A New Yorker's First Time on the Fort Lauderdale Bar Scene
Thaymmie/A. Cotto Photography
Living in New York City was exhausting. My wife and I lived there for eight years and loved it. However, its intoxicating alchemy of history, culture, cuisine, and attitude was a fuel that ran low as ever-increasing rents and cost of living hit heavy.
Southward ho we went to the Sunshine State. Now resettled in South Florida, we are eager to plunder its nightlife to see if there's more to this area than sun, sea, and shuffleboard. The neon glow of Miami seems like a culture shock we're not yet ready for. A night at nearby Fort Lauderdale seems like a proverbial dipping the toe in the water.
Our Saturday night began at American Social, on Las Olas. On entering the bar, I see exposed brick walls plastered with retro copies of Life magazine and sepia-stained Old Glory flags. So far, the polar opposite of the South Beachy über-cool cocktail bar this alabaster-skinned New Yorker was dreading. It seems great time and effort has gone into making this place seem authentic, the real deal, as if it's been there since Eisenhower was in the White House and Rock Hudson adorned the screen as America's beefcake.
However, the illusion is short-lived, as distinctly 2014 chart music pounds from speakers and a gazillion flat-screen TVs broadcast a basketball game no one is watching. We are in an episode of Mad Men, soundtracked by Miley Cyrus.
At the bar, I am literally rubbing elbows with our fellow tableless refugees, eying those who sat at booths with "pour it yourself" beer taps with envy. Yes, "pour it yourself" beer taps -- on the surface perhaps the greatest invention since beer itself, where you simultaneously get to play Sam Malone and Norm from Cheers, pouring and drinking at will. While one would imagine, and I can only imagine as all are taken, that this might be fun to indulge in for a couple of hours, the thought of the traditional American bar becoming a Roman bacchanalia is not necessarily a pleasant one. This should be shelved under "fad," lest the bartender go the way of the bank teller, the elevator operator, and the moderate Republican congressman as an obsolete profession.
American Social crams as many draft beers on its taps that most New York neighborhoods do in several city blocks. There's everything from pale ales and fruit wheats to heffs and Belgians. It's quite stunning. A Wynwood La Rubia Blonde Ale does not disappoint. Naturally, my primary goal is now to sample the 33 other beers available on draft before the end of the evening.
Eventually, we are sat outside on Las Olas, and the music dims to allow audible conversation. Here, the benefits of the Floridian climate become clear. In the ceaseless winter New Yorkers are experiencing at present, this would be impossible without thermal underwear. Friends tell me it is as "cold as balls" up there, and with the ever-shortening springs, it will next be "hot as balls" as the inescapable heat of the NYC summer kicks in and Manhattan gets moist. By comparison, Fort Lauderdale in March is bliss.
American Social's menu is vast. I imagine that the cafeteria at the United Nations does not list such a clumsy array of global fare. Starters range from foie gras sliders to an Hawaiian poke tuna tower. Scanning the main courses, we have Thai chicken, a smorgasbord of burger options, and crab-encrusted filet medallions -- a concoction worthy of The Island of Dr. Moreau. We settle for the pretzel sticks, spinach dip, and pikliz and pork tostones. The snobby New Yorker in us rears his ugly head at the doughy pretzels but is tempered by the down-to-earth loveliness of the beer cheese. The spinach dip was similarly quickly dispensed with, while the pikliz and pork tostones were a tasty combo of roasted pork and pickled veggies that belied the dish's silly name. Maybe next time, I'll give those crab-encrusted beef medallions a try.
The patrons of American Social are an eclectic mix of young and not-so-young, couples, groups, and families. There are even children gallivanting down the street. It's a far cry from the flimsy fashionable crowd of some of New York's hipper bars, where Pabst-guzzling, Parliament-puffing hipsters play lords of the manor in increasingly gentrified and ethnically uniformed neighborhoods. That's not to say such doesn't exist in South Florida, but whatever lofty pretentions American Social may have, its patrons tonight are refreshingly unpretentious.
Moving on to the Himmarshee area of town, we hit upon America's Backyard. I'm told that it's the beginning of spring break season and that South Florida attracts America's bright young things like bees to honey this time of year, as they put down their Kafka, Freud, or medical journals and indulge in sun, booze, and casual sex. America's Backyard is supposed to be one of the hubs for this, but tonight this tiki-ish, partly open-air bar seems strangely muted. The place gradually fills while we sip surreptitiously on our Sex on the Beaches as the gents and ladies cluster in gender-specific groups on either side of the dance floor, exchanging the odd glance, giving the occasional exaggerated flick of the hair, as if they are at a junior high prom. This isn't the orgy of mindless partying I had expected or slightly feared. Perhaps it descends into wacked-out pleasure seeking later on, but for now, it's all actually rather agreeable.
Next door, Poorhouse is even less rowdy and just a little more dungeon-like. However, as far as dungeons go, this isn't one I'd mind coming back to. It's drafty and dark, and amid the cheap cans of Miller Light being thrown back, there's a band warming up. The general vibe of the place harks back to New York dive bars of yore.
In fact, New York's greatest gift to the public house world is probably the dive bar. Where the drinks are stiffer and cheaper, in dimly lit corners friends gather to engage in progressively sloppier conversation and convince themselves they are still living in the pre-Disnified city of Joey Ramone, graffitied subway cars, and affordable rents. Its presence on the streets of the East Village and the Lower East Side is becoming ever more a rare thing, as chain pharmacies, banks, and frozen yogurt joints replace these bastions of the city's grimier days, blunting its once cutting edge into a dull spoon. Fort Lauderdale's version adds a refreshing shade to the sunnier places it's reputed for.
Afterward, we shift a block away and attempt to indulge in a little Jazz Age hedonism by making our way to mixology joint Stache. However, there will be no expertly poured cocktails by debonair bartenders for us this evening. The bar is closed for a bar mitzvah. F. Scott Fitzgeralds would be appalled.
With the Sex on the Beach wearing off more quickly than it was consumed, we wander around the corner and hit upon where the rest of Fort Lauderdale has been getting blitzed for some time. Today was apparently the annual St. Patrick's Day parade, a day when the proud history and tradition of the Irish people is reduced to binge-drinking and "Kiss Me, I'm Irish" T-shirts. Not that Fort Lauderdale is unique in this revelry. There were two days on the New York calendar when parades, plastic kitsch, and marathon boozing prevailed -- St. Patrick's Day and Halloween. One is full of people in daft costumes pretending to be something other than they are, soused by sundown and trying desperately to get laid; the other is something to do with ghosts.
The Floridian version of the Irish holiday is centered around Dicey Riley's tonight. Here the Guinness and Jameson are flowing freely as a sea of glassy-eyed, green-shirted patrons, rock ever so slightly out of time to the rock music blasted throughout the bar. Most of the crowd probably knows as much about Turkmenistan as they do about Ireland, but hey, that's not really the point.
My wife and I end the evening across the street at Original Fat Cat's. It's dark and understated, and the beer is good. Images of Sid Vicious and David Bowie adorn skateboards fixed to the wall. The Clash plays on the jukebox. Again, memories of East Village watering holes return. I think back to old friends and casually check Facebook on my phone. Someone has posted pictures of bulldozed First Avenue dive Mars Bar. It's now going to be a TD Bank branch below new luxury apartments. Joey Ramone rolls over in his grave. We order another round and plan a trip to the beach for the following day.
Get the Music Newsletter
Find out about upcoming concerts and special offers happening in the South Florida music scene.