Editors' Picks: An Insider's Guide To Fort Lauderdale's Restaurants, Venues And More
Edited by Alyssa Morlacci, Melissa Puppo and Holly Gambrell
Opening image by Kim Seng
Fort Lauderdale used to be the sleepy cousin to our neighbor to the south. When you wanted the nationally known restaurant or trendiest workout class or finest wine shop, you’d be jumping on Interstate 95. Now, though, Fort Lauderdale boasts a mix of new spots worthy of their national attention and old classics that defy the trends. So, we’ve assembled our first-ever Editors’ Picks section. With confidence, we endorse this curated, insider-approved list of some of the best things to do, drink, eat and shop right now.
Beer and wine connoisseurs
In the past decade, South Florida has gone from being a place where craft beer had to be imported from elsewhere to a spot with nationally recognized breweries. Add to that wine bars and shops offering enough fine bottles to stock any cellar.
Since it opened in Boca back in 2010, Funky Buddha Brewery has become the big boys of beer in South Florida, with an 110,000-square-foot brewery in Oakland Park. The flagship Hop Gun IPA and Floridian Hefeweizen are joined by a rotating list of creations that the Buddha promises are dominated by “big bold flavors,” like the much-loved Maple Bacon Coffee Porter, which has its own yearly festival.
You’ll get beer bonus points for just finding LauderAle, tucked away in an area of industrial warehouses and airport park-and-ride lots. Once there, the industrial-style tasting room opens up to a laid-back courtyard with cornhole and regular visits from food trucks.
Picture a Florida cracker style home dropped into an old warehouse and you get the idea behind the tasting room at Tarpon River Brewing. The folks from the much-loved Riverside Market teamed up with The Restaurant People group to produce this immediately popular brewery and restaurant.
Vinos on Las Olas is a wine bar with a chill vibe and staff that knows exactly the glass you should be drinking. Regular tastings bring crowds, and the shady Las Olas courtyard is a fine spot to sip away an afternoon or evening or, let’s be honest, both.
It’d be hard to find a wine shop with a bigger following than Wine Watch, which moved from its cramped location behind Laser Wolf to a new, more spacious spot across the street. It still has a cellar vibe, one of the finest selections of great vintages, and regular pairing events that bring in legendary vintners.
Just like beer, we’ve gone, in just a few years, from a shop market dominated by national chains to local shops taking coffee quite seriously.
You’ll find nobody more dedicated to the art of coffee roasting than Nicole and Brandon Wells, owner of the Flagler Village roastery, Wells Coffee Co. The roasters fill the space with toasty awesomeness, and window seats are a fine place to sip in the morning sunlight. A few doors down on Flagler Drive is Bean to Brew, where eclectic murals meet creative drinks like a spicy-sweet turmeric latte.
At Brew Urban Café, you’ll find the epicenter of the art district, with everyone from suited business meetings to tattooed hipsters watching trains pass in front of the glass garage door. Come on the last Saturday night of the month for the FAT Village art walk and you’ll find a packed house, thanks in part to the always-interesting shows and interactive art at C&I Studios, accessed through a door built into a bookshelf.
On the south side of the river, Grind Coffee Project has become downtown’s new meeting spot for serious espresso aficionados and those who want a fine place to work. The CoLab workspace in the back provides more permanent seating for those who don’t want to leave.
The headliner of the burgeoning Northeast 13th Street corridor is Warsaw Coffee, which has expanded into a wider menu and now blends in with the full-service Milk Money Bar & Kitchen. And just north in Oakland Park is SwitchBox Coffee Roasters, a roastery and coffee shop that’s a popular spot for the laptop-sporting remote workers.
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.
Fort Lauderdale has become an international destination for foreigners who load up suitcases at our malls, meaning locals also have access to sweet deals.
No doubt the first stop for everyone from out-of-towners to back-to-school shoppers is Sawgrass Mills, the nation’s largest outlet mall. The 350 stores range from Tommy Hilfiger to Target. Luxury brands now fill The Colonnade section, with 70 stores like Jimmy Choo and Versace. Dining here also runs the gamut, with Brazilian steakhouse Texas de Brazil, sit-down spots such as Zinburger Wine and Burger Bar, and popular chains like Yard House and Grand Luxe.
The Galleria at Fort Lauderdale is a downtown staple located just before the drawbridge on East Sunrise Boulevard. The shopping center not only offers popular names like Michael Kors, Banana Republic and J. Crew, but dining too, with the restaurants like Seasons 52 and Blue Martini bringing in serious dinnertime crowds.
