A Bellyful of Jazz

Where the Las Olas Riverfront entertainment complex now rises above the New River in Fort Lauderdale, John Baker used to park in a dirt lot behind decaying buildings, unload his car, and hoof it west along the Riverwalk to the gazebo near the Broward Center For the Performing Arts, where he served conch salad and roast-pork sandwiches to the small crowds that gathered on the first Sunday morning of every month to listen to live music.

That was five years ago. "It just started getting busier and busier every month," recalls Baker, owner of the Downtowner Saloon and Steakhouse across the river. He now runs three concessions at the SunTrust Sunday Jazz Brunch, which has grown to include 5 stages of live music and 16 booths of food and drink along the river, allowing hundreds of jazz fans to eat and imbibe their way from one end of the event to the other.

À la carte items like sausages, corn on the cob, and smoothies are available at the tents. More-substantial food comes in the form of chicken shish kebabs with yellow rice and grilled vegetables, courtesy of Riverwalk Eatery; veggie, chicken, or beef tortilla wraps with black beans and rice from Hearty Palate; or the varied cuisine found at Baker's three booths.

When the brunch began to take off in popularity, Baker moved east from the gazebo area to a site near the historic New River Inn. "That's when I started doing eggs Benedict," he says. About two years ago, Baker began serving up blackened prime rib sandwiches and caesar salads with blackened dolphin at a second booth. He added a third stand four months ago, from which he dishes out arugula salad and seafood bisque in bread bowls.

Most of the food is pure lunch fare, not brunch. But then again, regulars who show up early for the best stage-front seats bring their coolers stocked and are known to begin their repast well before any food goes on sale at 11 a.m.

"I get there at 8 in the morning to set up, and they get there at 9 a.m. with their champagne and cheese," says Baker. "People meet there. They bring their dogs. It's just a big social event. That's the community pulling together and enjoying themselves -- and the Riverwalk. That's the thing, it's here for everyone to enjoy."

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John Ferri