Locals will tell you it's a little-known hot spot. The Commercial Boulevard pier area in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea boasts a strip of high-quality dining establishments, gift stores, and, my favorite destination of all, boozin' joints. The whole walking district has a supercool, ultrarelaxed vibe; the perfect smattering of savvy tourists (the ones lucky enough to find it); a blend of acceptable styles (high-heel sophisticated and flip-flop casual); and enough drink specials to keep you buzzed long into the warm, breezy night.
Aruba Beach Cafe: I tend to steer clear of food products that originated from the sea, so I was a little hesitant about Aruba Beach Cafe and its potential for the overpowering stench of fish fry. But at the door, I spotted a couple — him, with a mustache and dark hair; her, petite with a poofy 'do — wildly making out, complete with roaming hands. Well, that's all I needed to see: I trotted in and took a glance around.
The dining area was large; Aruba boasted an outdoor patio and three packed bars. Strings of Christmas lights covered the low ceilings; the entire place was a parrot-hued explosion of bright greens and yellows; the walls were covered in beach pictures, mirrors, and bright posters of fruity tropical beverages. There was sort of a down-home, Jimmy Buffett-Christmas-album feel to the whole place, the air of a long-standing establishment with no intention of going anywhere soon.
And it was packed: There were Q-tips sporting floral prints, big rowdy groups and quiet-talking couples, tourists and regulars, loners and locals. My good buddy Beard and I hopped up to the third bar and summoned bartender Stephanie: a pretty brunet with small features and a warm smile. We decided to forego Aruba's extensive collection of fancy drinks (things with ingredients like "Irish coffee" and "Pearl pomegranate") and went with some Sam Adams Winter Lager.
We tried to impress Stephanie with our wit: "When Natalie Holloway disappeared, did you get a lot of drunks making insensitive jokes?" I asked. She looked confused. "You know... 'cause you're called... Aruba?"
"Oh, my goodness, I never even thought of that," she said, pawing slightly at the bottle opener secured to her arm via black sweatband. "But I've only been here three years, so I just slightly missed that whole thing."
Nearby, a trio of Kentucky tourists was chatting up Scott, a senior bartender. He'd just given them each a complimentary grapefruit-blend shot, which a mustached man and his blond wife gulped down instantaneously. The bartender fist-bumped them for their shot-taking prowess. The third woman, tiny with a pixie face, sipped it slowly. "I'm a bartender myself," she explained. "I know what I can handle."
Scott stopped by briefly to chat us up. He was handsome, a New Jersey dude with strong features and a healthy tan. "We're always packed," he told me, pushing through the conversation a mile a minute. "On Sundays, when other bars are dead, we have people lined up waiting to change their kids' diapers in here and shake sand out of their shoes."
"This place is a staple on the beach — we've been here 20 years," he continued. "I've worked here seven — it's been my dream job."
"Really?" I asked skeptically, hoping for some dirt.
"I'd never say a bad thing about this place," he said. "I met my wife here — the love of my life. She was 23 at the time; I was 34. I've watched her grow up; I've matured. I'm not that same asshole bartender."
"You sure?" I chided him.
"Positive," he said forcefully.
As we decided to drain our glasses and head to the next bar, we overheard the mustached Kentuckian saying, "We're not sure where our hotel is. It's near a Walgreens, I think."
The Village Pump: Next stop, the Village Pump. This was a small, chic bar — jazz played softly in the background, candles lit the few tables; the place was all mirrors and beiges and grays and marble surfaces.
I watched a man in business clothes chat up a dark-haired woman in a red dress.
"I'm a lawyer," she was telling him.
The blond bartender kept a sharp eye on the booze level in the patrons' drinks and absently tapped her fingers on the lemon caddy in time with the soft music. She joshed back and forth with a tiny old man who sat sipping a cranberry drink and swaying to the music.
The mirror on the bar's back wall was decorated with Boston sports logos — the Celtics, the Red Sox. We heard the snaps of thick, raucous accents throughout the bar; I hinted that maybe my buddy Beard should remove his New York Yankees ball cap. Especially after I pointed out a plaque that said, "The curse is broken" (referencing when the Red Sox sent Babe Ruth to the Yankees and subsequently went nearly 100 years before winning the World Series). He bravely refused.
Jessica and Josh, two young, sexy locals, were enjoying drinks at the far corner of the bar. Jessica had short brown hair and perfectly smooth skin; Josh had curly dark hair, strong jaw lines, and a surfer-dude demeanor.
"How do you guys like the bar?" I asked.
"I'm biased," Jessica said. "I just ate the best mussels I've ever had in my life."
"Awful," Josh said. "I hate it."
"Yeah, he hates it so much that he comes here all the time," Jessica said. "Don't listen to him."
"It's a good chill spot," he conceded.
"I don't much like big crowds," said Jessica. "This place is perfect."
"I just was at Aruba," I said. "It's pretty bumpin' there."
"Aruba is good if you like roaches and bad service," Josh said.
"He doesn't mean that!" Jessica said.
What he didn't know was that one of the bartenders from Aruba was sitting right next to him. I pointed this out.
"Well, obviously she's choosing to drink here," Jessica said.
"Touché," I said.
"So, what, you just walk around and write about what you do?" Josh asked. " 'I got drunk and a cute boy took me home.' Oh, wait, can't turn that in to your editor!"
"Clearly you don't read New Times," I said.
Hoping I had just earned a reader, I traipsed back to Beard (still in his Yankees hat) and closed out our tab.
101 Ocean: By the time my buddy and I arrived at 101 Ocean, we were in need of a short chill-out before heading home. Fortunately, we selected the right spot. 101 Ocean was low-lit, partially open-air, and boasted a swank dining area, with walls covered in beautiful black-and-white ocean photography. On top of that, its menu had a healthy array of martinis, cosmos, and other beach-bum drinks that no open-air bar should be without (even something intriguingly called an "orange creamsicle"). The multicolored array of booze bottles made a beautiful behind-the-bar centerpiece, bottom lit and sparkling in the flickering light.
Our bartender had a shock of purple in her blond hair and served our drinks quickly, albeit with a slightly surly demeanor. She curtly informed us the place had been open only about a year and a half.
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"What are all these words on the walls?" Beard asked, sipping his Sierra Nevada. A border of words ran around the top perimeter of the walls — words like Cuba, San Marcos, SAAG, and Miami.
"Beaches around the world," she answered concisely.
Across the bar, girls in cleavage-bearing halter-tops sipped wine and loudly (read: drunkenly) discussed what constituted a "lie" (surely something their boyfriends would get the short end of the stick on), and next to us, a trio of out-of-towners shot Irish car bombs while their female companion snapped photos at an alarming rate. Snap. Flash. Snap. Flash. Surely destined to make a Facebook appearance in the near future.
As I watched a distinguished-looking gentleman slowly walk his motorcycle up to the venue, I figured it was about time to skedaddle. With a belly full of beer and lungs full of salt-tinged breeze, Beard and I made our way back into the ink-black night.