You Can Fight City Hall

If Jim Stephanis gets what's coming to him from his lawsuit against Pompano Beach, he'll be able to buy the city

For his part Stephanis says he has no intention of trying to resurrect the Yardarm or any other project in Pompano Beach, which he refers to as a "town of pirates." If or when the payoff finally comes, he says he'll almost certainly go back into business again, though what type of business remains to be seen. He's also thought about sailing around the world or moving to a horse farm in northern Florida but has shelved those ideas now that he no longer has a partner with whom to share them. "As long as I'm healthy, I expect to be involved in some kind of business until I'm 85," he says.

Stephanis didn't always have to imagine what it might be like to have millions. Years ago, instead of tending bar, he owned one. Once upon a time, it seemed as if he could do no wrong. In his early twenties, Stephanis, the son of a Depression-era barber, set out for Chicago to pursue a career in the restaurant business. Starting at the Drake restaurant chain and then moving to the Gaslight Club, a precursor to Hugh Hefner's Playboy Clubs, he amassed considerable clout and capital. In 1959, by the time he was 26 years old, he had scraped together enough cash to launch the Yardarm, his own restaurant at the mouth of the Hillsboro Inlet in Pompano Beach. The bustling seafood restaurant quickly became a local culinary landmark and made Jim and his partner, his older brother Tom, very rich young men. But Jim's good fortune would not last.

The financial and legal turmoil of the last quarter-century has done little to demoralize the man, a self-proclaimed philanthropist who used his money when he was wealthy to build a Boy's Club in an impoverished neighborhood in Pompano Beach. Since "busting out," as he calls it, he has relied on the kindness of friends like restaurateur Gilles Dubuc to keep him from the brink. "Even when he was at his lowest, he would always say something to make you laugh," says Dubuc, who at one time lent his friend a great deal of money. "He's got to be a saint; most people would have quit by now." Stephanis returns the compliment. "I have great friends. When I was really broke, I was eating out every night and never picking up a single bill," he recalls. "I've never lost my sense of humor because my health was always good; with good health I can always go out and find a job."

In fact, if ever there were a poster boy for the health benefits of austerity, Jim Stephanis would be it. When he was fat with cash, he was literally fat. "With money you lose your drive, your desire to do things," he says. "Suddenly you get lazy." Now lean and mean and a full-time vegetarian, Stephanis beams like a rich man. He looks kind of like a down-and-out Bob Hope, with a big square jaw and a copious amount of good cheer. "I've learned that laughter drives your opponents crazy," he says. So does putting up a good fight. A few years ago, he turned down a $7 million settlement offer, calling it "minor league." "The property I lost was worth more than that back then," he says. "A lesser man would have taken the money and given up. I'm fighting for justice. This could have been over a long time ago, but not one of those brave elected officials has ever said, 'Look pal, we made a mistake, we're sorry.'"

Contact Jay Cheshes at his e-mail address: Jay_Cheshes@newtimesbpb.com

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