It's 7 o'clock on a Thursday night.
Outside, the damp pavement is steaming from an afternoon interspersed with showers and intense summer sun. Puddles line the curbs.
When the door opens, the cacophonous roar of multitudinous conversations rolls into the street.
"It'll be about two hours," says the hostess to an older, well-dressed couple inquiring about a table.
They walk toward the bar, quickly disappearing into the crowd.
The vintage-looking bar at Fork & Balls is stacked four deep with a wide array of people: 20-somethings in skyscraper platforms and short dresses, 40-something professionals in office-casual apparel, middle-aged couples in shorts and polos, and one dude straight out of a surf shop ad.
The people-watching is prime: Standing near the subway-tiled-partition separating pub-height tables from the bar, a guy with a manscaped beard, black-rimmed glasses, and a thin gold chain attempts to chat up a lean woman, with a half-sleeve tattoo, nearly a foot taller than him.
The Restaurant People are known for crafting a scene.
Founded in 1996 by Tim Petrillo, Peter Boulukos, and Alan Hooper, the company has owned and operated some of the hottest restaurants in Fort Lauderdale. It started with downtown Fort Lauderdale's comfortable epicurean haven Himmarshee Bar & Grille in 1997. Three years later, it expanded to include upscale nightlife spot Side Bar.
Two years later, the group opened the doors to River House. Set in two historic homes that were combined to configure the restaurant and catering hall, the elegant riverfront structure sat on the former site of Fort Lauderdale's original post office.
A year later, the team launched Tarpon Bend, one of the longest-running bars on Himmarshee Street.
The two former concepts shuttered their doors around the time of the housing crash. Choa Restaurants offered the group a great deal for Himmarshee. The lease on River House was up, and the city landlord refused to make much-needed repairs.
"Honestly, we had seller's remorse about Himmarshee," says Petrillo. "I think because it was our first restaurant."
YOLO, which includes the O Lounge, came about in 2008; with it came a mix of Himmarshee Street and Blue Martini-type crowds. Situated on the west end of Las Olas Boulevard, YOLO was blocks from the rest of the strip's bars and eateries.
"We opened on September 30; the stock market had its biggest one-day drop in its history," says Petrillo. "I was terrified. At our grand opening, I wish I had a dollar for every time that night I heard, 'I bet I wish you hadn't opened this place.' Thankfully, it worked out really well for us."
Two years later, Vibe opened across the plaza. The only upscale club on Las Olas, it's a favorite among the local young professional crowd looking to pick up.
Last year it was S3, the new food-driven oceanfront eatery set in the base of the Hilton Fort Lauderdale Beach. With trendy décor, prime ocean views, and a menu created by local celebrity chef Chris Miracolo, the team hoped the restaurant would be the catalyst in bringing locals back to the beach.
It was; S3 still frequently boasts hour-plus waits.
Located toward the east end of Las Olas, near perennial night-life favorite Rocco's Tacos, Fork & Balls may be the spark that helps move the action yet again.
The meatballcentric concept offers a wide range of menu items, ranging from homey comfort food to diet-appropriate fare.
In addition to a large veggie section, several nutrient-dense apps are offered. The Brussels sprouts are one; flash-fried and served in a bacon-infused toasted garlic-tomato sauce with a sprinkling of Parmesan, they're savory and on the salubrious side.
The Toscana combines F&B blend balls (veal and pork) with rapini, butter beans, and prosciutto in broth finished with Parmesan. Full-flavored but light, it's a good option for those watching their waist line.
On the indulgent side, the Spicy Italian incorporates piquant pork balls with creamy polenta, roasted tomato sauce, and peppers. A dollop of ricotta sits atop.
Sandwiches offer divergent takes on the meatball sub. Options vary from gyro-inspired the Greek (lamb balls with tzatziki, tomato, and onion in a pita) to the traditional Sicilian (beef balls, tomato sauce, mozzarella, and peppers) to the fresh and velvety B&E Grinder (chicken balls, roasted mushroom, Parmesan cream, and pesto).
Taking cues from the Meatball Shop -- the New York eatery responsible for the national ball craze -- Fork & Balls also offers a DIY section. Guests can choose from a range of balls (including classic beef, chicken, veggie, and daily specials), sauces (traditional tomato, mushroom, Parmesan cream), and accoutrement (options range from just balls to pasta to veggies and salad to gyros and sliders).
The concept may be trendy, but the food is genuinely enjoyable. And with the Restaurant People's record for filling spaces with lively bars and eateries, it would be safe to assume this place will keep drawing crowds.
Follow Sara Ventiera on Twitter, @saraventiera.
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