We're off to the theater, curtain's at 7, and I'll be damned if I'm going to eat my dinner at 5 o'-freaking-clock in the afternoon like some British working-class yob sitting down to his "tea" of marmite and beef hash. I'll be geriatric soon enough, thank you why rush things by gumming milquetoast with the early birds? By the time the show lets out at 10, the only way we're going to pacify the feckless tummy goddess is to apparently pack a lunchbox. If you live in South Florida, you evidently have to make a soul-destroying choice between a decent evening meal and your entertainment. It's the concert, the opera, the play, the gallery opening and then... home to your toaster-ovened Eggos.
Restaurateurs in these parts are most annoyingly exacting when it comes to shutting down their kitchens at 9:30 p.m. on the dot Lord help us if we've failed to procure our grub by the witching hour. It's the gastronomic equivalent of Prohibition, and it smacks of something puritanical and mean, as if the food police were out to punish us loose-hipped females and reckless blades who develop our hungers after dark. There are, of course, a free-thinking few who have the balls to keep their kitchens open and serve three-course meals well into the wee hours, and I'm not talking Denny's. Particularly notable in Palm Beach County is Rodney Mayo, who keeps the servers hopping at his gaily revamped diner, Howley's (700 S. Dixie Hwy., West Palm Beach, 561-833-5691), for a full 24 hours Fridays and Saturdays and the retro comfort food (burgers, steaks, shakes, fried chicken, meatloaf, pies, ice cream, and gasp! a full liquor bar) can taste pretty damned good after you've spent an evening dry-humping strangers on the dance floor. Mayo's other swinging venue, Dada (52 N. Swinton Ave., Delray Beach, 561-330-3232), serves gourmet salads, stuffed ravioli, crab cakes, and beef tenderloin tips, among other things (including a chocolate fondue and excellent martinis) until 2 a.m. every night. And in a snazzy, midcentury modern vein, Jetsetter Lounge (1132 N. Dixie Hwy., Lake Worth, 561-533-7999), sets out a World's Fare menu of coconut shrimp, jerked pork, and spiced chicken until 11 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday (an "intergalactic Polynesian luau" offers build-your-own pu-pu platters and hibachi dining), followed by "Global Munchies" (appetizers and desserts) from 11 to 2 in the morning.
All, of course, have been previously lauded in these pages ad nauseam. Weirder still, if you're craving something really glitzy and expensive with a clientele a mite older and richer, you may eat latish and lavishly (kitchen closes at 11 p.m. on weekends, which means you can arrive at 10:56 and draw out your meal quite indefinitely) on Palm Beach island at the exquisite Café L'Europe (331 S. County Rd., Palm Beach, 561-655-4020). But despite the address, I can't promise you "sedate": There have been some truly juicy late-night scenes and squabbles over there in the past couple of years between divorcing couples and scions and their scorned mistresses, more than enough to keep the gossip columns atwitter.
Things also range late down the road at Cucina Dell'Arte, a thoroughly cheerful bistro twinkling with holiday lights and crisscrossed by adorable waitrons, who stay busy carrying Bianca pizzettes and penne à la vodka until 2 a.m., seven nights a week, to a clientele of Palm Beach 20-somethings home on vay-cay from Swarthmore and Sudbury and gold diggers of both sexes. The food at Cucina is what you will call "uneven" when you're in an expansive and generous mood. The main courses of fish and meat are pricey ($30 for a plate of grilled "bronzini," $36 for the zuppe di mare Atlantica, $44 for a veal chop), but these aren't worth bothering about anyway the night we ordered the bronzini, it was spoiled, and that was one expensive mouthful of bad fish.) You can make a reasonable post-theater supper on the pizzettes, which range from $16 to $22, salads ($7 to $16), pastas ($19 for the vodka penne and $20 for puttanesca), or a fine grilled breast of free-range chicken ($25), a bit dry but tasty. If the calamari della Cucina ($12) is alternately soggy and greasy, at least there's enough of it to feed your clamoring crowd; if the house salad ($10) is ill-dressed, they sure don't skimp on the gorgonzola. Once one crosses the midnight barrier, I've discovered, one cares less about niceties like a properly balanced aioli and a lot more about just feeding the damned beast. Cucina serves wraps and sandwiches too between midnight and 2 a.m. Desserts, particularly the homemade gelato (which is really ice cream, but we won't quibble) and the flourless chocolate cake ($10) are honestly above par.
