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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
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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."
Thinking he was going to retire, Dee sold Chardees in 1995 to Don Hazlett. But retire he hasn't -- Dee, now 70, recently sank $2.5 million into the Schubert Resort to refurbish the swank gay guesthouse in Victoria Park. He's still landlord of Chardees, and he thinks of it as his "baby."
"I took the place from nothing way up to the top. We had everybody coming here. The night Glenn Miller's band played, I called up my aunt in New York; it was her 80th birthday, and she listened to the whole two-hour show over the phone."
In April of '97, George Kessinger opened a rambunctious gay bar and café called Georgie's Alibi across the street from Chardees in a decrepit strip mall. And that did it. A slew of gay or gay-friendly businesses moved in too -- coffeehouses, real estate agents, clothing stores. That same year, Jim Stork plunked down Stork's Bakery and Café on NE 15th Avenue; three years later, Wilton Manors elected its first gay mayor, John Fiore. Norm Kent founded the tribe's local paper, Express Gay News, in December of '99. Today, Wilton Manors has become the center of Florida's queer universe. The few hundred feet between Georgie's Alibi and Chardees on Wilton Drive is the nexus of one of the gayest towns in America; if you believe the census reports, 40 percent of its 13,000-plus residents identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. And the restaurants keep springing up to feed them: Galanga, Dorothy's Deli, Acapulco Lindo, Hamburger Mary's, Costello's, Tropics.
In the intervening years, Chardees lost some of its gloss -- by the time Artzt bought it in May, the place was seating only 30 or 40 diners a night. But the Saturday night we visited, things were back in full swing -- every table and half the bar were brimming with happy people.
Chardees is loads of fun. The staff is just ridiculously nice. At least three servers stopped by our table on various occasions, beaming with smiles, to see how we were doing. You feel welcomed, taken care of, beloved by strangers, instantly relaxed.
It's classic supper-club fare all the way. Entrées like grilled lamb chops ($20.95) or veal chops ($24.95) come with either soup (a savory if oversalted beef barley the night we visited) or a simple salad of iceberg lettuce, tomato, onion, and grated carrot. Chardees is the kind of place where waiters still hustle out plates bearing plastic covers to trap the heat.
You know what your food is going to taste like before you take a bite: This is the comfort food from dinner tables of the '50s and '60s, before nouvelle and global cuisines turned our gastronomic world upside down.
The lineup of appetizers has hardly changed in 15 years -- baked French onion soup ($5.50), crab cakes ($7.95), and escargots ($6.95); unprepossessing sides like baked potato, onion rings, and a vegetable du jour($4.25). Still, this is decent, hearty food at fairly gentle prices -- and those prices get even gentler on Monday and Wednesday nights, when two-for-one entrées attract singles and budget-conscious couples who'd rather be tripping the light fantastic than slaving over a hot stove. A full meal for two on Saturday evening cost us a measly $56 before tax and tip.
Our martinis ($8) were cold; a basket of bread with butter pats wrapped in foil was hot and crusty. We started with stuffed mushroom caps ($6.95), juicy with butter and white wine and stuffed with breadcrumbs and minced seafood, then broiled for a minute to give them a crust. These weren't bad; they just lacked imaginative zing -- they could have used a pinch of fresh herbs.
From a list of specials that included Caribbean-style lobster tails and several fresh fish entrées, including tilapia stuffed with crab meat ($20.95), I ordered coconut-crusted snapper ($18.95) served in a buttery citrus sauce and garnished with a fragrant sprig of rosemary. It came to the table piping hot, flaky, and deliciously edible. But those coconut flakes didn't do anything for the fish -- there was no synergy. And a bland side of unseasoned, unbuttered, steamed broccoli and cauliflower added nothing to the flavor profile.
By most accounts, Lawrence Frank opened the original supper club, Lawrey's, in Beverly Hills in 1938. Frank served glistening prime rib carved tableside from a cart, mashed potatoes and Yorkshire pudding, creamed corn and sweet peas, all of it seasoned with a special salt you can still buy at any grocery store. His clientele of celebs and big shots took home their leftovers in another Frank invention, the doggy bag. To honor the man who started it all, we ordered Chardees prime rib ($19.95), evidently one reason the restaurant stays so busy these days, a celebration for local carnivores. That prime rib is a big, tender slab of meat, delivered to the table beautifully cooked, with lots of sinful fat (a hunk of which our dog enjoyed at home later.) We did miss the Yorkshire pudding, though. And the pool of au jus was dumbed down with what tasted like canned -- or worse, powdered -- beef stock.
All fairly niggling complaints when you consider that Chardees is serving satisfying and generous meals at reasonable prices to people who may be on fixed incomes, with a little bit of jitterbug or box-step on the side. We finished with a slice of caramel pecan pie ($4.25), straight out of the box but sweet and comforting nonetheless.
The couples swooning and twirling on the dance floor -- longtime companions, geezers, and boytoys, graying but ever-romantic butches and femmes -- were sweet and comforting too. Artzt has taken over a gem that just needs a little polishing up -- to restore its former luster and give it the gleam it yearns for. In a couple of short months, he seems to be moving things right along. Let's face it -- the place is an institution. How many gay supper clubs are there in South Florida? How many places where you can have your beef and hoof it too?