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During a recent evening at Mario's East, at 1313 E. Las Olas Blvd., it was easy to see that something had changed. Where were those dependable Top 40 cover tunes from Mario's House Band? Who was the big, bearded guy on stage belting out hot New Orleans blues? Why was crawfish etouffee on the menu?
The upscale Italian restaurant and bar, a few blocks removed from the dense cluster of Las Olas hot spots, such as O'Hara's and Smuglers, has never been known as a live-music venue. In the early evenings, graying houseboat owners enjoy the cuisine and the tony setting. Late at night, thirtyish singles in blazers come to spend money on expensive drinks and cruise through the three separate bars. But in the next few months, Mario's East may become a very different place.
"Well, we're changing the music," explains Sharon Davis, one of the establishment's new owners. "We still want to keep it like a fine-dining restaurant, but we're going to put a piano in the cigar bar. We want to start doing lunches in the afternoons and maybe get some draft beer. We're just changing it up, doing a little this and a little that."
Despite the establishment's name, Davis' accent isn't exactly Italian. It's Southern -- New Orleans, to be exact. Davis and her husband moved to Fort Lauderdale eight years ago, and last year they teamed up with a partner to buy the restaurant. Davis says she intends to make Mario's East a little more like her hometown. A new chef has been hired, and Cajun dishes and Louisiana cuisine will be added to the menu. Another Louisiana import is that big, bearded blues-shouter. His name is Luther Kent, and he's been a fixture on the the New Orleans blues scene for years. According to Davis, Kent won't be the only New Orleans act appearing at Mario's East in the future.
Whether the restaurant will be able to keep its regular customers remains to be seen. "All you hear is complaints," Davis admits. "People say, 'We can't dance to this,' and so on."
During Kent's recent appearance at Mario's, a number of elderly patrons approached members of his backup band and complained that the music was too loud and that they weren't playing enough Latin tunes. "They basically told us we sucked," said one band member.
Nevertheless, Kent also had plenty of patrons on their feet and dancing. Mario's boasts what may be the only true dance floor on Las Olas Boulevard, and Davis says she'd like to make use of it. But it's hard to picture the well-heeled types Mario's usually attracts loosening up their limbs to a little down-home zydeco music or sitting down with a pitcher of beer to listen to some long, low blues.
"We'll probably lose that clientele," says Davis. "They're great, because they come in and spend money, and a lot of people don't spend much money when they come in to listen to blues. Whereas the big spenders come in and want to just throw their money around."
But Davis hopes her gamble will pay off. Perhaps a name change is in order. Mario's Crawfish Hut