On Main Street, Part 1

Griffin Road, one of Broward's oldest byways, has it all

South of the Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport, an inconspicuous strip of asphalt branches off Federal Highway. It's easy to drive past without blinking, but the placid, one-mile stretch bordered by the Dania Beach Cutoff Canal to the north and a warehouse district to the south warrants a second look.

It is the definitive road in Broward County, from its motorcycle shops and strip joints in the east to the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino and a cowboy bar in the middle to a truck stop on the Everglades edge.

It is also one of the oldest roads in the area. The path that was its foundation connected the pioneer town of Zona (renamed Davie in 1916), an agricultural town built on land reclaimed from the Everglades at the turn of the previous century, to the South Florida coastline.

These days, the roughly 20-mile-long Griffin Road alternates six lanes of huffing SUVs with stretches of two-lane quietude in more remote sections.

Gone is the "$2 million" tree, a banyan at an old Dania Beach attraction called Wyldwood Park, planted by notorious goofball huckster Commodore A.H. Brook (who died of a brain aneurysm in his 80s after proving that Grandpa could still stand on his head). Gone also are the rafts sent off by T.M. and William Alfred Griffin that used to carry passengers and produce from Davie to Fort Lauderdale and bring much-needed supplies back to the Everglades.

Right at the turnoff from Federal Highway is a railroad bridge across the canal. Nearby, monstrous power-line structures cast shadows over rocky terrain with sparse patches of grass that echo a time when the battle between man and nature still took reprieves long enough for nature to reveal its mangled beauty.

On a recent Friday afternoon, the tide was coming in. Green water rushed inland, and a hairy, young fisherman popped out of a cluster of sea grape and pines with a pole in hand.

"How's the fishing?" I asked.

"These fish talk to each other," he said. "You catch one of them and the rest are like, 'Nice lip piercing.' It's over."

Just down the street, a 16-year-old brother and 14-year-old sister stood on the canal bank with a small cooler full of crab. The boy showed me his trap with raw chicken in it. Then he chucked it back into the middle of the canal. His bespectacled sibling whined at him, so he put a crab net over her head. Then she chased him down the street, throwing rocks at him as he ran across the road to the median.

This scene faded in my rearview mirror as I headed under the overpass to join the main part of Griffin Road. The pastoral east was done.

About a mile down the street, the sign for Tropical Acres Steakhouse appeared on the left side of the road. I eased into the turn lane, which 83-year-old owner Sam Studiale fought hard for in the late '70s, when the road was widened, and made a left into the parking lot. Decorated with green awnings, the restaurant started in 1949 as a small house with a little gambling room in the back. It advertises itself as Broward's oldest steak house and seafood restaurant.

Carolyn Greenlaw, an attractive woman in her mid-50s, with light brown hair and kind eyes, was standing behind the hostess stand. She was busy as a mosquito swatter on a hot day in the Glades. It wasn't funny to see her try to keep up with the crowd that's been coming since Griffin was an unpaved one-laner called Broward Road. But it was worth a chuckle when her sweet-eyed father, Studiale -- the force behind this restaurant since it was rebuilt after a fire in 1964 -- returned from the horse track with feisty old local comedian Woody Woodbury.

Woodbury, wearing his signature pink suit jacket, walked in, pointed his finger around the entryway, and asked "Who's buying the first round?" before he made his way into the dark wood bar.

Inside was Bruce LaShaw, the Acres' tall, short-haired, go-to spirit mixer who was hired in 1981. "I walked through that door and met [manager] Jack Studiale [Sam's son]. He hired me that day, and when I asked, 'What days do I get off?,' he replied, 'You get Sunday off.' I worked six days a week for ten years straight."

This is a family restaurant that closes only for Christmas Eve. At least one Studiale is always around greeting customers or working. LaShaw explains the die-hard ethic: "One Thanksgiving, they ran out of turkey. Sam went home, took the turkey out of the oven, and brought it here."

"My kids used to think that the décor was outdated," Greenlaw says of the old-fashioned-to-the-point-of-retro space, "but now they recognize the style and say, 'Don't change that. '"

With that, I was back on the road, heading west.

Two blocks down, I came upon a little bar that's catered to locals since the mid-'50s. Called Josie's Too, it's named for the proprietor, a short, spunky 70-year-old woman with curly, blond hair, penetrating eyes, and a quick step. I walked in and asked for a Captain and Diet, and Josie had a good laugh that spread to the crowd of 15 seated around her bar top.

"Bud or Bud Light?" she asked.

She said she inherited the bar from her parents and has been working there since she was 16 years old and the joint was called Anne's Tavern. "The bar has always been my first love," she said, showing me pictures of Halloween parties and her annual Christmas in June party, where Santa wears an old-fashioned yellow- and red-striped swimsuit and distributes presents to Josie's regulars.

This day, she was singing "Wind Beneath My Wings" into a microphone behind the bar, and her patrons were filling me in on the recent visit by New England Patriot's quarterback Tom Brady, who they claim was doing a GQphoto shoot right there in their little neck of Griffin Road.

Carolyn, a 30-year janitor at the Broward County Courthouse, said: "I grabbed his Budweiser when he left. I said, 'This is mine.' I finished his beer, and I still have the bottle at home."

Josie then led me through a side door to a small street and said, "Come on out here and I'll tell you."

"All this," she said, pointing out a roughly one-acre plot of land that contains the bar, three apartments, and a lot, "was owned by my parents. They bought it in 1961. If you were looking at Griffin back then, you'd see one narrow dirt road with holes in it. There was nothing beyond 441. No land, no nothing. There were palm trees everywhere.

"This was always a neighborhood bar," she said. Then she described a bigger bar that's nearby. Though it's called the Field now, she says, "it used to be a cottage where two little old ladies decided to open a tea shop to make some money. They served tea and cookies."

How cute, I comment. Did you used to go there?

"I don't like tea and cookies," she said appropriately, as I set off to continue moving westward away from the daintiness of seaside Broward to its more rustic origins.

That antique china-toppin', tea-drinkin' mush is for the simple appetite. As you head west, unmentionable thoughts two-step across your brain. They make your hands do crazy things, like pull off into the big concrete building 'neath a sign that reads "Fantasy Lounge."

And when you walk in the door of that former gas station, which became a dancing-girl joint 25 years ago, you find a pretty girl named Iris with light-chocolate skin wrapped in a G-string and doing an upside-down, spinning nosedive on a shiny silver pole.

She slid her G-string down her butt and thrust it toward a young man seated beneath the stage, who slipped a bill between the slinky garment and her hip.

There were 15 other men in the room wearing T-shirts, sittin' on stools or couches, making friendly with the five other girls. The men had a pile of singles at their sides and bottled beer in their hands.

Iris walked around to each patron collecting tips when she got off the stage. "I didn't want to work at a big club," she said. "Too much competition."

The club was closed for 30 days a couple of years ago when cops arrested eight people for selling drugs in the place -- seven strippers and a manager. "A drug supermarket," one officer called it. Of course, those days are over.

Enough historical contemplation.

Iris got my last coupla bucks, and I've got a long way to go on this road to nowhere. I had to make the green provision last as I neared State Road 441, where Dania faded like a mirage of civilization and the pioneer town of Davie came my way at 45 miles per hour.

Next week: Go west, young woman. Night Court does Davie.

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