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"You know what would be perfect?" my significant other mused recently. "One of those places where you get all dressed up and go eat lobster tails and prime rib. And there's a big band playing so you can dance after dinner."
"Supper clubs," I said. "Copacabana. Venetian Room. Kit Kat Lounge."
We'd just gotten back from California, and a full day of unpacking our loot had left us too exhausted to cook. In San Francisco, we'd dined on thumbnail-sized Japanese oysters at a place where kitschy kung fu thrillers were projected on a 30-foot wall. We'd eaten sautéed pumpkin with ground beef at an Afghani café owned by Hamid Karzai's brother. We'd minced our way through a 12-course symposium of ever-so-precious nibbles at the French Laundry, one of the world's greatest restaurants. But it's never enough. Like all addicts, we were still chasing the dragon.
2209 Wilton Drive
Wilton Manors, FL 33305-2131
Region: Wilton Manors
I've been hearing that supper clubs are the next big thing; they're springing up wherever the glamorati are waxing nostalgic over cigars and effusive cocktails, but I couldn't think of one I wanted to subject myself to. The fabulous supper-club phenomenon has evidently not yet groped its way down to the netherquarters of South Florida. All we have are those ghastly dinner-theater things. And Martha's on the Intracoastal. But the idea of watching blue-hairs tilt to "Moonlight in Vermont" was enough to put me off my oysters Rockefeller.
Then I thought of Chardees in Wilton Manors. A supper club with a twist. True, 80 percent of the clientele at Chardees is collecting Social Security. And their fashion passion leans toward sansabelt shorts and black knee socks. But there's something about watching a flock of gay-and-grays foxtrot on a tiny stage -- while a silly light show turns everything progressively green, pink, and purple and a pudgy, winded organist belts out covers of Neil Sedaka tunes -- that fills my wizened heart with gladness.
So we left off sorting through Golden Gate figurines and Chinatown parasols. By the time we'd tossed our keys to the valet and swooped into the foyer at Chardees, I was ready to begin the beguine.
Chardees opened in 1990, and it's still glamorous, if tattered. The brass gleams, the mirrors reflect the multicolored lights, the bar's as grand and spacious as ever. If the potted plants are a little dusty and the carpets threadbare, these defects will soon be remedied: When Norman Artzt bought Chardees in May, he came to the table with plans for a complete makeover -- "new bar, new floors, new ceiling," he says. He's got 8,000 square feet to work with -- two levels in the dining room, a stage, and a bar room that seems to go on forever. Plus the Courtyard Café next door. He's hoping to have the place renovated by September, without ever having to close his doors. For a guy going into the restaurant biz for the first time, he's bitten off quite a chunk.
Still, the "before" picture ain't bad. The gay seniors who make up the bulk of the clientele may be losing some hair and gaining some paunch, but they haven't lost their taste for Cole Porter tunes and dry martinis. Or, apparently, their sex appeal -- there are plenty of May-December romances blossoming over these linen-draped tables. Lesbians, straight couples, and younger gay men seem to find their way here too. Some of these folks have probably been eating at Chardees for 15 years, when it was the only gay restaurant in town. At least, that's what its original owner, Tony Dee, tells me.
"There was one restaurant for us gay people, and it was in Davie," Dee remembers. "That was called January's. I was in commercial strip centers, plus building condos at the time. But I thought if I opened up a gay restaurant, I could catch people coming down from Delray and Deerfield."
Dee spun his silken web and, as he'd hoped, snared lots of handsome flies. He decorated his supper club with mirrors, banquettes of greenery, and strips of neon. He put in a gigantic bar and a stage where, as maitre d' and redoubtable M.C., he would introduce entertainers like Eartha Kitt, the Ink Spots, underground comedienne Pudgy, singer Jennifer Holliday, Goddess of the Galaxy Judy Tenuta, and his greatest coup, the Glenn Miller Orchestra (still touring 60 years after the death of its World War II-era namesake). With his chef, Charlie, he pulled together a classic menu of shrimp cocktail, escargots, prime rib au jus, and caesar salad. He called the place Chardees -- Char for Charlie, Dee from his own last name.
"This area was totally depressed," he says, "and I was renting from a slumlord. When I told her the roof was leaking, she said, 'Just move the tables.' I had no choice but to buy her out, and eventually I bought the whole strip."
Chardees was a glittering gay mirage in a desert of boarded-up strip malls, crack houses, and abandoned buildings strewn with garbage. But the show went on: grand parties, benefits, queer weddings. "I got married here in September of '92," Dee says. "White tux, a huge cake for 225 people, the works. It was very stylish."