Fort Lauderdale isn't like the rest of South Florida. It's not Miami, whose robust art scene and dynamic, multicultural music communities are rivaled only by its flashy vanity and cocaine cliches. It's not Palm Beach, where quaint, young, suburban families sprawl out from a core of Old Florida wealth all wrapped in polos and Lilly Pulitzer.
It's not quite activism-inclined like Lake Worth, bratty like Drake's Boca girls, or rolling over for Jimmy Buffett like Hollywood — at least not yet. A vibrant port city that touts laid-back waterfront living and young party chasers toting a bit of disposable income, it's far from perfect, but Fort Lauderdale does pretty well for itself. In 2014, the city ranked twenty-fifth on Livability.com's list of 100 best places to live and seventh on its list of 10 best downtowns.
Still, especially for its growing numbers of young professionals living and working around the downtown hub, it's hard not to feel like something's missing from the Fort Lauderdale nightlife scene. OK, a few things: Let's start with a free (or basically free) shuttle connecting downtown to the beach, Himmarshee to FAT Village, Las Olas to Wilton Manors, and even beyond to Funky Buddha and the emerging area off Oakland Park Boulevard. We're not talking 20-minute waits for grandma's Sun Trolley. Let's implement express routes and ramp up nighttime scheduling from Thursday to Saturday.
Beyond better transportation and integration among Fort Lauderdale's handful of eclectic neighborhoods, a focus on community-based programming, honing local talent, and challenging consumers with new, interesting, and out of the box concepts will lift the city's already alluring nightlife scene to new, nationally competitive heights. From Las Olas to the beach, here are five things currently missing from Fort Lauderdale's nightlife scene.
Las Olas. Home to a majority of the city's corporate skyscrapers, towering condos, and luxe shops and restaurants, Las Olas Boulevard stretches roughly three miles from the infamous Elbo Room on A1A to its cutoff at Brickell Avenue on the mainland. Which brings us to Las Olas Riverfront: Once a bustling destination that kick-started downtown development in the '90s, the dated outdoor retail plaza and movie theater eventually fell victim to the recession in the mid-2000s. As developers continue struggling with what to do next, four acres of prime waterfront real estate remain virtually vacant, creating an eerie, derelict ghost town smack between Las Olas' dense western tip and the rest of downtown up to the Performing Arts Center.
Rather than continue to master-plan an ambitious (and predictable) mixed-use project with even more residences, hotels, retailers, and office spaces, Riverfront could be transformed into an open-air thoroughfare—like downtown LA's Grand Central Market—housing everything from green grocers and butchers to edgy, urban street food stalls and hip craft cocktail counters. In the daytime, Riverfront Market would serve as a quick, casual alternative to the area's more formal sit-down lunch options. In the evening, it'd be an ideal stop for an after-work drink with friends or a scenic snack before hitting Himmarshee. And late-night food stalls serving up greasy noodles, dumplings, and local flavors like jerk chicken would soak up all the alcohol before bed.
Himmarshee Street. Despite all its efforts, Himmarshee Street remains a brief strip of Irish bars, dive bars, and spring break bars, with the occasional fleeting hookah club, all thankfully anchored by the solid mid-sized music venue Revolution Live. Though spots like Public House, Apothecary 330, and Taco Craft have all helped introduce the area's thirsty masses to trends like chiseled ice balls, Edison light bulbs, and DJs spinning old school hip-hop, something's still a bit off.
Attempting to crack the cool code while also bending to meet the base needs of the area's typically turned-up crowds, many of these venues miss out on another more culturally inclined demographic. Where's the chill spot we go to for a bite and a smart wine pairing before a show at the Performing Arts Center, or to keep the vibes going after a Sunday jazz brunch at Esplanade Park? Where can we rely on a well-executed craft cocktail — without the pretense of bottle service — to cap a killer rock concert at Revolution? Which venue strikes that perfect balance of low-key sophistication, where a headlining artist might sneak away after a big gig for a more intimate, impromptu performance to those in the know? It takes an effortless cool to pull off, and the first step is to stop trying so hard.
FAT Village. From its monthly art walks to its growing class of young, creative startups, FAT Village already has a lot going for it. Thoughtful, community-focused programming like C&I Studios' For the Love music festival this past March and the upcoming Small Press Fair this November prove Fort Lauderdale's investment in its own local arts and music scenes is more than just a passing phase.
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Now that we have a proper arts district, along with plenty of the hip new condos that tend to follow, it's time for FAT Village to up its nightlife game. Many old warehouses in the area have already been refurbished as art galleries, design studios, or co-working coffee bars, but where are the innovative bars, clubs, and after-work hangout spots? In downtown Denver's similarly on-the-rise RiNo Arts District, First Draft's big, rolling warehouse doors open up to an expansive tap room with 40 super-neat self-serve beer, cider, and wine taps that operate with refillable credit cards. Cool art and communal benches round out the minimal space, which also features a front patio. A similar concept would fit in perfectly in Fort Lauderdale, where local bands and DJs could provide the entertainment on the weekends.
Wilton Manors. A mecca for gay living in the U.S., Wilton Manors is also home to some of Fort Lauderdale's best restaurants and bang-for-your-buck housing. A quick five-minute drive up Third Avenue from downtown will land you among some of the most legendary gay clubs South Florida has to offer, which regularly play host to wild drag shows and sweaty dance parties. But for a neighborhood home to such a diverse mix of people, Wilton Manors' nightlife options can sometimes come off a bit one note.
Gramps Bar in Miami's eclectic Wynwood neighborhood does a great job of combining kitsch, cocktails, DJs, comedy nights, and concerts to attract partiers from all walks of life. Its two indoor rooms and epic outdoor patio have tons of quirky, Old Florida charm, and its monthly Double Stubble party was named New Times' Best Monthly Gay Party last year. Gramps' air of inclusivity, chill vibes, and top-notch bar program plus its penchant for late-night partying would be a welcome addition to Wilton Manors' already intriguing offerings.
The Beach. Fort Lauderdale Beach has been trying to rid itself of its spring breaker image for years. But instead of replacing all of its epically trashy dive bars — part of its genetic makeup — with overly glossed, trendy resorts and lounges, the beach could benefit from something entirely different. In Miami, the understated Freehand hostel opened up in the old Indian Creek Hotel, directly challenging the glitz and sleaze of South Beach—and absolutely killing it. With its award-winning poolside Broken Shaker cocktail bar and multilevel 27 Restaurant, the Freehand emanates effortless style with a throwback sensibility, like a bungalow commune from the '50s. Also a regular host to interesting events like Swim Week fashion shows, acoustic concerts in the lobby, and pop-up book exchanges by the pool, the hostel attracts a class of savvy travelers by luring in some of Miami's hippest locals—a rather ingenious move and one Fort Lauderdale might note.