When the original Bimini Boatyard Bar & Grill opened off SE 17th Street in 1989, Fort Lauderdale diners anointed it the new hot spot, a laid-back waterfront restaurant that attracted all ages with its seafood/steak menu and busy bar scene. At the time, Bimini was best-known for hedonistic happy hours served from three bars, a bustling buffet-style Sunday brunch, and a swanky waterside locale with megayacht views that was located smack dab in the middle of the city's busy boating community.
In its heyday — the late '80s through much of the '90s, now-owner Steve Hudson recalls it was the place to see and be seen.
"Twenty years ago, Bimini was definitely the place to be," says Hudson. "When it first opened, I remember it would be five deep at all three bars."
Despite a successful decadelong run, somewhere along the way, favor turned into a failing establishment. Fast-forward to 2005, and the restaurant's dockside views were no longer awe-inspiring. The decades-old decor had become old and tired. And the food was considered mediocre at best.
The tide of change came a few years later when, in 2008, Hudson — son of Fort Lauderdale real estate mogul Harris Hudson — purchased the restaurant from its founding owner, Sea Watch's James Edmondson. At the time, Hudson began his reign by closing the doors for a cursory remodel, a million-dollar "refresh" that would give Bimini a new identity, he said, while trying not to stray from what had made it successful all those years.
"We're not going to compete with YOLO, S3, places like that," Hudson told New Times in 2009 after his company, Hudson Capital Group, purchased the surrounding 73,000-square-foot waterside complex. "We're not trying to be trendy."
So when Hudson closed the restaurant again in June of this year and actually joined forces with YOLO, S3, and "places like that" restaurateur Tim Petrillo with promises of a new concept poised to become the next waterside hot spot for Broward County's boating scene, city residents wondered what that would mean for the Old Florida institution.
Could a new restaurant really replace to the dusty memories of a 2-decade-old, faded, yet once-beloved institution? On a recent evening at the week-old, reimagined 13,000-square-foot restaurant, the answer is clearly yes: Boatyard is nothing like Bimini.
After a year of discussion, longtime friends and work associates Hudson and Petrillo transformed Bimini into Boatyard in just over three months, creating the duo's take on the ultimate Fort Lauderdale waterfront restaurant. Only a few vestiges of the original theme remain. There are three bars once more, including a stand-alone, outdoor, boathouse-style bar catering to those happy-hour imbibers.
Everything else is new, from a roaming outdoor patio complete with the Restaurant People's signature fire pit, and an expanded dockside dining area hemmed by megayachts and its own staff of boat valets, to an open kitchen, custom-designed nautical-chic interior, and a beefed-up staff of 150.
It also means a new menu, one that will make you forget those mediocre meals of the past. The Restaurant People
Much of the inspiration is thanks to Petrillo's team, and Boatyard is its most ambitious work yet, a high-end casual eatery imagined by Miami's Big Time Design, which delivered a mixture of
The best seat in the house may be outside beneath the lantern-festooned gumbo limbo tree, delivered by truck and barge to Boatyard from Cape Coral. The goal was to create a seamless transition from indoors to out, says Petrillo.
"The only separation going on here is between the imbibers and diners," he adds, segregated by way of a two-level layout, a large interior bar a few steps up from the main dining area. Farther back, a short copper bar provides a more intimate setting, opening onto a covered patio area beyond. Outside, closer to the docks, you'll find the third bar, where patrons can make an evening out of it with the lounge-style seating nearby.
What's good to drink? "The Suns Kissed," says Petrillo, naming what may soon become Boatyard's signature martini. Your waiter will deliver a glass with a single flower-studded ice sphere, along with a glass pitcher of bright, golden-hued juice, a combination of mango purée, orange juice, sparkling wine, and Maraschino liqueur. It's light and not too boozy, like any good happy-hour cocktail should be.
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Determined to be unlike any South Florida seafood haunt, Boulukos and Petrillo even dreamed up the idea for a roaming raw-bar cart where patrons can select their own shellfish — everything from a variety of East and West Coast oysters to Florida stone crab (when in season) and Alaskan king crab served at market price.
Then there's the "hook to table" offerings, where transparent sourcing allows customers a rare glimpse at the names of both the fishermen and vessels that deliver each catch, seafood caught off the East Coast, from Rhode Island to the Florida Keys. The menu, printed anew each day, allows diners to pick their fish ($18 to $28), a sauce (a $3 charge), and one of nine sides ($8 each).
Recently, a beautifully seared grouper was caught by Capt. Bob of the fishing vessel Captain W., from the Gulf of Mexico, served with a creamy caper basil tomato brown butter. If you're feeling fancy, add lobster tail, scallops, or jumbo grilled shrimp for a seafood fiesta.
Midway through the menu, you'll find a list of "favorites," composed plates that require no decision-making on your part — a protein, sauce, and side already paired. Yellowfin tuna comes with a Thai rice crust beneath a kimchi coconut sauce and a stack of baby bok choy. Herb-roasted chicken sits beside a Brussels-sprouts-and-parsnip bacon hash. And a Florida paella — with shrimp, clams, mussels, calamari, white fish, and homemade chorizo over saffron rice — doesn't need a family-sized appetite to order, here made for one and served in a gleaming steel pan.
The sweetest ending may not be another cocktail, but rather a homemade dessert. Try the pastry chef's most fantastical creation, the peanut butter and jelly. A tower of dense peanut mousse is coated in a caramel syrup studded with chips of toffee brittle and served alongside a smear of fresh raspberry gelée and a small (if unnecessary) scoop of vanilla ice cream.
"This area is known as the yachting capital of the world, but there isn't one iconic establishment in the 17th Street area that truly represents that," says Petrillo. "Our goal was not only to resurrect a South Florida and Fort Lauderdale institution, but also create something new that could take center stage."
At the end of the day, Boatyard is certainly no longer Bimini. But the good news is that there might not be too many people who mind.
Boatyard is located at 1555 SE 17th St., Fort Lauderdale. Hours are 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight on Friday, and noon to midnight on Saturday. Bars remain open until 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Call 954-525-7400, or visit boatyard.restaurant.
Nicole Danna is a food writer covering Broward and Palm Beach counties. To get the latest in food and drink news in South Florida, follow her @SoFloNicole or find her latest food pics on the BPB New Times Food & Drink Instagram.