By Nicole Danna
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By Candace West
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If you telephone Flowers restaurant early in the morning when nobody's there, you'll get an answering message. "Thank you for calling Food Amongst the Flowers," a man's voice intones, in the precisely articulated upper-crust British accents of, say, actor James Mason. "Our hostesses are presently busy assisting other customers. We will call you back shortly."
"Presently"? "Shortly"? What noirish '50s film still have we dropped into North by Northwest? The scene becomes clear before you ever put a foot in the door: The place will be elegance itself. There will be martinis. And a piano bar. You can expect to find well-dressed and slightly louche-looking men lounging around on the padded banquettes.
Flowers opened several weeks ago in the space on Wilton Drive where John Costello and his mother, Cindy, had operated Costello's since 1997. Costello's was a cozy continental restaurant with occasionally uneven service and a menu you learned, after many visits, to hone down to the terrific homemade dishes, like the meatloaf or the osso buco. Costello's mostly gay male clientele was a devoted bunch, loyal to one of the first Wilton Manors restaurants dedicated to serving them, drawn by the warmth, familiarity, and hospitality of its hosts. But then, Alan Duddle, who until recently owned the luxury Flamingo boutique on Terramar Street (the "Inn Amongst the Flowers") and who is a former director of the Paris Ritz, bought the place and completely remodeled it, keeping only Costello's long-time chef and most of the floor staff. It's presumably Duddle's aristocratic enunciation you hear on the answering machine.
There's something about the changing of this guard that suggests a new day has dawned in the gay mecca. When Costello's opened eight years ago, this piece of Wilton Manors, roughly centered around Five Points, was just emerging from deep economic doldrums. 1997 was its watershed: George Kessinger opened an exuberant gay neighborhood bar, Georgie's Alibi, across the street in a rundown strip mall. And Jim Stork, who later became Wilton Manors' second gay mayor, set up his eponymous bakery on NE 15th Avenue. Tony Dee was already operating Chardees Supper Club a few blocks down Wilton Drive, where the boys could foxtrot to live big band music or take in name shows like Eartha Kitt. Wilton Manors was on its way to becoming the Southern equivalent of Provincetown or Fire Island a gay vacation destination and an even better city to retire to permanently in your golden years.
But until recently, the Manors had retained a kind of snoozy neighborhood charm. The pace was slow. Restaurants served continental comfort food that only occasionally took any culinary risks; at any rate, you could find three dozen variations on the hamburger within a few short blocks. At the bars, everybody knew your name. Even among this most sartorially enlightened subculture, the dress code leaned toward shorts and T-shirts. These days, lots of residents are beginning to wonder if their tropical isle reveries won't be permanently disrupted by the sound of wrecking balls as $500,000 townhouses spring up, not to mention the ka-ching of local cash registers. Wilton Manors is changing. It has its own Asian tea house now One Tea Lounge stocked with exotic flora that waver like anemones inside handcrafted pots. It has a lesbian bar New Moon that hosts monthly winetastings, for God's sake, while the pool table sits practically unused. Food Amongst the Flowers is only one sign among many that laid-back may be so last year.
Still, one thing that hasn't changed much is that gay men and lesbians don't always care to mingle. Other than our own, the only womanly charms on exhibit at Flowers on a recent Friday were the silky blond tresses and perfectly shaped navel of the hostess on duty that and the beautiful, oversized, Georgia O'Keeffe-ian floral paintings on all the walls. These paintings lend the place a tasteful sensuality laced with irony: The imagery giant close-ups of lush, lacy petals is so very, provocatively feminine. The tables full of handsome studs, all wearing wonderful shirts and expensive watches, exuding essence of L'Homme and Giorgio, were apparently diverted enough by their fillet carpaccio ($9.95) and Longchamp sweet pea soup with crème fraiche ($6.95) not to notice the hothouse surroundings, or care.
But the girls should certainly take advantage of this place too it's so inviting, so swank, with such an eye for the small details. And in fact, on our second visit, there were more women and more people of unidentifiable genders too in all three rooms and packing the bar. We settled into a deliciously comfortable booth padded with bold, printed upholstery in yet more florals. Sage green throw pillows begged to be sunk back into. White linen tablecloths. Glistening flatwear. A single perfect white rosebud in each vase. Glass beautifully etched with greenery and dark wood screen doors break up the rooms, providing occasional glimpses into the bar, where the oversized paintings are of gigantic martinis.
I worry that Flowers will lose a fortune to customers wanting to snag the table settings for home use: the shapely Riedel water and wine glasses; the adorable china cozy for the whipped herb/garlic butter; the handsome, palm-sized salt bowl; the miniature cut-glass cruet that comes filled with liqueur accompanying every dessert. Or the elegant little espresso spoon, shaped vaguely like a furled fern frond. But maybe Flowers' clientele is above pocketing the silverware. I hope so. Because I'd hate to see the décor dumbed down one iota.