In 24 years, Bimini Boatyard has seen a pair of owners, a handful of chefs, unknown dozens of million-dollar yachts bouncing up in the harbor, and more cheesy engagement photos than you can shake a stick at.
Through it all, the perfect views, cool iced teas, and sweet Bimini bread have kept it a Fort Lauderdale favorite that continues to outlive countless competing restaurants. Today, it's searching for a new identity while trying not to stray from what has made it successful for more than two decades.
"We're not going to compete with YOLO, S3, places like that," says owner Steven Hudson, who bought the restaurant in 2008. "We're not trying to be trendy."
At the time, Bimini, once a Fort Lauderdale hot spot that was the place to see and be seen, was teetering on its last legs. Perhaps it was the economic recession or the hustle and bustle of new, trendy restaurants on Las Olas Boulevard that pushed it out of the limelight. Whatever the case, the stellar views seemed no match for the prevailing winds.
"I'm a real estate guy, and the idea of a 13,000-square-foot restaurant going dark in my center wasn't an option," Hudson says. The center is the Quay, a 73,000-square-foot waterside complex owned by Hudson Capital Group. The company also owns properties along Las Olas Boulevard, the Bank of America building at Las Olas Centre, and a handful of condominium complexes across South Florida.
Yet Hudson, the son of Fort Lauderdale real estate mogul Harris "Whit" Hudson and nephew of billionaire and former Miami Dolphins owner H. Wayne Huizenga, had no experience in the restaurant business when he decided to buy the business from James Edmondson, who today still owns Sea Watch on the Ocean.
Over a few drinks during some downtime at a Las Vegas trade show, Hudson, his father, and his brother-in-law Scott Bodenweber decided to give it a go.
"The idea was to freshen up the menu, freshen up the restaurant, give it one year, and see how it goes," he says. "If we were losing our butts, we'd find someone else to come in and run it."
The restaurant underwent a "million-dollar-plus" makeover in 2009, closing briefly to replace musty carpets and aging fixtures with sleek hardwood floors and blue seating.
However, the face-lift was the easy part. Michael Bennett, a native Floridian and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, took over the kitchen when Hudson first bought the property. Bennett resigned around Thanksgiving 2011 to advise restaurants in the Caribbean and continue working on cookbooks.
Next up was Johnson and Wales grad Jason Shipman, who previously served as head of kitchen operations for the Cheesecake Factory.
But a little over a year later, Hudson was in search of a new chef again, this time tapping Cuban-born chef Odel Arencibia to take over the kitchen. Arencibia had arrived in the U.S. in 1999 and spent time at Burt & Jacks, Jackson's Steak House, Grille 66, and Capital Grille, where he worked with the owner to change the produce to 100 percent organic.
The combination of an all-organic focus in a lighter menu with "Caribbean flair" might just be the modern upgrade Bimini needs.
There's grilled swordfish over white beans with a lobster ragout; smoked salmon with horseradish, dill, and crème fraîche; and goat cheese risotto topped with grilled shrimp and a champagne beurre blanc sauce.
The idea is to offer new, satisfying flavors that don't leave guests overly full.
"We have new products that 20 years ago weren't being used," Arencibia says. "We have heirloom products and new seafood."
At the same time, they're not scrapping all of the old menu items. There's still the Karen's Club — sliced chicken breast, bacon, and jack cheese on grilled sourdough — and the Diane Salad, with diced chicken, toasted almonds, rice noodles, orange segments, and sesame seeds.
Hudson and Arencibia are working to finalize the menu before the season gets into full swing, but their goal goes beyond the food, the décor, and the numbers.
Bimini Boatyard is a brand. Steve Hudson didn't buy the building, the kitchen, or even the restaurant's lauded view. What he bought was its story.
"I remember going to Bimini on Friday nights, and their happy hour was legendary," he says. "We wanted to tap into that history, that good will that was built over the years even though she had gotten a little tarnished."
Bimini Boatyard is located at 1555 SE 17th St. Causeway in Fort Lauderdale. Call 954-525-7400, or visit biminiboatyard.com.