So much for the northern county. In Broward, things are a bit dicier but not impossible. We hied over to Samba Room on Las Olas Boulevard after a theatrical bellyflop a couple of weekends ago and found a minimalist menu that spoke to our keen need to be comforted. We desperately needed something to clear the cache so we could power forward, and we found it in a sampler of empanadas ($7.95) and a bowl of ceviche ($8.95), both of which are available, along with soups, salads, and specialties like rum teriyaki-glazed salmon and samba soba noodles, until midnight on weekends. Not only was the ceviche composed of shrimp and mahi fresh and firm and infused with just the right dose of lime juice but there was a lot of it, which at this price made our little appetizer one of the best piscinary deals in Fort Lauderdale. The empanadas were filling Latin soul food, some stuffed with spicy pork, others with sweet corn and chopped vegetables, and given a pool of aji Amarillo sauce to kick back in. Both our main dishes were equally satisfying a nice white fillet of Chilean sea bass with fiery Creole tomato sauce; and a dark, dense, slow-roasted pork loin marinated in beer and spices and served wrapped in a banana leaf (each is $18.95). Samba Room's a good example of how unhorrible a chain can be mass food with flair and fair pricing. The management, in their sleek suits and slicked hair, are particularly fun to watch as they swan around glad-handing the regulars.
And if they can't find you a place at Samba Room, Big City Tavern (609 E. Las Olas Blvd., 954-727-0307) is just a short sprint down Las Olas; it serves a "limited menu" until 1 a.m. on weekends.
Kilmo keeps threatening to close Alligator Alley (1321 E. Commercial Blvd., Oakland Park, 954-771-2220), and it may just happen. But until that last blues note is sounded, this old Florida roots bar hasn't seen the tail end of its famous sautéed gator or pulled pork poboys (beloved of New Times staffers), which presumably taste all that much better at 1:35 in the old a.m. Prime "killer" burgers, festival-award-winning gumbo, chili, and honey jack chicken wings take the "barf" out of barfood. The place is packed on weekends, so I don't guess you're going to get a table. The race goes to thems that talks the sweetest.
Ditto Taverna Opa, although here, alas, the sweet talk will get you nowhere. Only Lady Luck can tell whether you'll be cooling your heels in the parking lot for several hours while folks inside linger over their lemony potatoes and chick pea mash, their gigantic prawns and spanakopita, or whether you'll simply slope in and get seated. They don't take reservations at either location for parties under six, so you'll want to be traveling en masse. Dinner's served until 1 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays (410 N. Ocean Dr., Hollywood, 954-929-6968; and 3051 NE 32nd Ave., Fort Lauderdale, 954-567-1630).
And then, there's always The Floridian (1410 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-463-4041), but here again, we're veering dangerously close to pancakes and grits and even dangerously closer to a very long wait while you fiddle with your flatware and watch your neighbors make short work of their sausage sandwiches. But if you arrive with middling expectations and a mild hankering for biscuits and gravy around 3 in the morning (the Floridian, founded in 1937, stays open 24 hours, harking back to the days when goils were goils and men were men), you and your intestinal tract are going to have an OK time of things. (The Floridian has yet to give us a case of what we used to delicately refer to as "Denny's cramps.")
You, dear reader, may have other dead-of-night faves, and if you do, I wish you'd send me an e-mail. I'm compiling a full list to go up on our website: We shalt never go hungry.