It’s rare to hear locals talk about Las Olas Boulevard without throwing out memories of buying their first sport jacket at Maus & Hoffman, which first opened on the notorious street in 1940. Nowadays, shopping on Las Olas combines mainstay favorites like J. McLaughlin and Carroll’s Jewelers with upstarts including Elektrik Boutique and LF Las Olas.
Newcomers to Fort Lauderdale might figure we get all our exercise on the beach, but a bevy of athletic facilities offer all types of outdoor sports.
The granddaddy of them is Lauderdale Yacht Club, a private institution founded in 1938 with a focus on activities for families. There’s tennis, a dining room, marina and fitness club, but it’s perhaps most famous for the large pool area along the Intracoastal. The sailing club has trained weekend warriors and Olympic hopefuls.
The Jimmy Evert Tennis Center has trained everyone from locals working on their backswing to pros like Jennifer Capriati. The center boasts 18 lighted clay courts, three hard courts, private lessons and a clubhouse.
In the works for a decade now, the International Swimming Hall of Fame pool is undergoing a $27 million renovation. The center first opened in 1965 and, in 2020, will sport new pools and spectator bleachers.
For golfers, the Inverrary Golf Club boasts two courses developed by Robert Trent Jones and a history of 15 pro tournaments. At Plantation Preserve Golf Course & Club, the 18-hole course bisects an Everglades wetlands preserve, and while the setting might seem like a spot for an exclusive club with membership-only access, it remains a stunning course open to the public.
Tucked away behind Outdoor World, off Interstate 95, Tigertail Lake Recreational Center is an oasis among what otherwise is an industrial area. Broward College uses the lake to teach sailing, scuba and lifeguard classes. There’s also a ropes course for the adventurous team-building exercises.
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, which is 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 BalQony, 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.
Even as the Fort Lauderdale skyline rises and expands outward, there are several spots in the metro where you can find a slice of quiet Old Florida to get lost in nature.
Begin by heading to Hugh Taylor Birch State Park, a gem of nearly untouched wilderness. There are views of the Intracoastal, undeveloped ocean and a loop road in the center perfect for walkers and cyclists. Wash down the adventure at the oceanfront Park & Ocean brewpub.
In the heart of the city, Holiday Park is a playground for urban-dwellers, with a playground, tennis courts and fields for football, baseball and soccer. Cutting through it all are parallel paved and gravel tracks that meander below stately oaks and pines.
At Dr. Von D. Mizell-Eula Johnson State Park (formerly John U. Lloyd Beach State Park), take a paddleboard up Whiskey Creek, where rumrunners used to hide in the swamps, or picnic under the trees along the 2.5-mile beachfront.
Find the best dog swimming spot around at Snyder Park, where pups have their own lakefront beach and a fenced play area nearby. For hikers, hit the Fern Forest Nature Center, for a trip into what qualifies as South Florida highland, with trails that change from swamp to fern cover to old-growth forest in a matter of feet.
Art and Culture Lovers
Fort Lauderdale remains one of the fastest-growing places in the country, and that’s true also 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 FAT Village 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.
From national fitness chains that started right here to one-off gyms, Fort Lauderdale has an active fitness scene.
Started from a strip mall location off Cordova Road in 2010, Orangetheory Fitness, founded by local Ellen Latham, now has issued 1,000 franchise licenses in 11 countries. It helped redefine the full-body workout, with a changing hourlong exercise routine combining multiple machines and movements.
The first Yoga Joint also opened in 2010 when founder Paige Held, a single mom on welfare at the time, executed a vision she had for a vinyasa flow studio. She teamed up with Kelly Green to open a second location. There are now five of them, with a new space coming to Flagler Village.
CycleBar wants to change the way you think about spinning—no more cramped and dingy rooms with questionable music. Here, there’s the CycleBeats in-house music database that instructors use to build playlists, a CycleTheatre with huge TVs to keep your attention and CycleStats to measure six key metrics of your performance.
It’s the coaching staff that keeps Flagler Village CrossFit full of muscle-pumping members. Casey Anderson and Mark Rice are both certified trainers, with five-plus years each.
Inspired by ballet, the workout at Pure Barre Fort Lauderdale begins with a group warm-up, weights, and then moves on to the shake-inducing stretches and exercises meant to give a full-body workout.
Title Boxing Club takes inspiration from MMA and boxing, with a room full of punching bags, medicine balls and heavy gloves. The goal isn’t taking a punch in the ring as much as it is an intense workout, with challenges like 31 classes in 31 days promising to burn serious calories.
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.