Restaurant Reviews

Copacabana Supper Club in Fort Lauderdale: Nightlife as It Once Was, and Could Be

More often than not, today's clubbing experience goes something like this: You stand outside in a long line that's blocked with a velvet rope, waiting to be given a nod by some self-important tool with a clipboard in his hand and an earpiece in his ear. As you wait, some barely dressed bitch burns you with her cigarette, and the menacing bouncer eyes you like he wants to kill you. Then you pay a $20 cover for the privilege of hemorrhaging more money on $15 cocktails, being surrounded by a crowd that's raging on drugs, and watching some overhyped European DJ press "play" on his laptop and send untz-untz music coursing through the speakers.

It does not have to be so.

At 10:30 p.m. on a recent Saturday, the main dance floor at the Copacabana Supper Club was packed. While the band, Sabor Latina, played, its trombone and trumpet squealed and howled. The lead singer, a classed-down Ricky Ricardo wearing sunglasses and a goatee, flirted in rapid-fire Spanish with a group of gringas. Waiters scurried about carrying cocktails, small plates of food, and bottles of champagne with blazing sparklers coming out of the spouts.

Among this sea of jacketed men and sequin-dress-wearing women, a 50ish black man in a black suit, a black buttoned-up shirt, and a bright-red metallic tie clapped together two wooden cylinders, keeping the beat. He pulled out a person-sized Cuban flag and began wearing it like a cape. As the night wore on, people took momentary pauses from dancing to shuffle over to their tables and grab another swig of their mojitos. The women chucked aside their too-high heels.

The original Copacabana nailed a certain winning formula: Its dinner-club-with-showgirls format attracted archetypical manly men and classy but sexy females; it had an upscale vibe but a nefarious undercurrent. It opened on Manhattan's Upper East Side in 1940, quietly owned by Frank Costello, the New York City Mafia kingpin who was head of the Luciano, and later Genovese, crime families. The gangster hangout played host to the era's most famous celebrities and entertainers — Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. It later became a popular backdrop for modern Mafia movies including Goodfellas, Carlito's Way, and The French Connection.

Over eight decades, the club has changed hands multiple times and moved to various locations across the city. In 2011, new owners revamped the concept and opened a Copacabana in Times Square, where it is both a tourist attraction and living relic.

Old nightlife-industry articles show that since at least 2010, people involved with the New York outpost have been interested in bringing the Copacabana concept to South Florida. After several years and adjusted plans, they eventually settled on Fort Lauderdale. A consultant quoted in news reports has said they chose it over Miami because Fort Lauderdale lacked a club with live music, dancing, and upscale dress.

On September 14, the new Copacabana opened in the former Laffing Matterz space at Andrews Avenue and Las Olas Boulevard that sat vacant for three years until construction began in January. And it is a far cry from the gauche nightclubs to which we've become accustomed.

The club is open only on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, and reservations are a must if you want to be guaranteed a table for dinner and freed from the $10 cover charge (which applies to men only.) As we walked to and from the restaurant on a Saturday night, the neighborhood seemed eerily empty — a sad hint that bars and restaurants in the adjacent Riverwalk area aren't faring so well.

We were late for our 8:30 reservation, but a tuxedoed maitre d' whisked us through the front doors. A curvaceous Latina hostess, all cleavage and hips, checked our reservations. As we waited, we chatted with Charles, another tuxedo-clad manager who was down from the New York club to help with the opening and who bemoaned the Yankees' loss to the Detroit Tigers and a missed opportunity at another World Series. His accent was classic New York Latino, a mashup of Puerto Rican and Staten Island.

Off to the side, a classic Copa girl — wearing black fishnet stockings, a red corset pushing up her breasts, and a tiny top hat with a black feather lashed to it — was smiling and shimmying and posing for pictures with guests, getting them in the mood for the night.

Inside, the 12,000-square-foot tropical-themed club was somewhat kitschy, but that was to be expected. Black-and-white pictures of mid-20th-century Copa girls were plastered around the walls. The bar area consisted of a few small tables and white leather banquettes, plus several high-tops. Broad, white, wooden palm fronds hung over a mirror-backed bar. People warmed up with a few cocktails, and a few started to dance to the live salsa coming from the main room.

Past wide columns and through a molded archway lay the main room, where about 20 tables were arranged in a semicircle around a sizable dance floor and stage, giving the room an amphitheater feel. A burgundy curtain was flanked by two more giant, white, wooden palm trees.

We started with obligatory mojitos ($12), which came in large stemless wine tumblers with plenty of mint. For anyone wary of their salsa skills, they are the perfect shot of courage. A cheese plate ($14) brought two discs of cold goat cheese topped with dots of pesto; thin triangles of Jarlsberg, a nutty, rich Swiss cheese; and salty Parmesan. Cured olives and a mixed fruit salad accompanied the spread along with a thin slice of toasted foccacia bread with a streak of pesto.

The dinner menu was short, with no more than a dozen items, and fairly priced. Most items were $12 or less, and only the night's two specials — a rib-eye steak and black grouper — were more than $20. Cold offerings included mixed seafood ceviche, shrimp and quinoa rolls wrapped in fresh rice paper, and the cheese sampler.

Hot tapas included an array of dressed-up bar food. Among them were veal and pork meatballs, Colombian-coffee-rubbed baby back ribs, and shrimp tacos. Veal and pork meatballs ($12) weren't quite as jumbo as promised. A trio arrived in a small bowl draped with tangy marinara sauce and a sprinkle of grated Parmesan. They were a bit too dense but still juicy and went well with two more slices of toasted foccacia topped with pesto.

More important — these plates are well-designed for grazing in between songs or when the band takes a break.

After we got lubed up with a few drinks and took some spins on the dance floor, our entrées arrived during the band's intermission. The black grouper­ special ($22) included a generous portion of meaty, juicy fish served atop a bed of yellow rice and grilled white and green asparagus. It was well-crisped on one side and topped with a finely diced pico de gallo. It came with one of the shrimp and quinoa rolls, which were woefully light on shrimp, and we were happy we hadn't ordered them as a sole appetizer. Inside, the quinoa, a grain native to Central America and similar in texture to barley, was perfectly cooked and well-seasoned with salt and pepper.

All of that quinoa made us philosophical: Why did we ever trade tuxedos, live music, dinner service, and manners for bottle service, electronic music, and club drugs? In the 1970s, disco took over and eventually led to the modern-day club scene, which now seems to be all about getting blindingly inebriated and hunting down someone to bed. Though it's true — in Copacabana's heyday, celebrity entertainers became famous not just for their performances but also for voracious appetites for women and alcohol.

Whether this Copacabana will become a nightlife mainstay or just a sideshow attraction depends upon whether it can keep people coming back after its novelty fades. On Fridays, the club is offering free salsa lessons from 5 to 8 p.m., and a free paella bar and half-priced drinks are an attempt to bring in the happy-hour crowd. But will the 40s-and-over crowd keep showing up every weekend? There were no college-aged or 20-somethings in sight.

Management must realize this fact, because as it neared midnight, the band disappeared, the middle-aged crowd started heading out, and a DJ set up and started playing techno.

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Zachary Fagenson is the restaurant critic for Miami New Times, and proud to report a cholesterol level of 172.
Contact: Zachary Fagenson