister small-plates concept, One Door East.
These days the big national trend is chef-driven restaurants, and you’ll find just that at Hardy Park Bistro, where chef Philip Darmon and wife, Jessica Rossitto, teamed up to create a cozy spot with an ever-changing menu.
For something entirely different, head to Regina’s Farm, where the Rodrigues family converts their Sailboat Bend backyard into a Brazilian feast every other Saturday. Plan in advance for this one: Regina’s now has a waiting list stretching out for months.
Out-of-towners work all year to spend just a week on our beaches, which means us locals have got access to the finest hotels just across town.
Among the newest is the Conrad Fort Lauderdale Beach, with 24 stories of suite-only rooms, ranging from one to three bedrooms and spacious penthouses at the top. Guests get access to beach chairs and umbrellas for a visit to the sand, bike rentals and spa discounts. On the bottom floor, Terra Mare restaurant takes inspiration from the nearby sea.
When Ritz-Carlton, Fort Lauderdale took over the former St. Regis in 2013, it adopted a hotel that seemed more sleek and modern than the comfortable and relaxed-chic spaces found in most of the chain. That changed when the Ritz spent $9 million in 2015 to remake the lobby, which now is headlined by the frequently lauded and locally sourced Burlock Coast restaurant.
The W Fort Lauderdale also received a revamp recently, topping out at $55 million to completely remake the lobby, entrances, bars, a new El Vez restaurant and all 517 guest rooms. Gone is the former industrial look, replaced with a more nautical, modern feel.
The renovation at The Diplomat in Hollywood nearly doubled that total, with $100 million spent to give the spacious lobby and 988 guest rooms a beach-chic vibe. With 10 restaurants and bars, the place often feels like a party, especially when convention season brings in the masses. If the kids are coming along on a staycation, head to The Fort Lauderdale Marriott Harbor Beach Resort, where a lagoon-style pool creates a daylong playground, from its waterfalls to the happy-hour-ready cabanas.
Maybe the best reason to stay at the Hilton Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort is that, because the building is situated perpendicular to the shore, every room has a view of the ocean. But there’s also Balcony, a deck and recreation area that spreads out above the ocean, with 20,000 square feet of space. Downstairs there’s S3, the small plates concept from local dining experts The Restaurant People.
The giant flip-flop statue in the lobby sets the tone at the Margaritaville Beach Resort, where Jimmy Buffett’s lyrics can be spotted just about everywhere. While the bars and restaurants have a definite Hollywood beach laid-back vibe, the lobby and rooms feature a more upscale, ocean-inspired theme. In case you have a frozen drink fix at all hours, blenders are available from room service.
For a quieter weekend away, there’s the colonial-Caribbean charm at The Pillars Hotel, a boutique on the Intracoastal that feels plopped down from Bermuda. At night, the Secret Garden, open only to guests and members, serves up a menu dotted with Moroccan-inspired dishes in a romantic dining room that spreads out along the pool deck.
Theater & Show Enthusiasts
For fans of theater and concerts, there’s a true range in greater Fort Lauderdale, from the tiny playhouses where locals can submit their own screenplays to cavernous venues hosting superstars.
It’s hard to imagine a better spot for the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, perched on a 5.5-acre spot overlooking the New River. It opened in 1991 and bills itself as the artistic heart of the county, with an economic impact upwards of $90 million and offering everything from traveling Broadway shows to an arts education program that serves 150,000 students a year. Its young professionals arm, the Ghost Light Society, expects in the coming year to hit $1 million raised in just a decade.
The Broward Center’s sister facility, the Parker Playhouse, has stood for a half century. It opened in 1967 with “The Odd Couple” and has covered the gamut since, now with regular plays and concerts in its 1,191-seat space. With painted frescoes and mid-century modern decor, the place seems frozen in time, although a major renovation is in the works.
Since it opened in 2005, Hard Rock Live has been home to touring acts and shows, filling its 5,500-seat indoor arena with names you know, including B.B. King, Bon Jovi, The Killers and Tim McGraw. It also hosts comedy shows and sports events, including boxing, tennis and rodeos.
For the big shows, though, you’ll be heading to the BB&T Center, which packs in as many as 25,000 for concerts. Home to the Florida Panthers hockey team, the BB&T received upgrades including a $2.9 million scoreboard and the upscale Club Red, which feels like a 12,000-square-foot nightclub landed at a hockey arena, with season tickets topping $16,000.
The Vanguard may be far smaller, but the former 1939 church instead bills itself as a “sanctuary for the arts.” The black box performance space serves as the home base for the Thinking Cap Theatre, which every year pulls in lists of South Florida theater awards.
A former church on the south side of downtown also serves as the home of the quirky Savor Cinema, which shows alternative and second-run movies, and hosts the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival.
At Empire Stage on Flagler Drive, the mission is about taking risks, collaborating and creating an environment for playwrights and actors to try something new. The collective serves up shows that especially target diversity, including senior and LGBTQ populations. Always asking for collaborations, Empire Stage even takes screenplays from budding local writers.
Art and Culture Lovers
Fort Lauderdale remains one of the fastest-growing places in the country, and that’s also true for our art scene.
At the heart of it is the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, which rose from humble beginnings in a Las Olas storefront to a nationally recognized museum. The museum’s 83,000-square-foot building, designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes, is itself a piece of art, and inside the permanent collection holds 6,000 works. The museum plucked Director and Chief Curator Bonnie Clearwater from Miami in 2013, and she has set the museum on a course of shows that get international attention, like this year’s expansive Frank Stella exhibit.
While Bonnet House receives far less attention, it remains a favorite of locals for everything from weddings to quiet afternoons spent getting lost in its beachfront 35-acre gardens. Chicago-bred artist Frederic Clay Bartlett built the house in 1920, and it still feels like the home of an eccentric painter, with quirky sitting rooms and studio space in stark contrast to the stuffy grand homes typically available to tour.
The Museum of Discovery & Science plays host to many things, starting foremost with largely interactive exhibits, like the permanent Everglades Airboat Adventure and the traveling show “Eureka! The Science of Archimedes.” It’s also a popular birthday party venue for kids, hosts one of the region’s biggest food and wine events, and boasts a 300-seat Imax theater.
For the emerging local art scene, there’s ArtServe, which works to empower creative spirit through exhibitions and events, from weekly open mics to shows.
With no art district to speak of just a decade ago, Fort Lauderdale now has two of them, spread out over several blocks in the north downtown neighborhoods of FATVillage and Flagler Village. A weekly art walk on the last Saturday of the month keeps galleries open late and attracts vendors and food trucks that serve thousands of visitors walking the streets.