With elegant mahogany wainscoting, white-cloth-covered tables, palm-tree-upholstered booths and lounge chairs, polished brass fixtures, and smooth jazz penetrating the smoke-filled air, the interior of Fort Lauderdale's iconic Jackson Steakhouse was the classic steak house of yesteryear.
From 1997 to 2009, the restaurant at 450 Las Olas Blvd. was the premier meeting place for Fort Lauderdale power players; operating as a "private club" for lunch, it was a place where executives could impress clients with $75 lobsters, $1,000 bottles of vino, and private lockers stashed with fine wine and cigars.
The concept was born out of the '90s economic boom and its accompanying desire for excess and exclusivity, and it crashed with the Great Recession's need to scale back.
For years, the legendary space sat empty, a reminder of the glory years of an exponentially growing but unsustainable South Florida economy, and the destruction that was left in its wake when it all came crashing down.
In the half-decade since the start of the Great Recession, South Florida's economy has been slowly coming back.
Buckhead Life Restaurant Group, owners of high-end steak and seafood house Chops Lobster Bar and oceanic-inspired City Fish Market in Boca Raton, announced plans in 2012 to open Lobster Bar Sea Grille in the renowned Las Olas Boulevard space.
In August 2013, the seafood spot was serving customers in a space that reflects the times.
The dark walls were replaced with glossy white subway tiles; the luxe-gone-Golden Girls tropical prints were swapped for crisp and contemporary white leather, the outdated polished brass exchanged for minimalist glass and vintage-inspired lead-crystal lighting, and the formerly ubiquitous dark wood is now just an accent in the bright modern interior. With arched tile ceilings in the dining room, the space feels like a mix between classic oyster house and Parisienne subway station — trendy and vintage at the same time.
The menu also eschews the old aesthetic.
Though steaks are still available — Buckhead Life is known for high-end steak houses — the fare focuses on simple preparations of pristine seafood.
Inspired by Buckhead CEO Pano Karatassos' heritage, the menu includes an entire section of whole fish cooked in a Greek skara, a basket that sits atop a grill over charcoals, served with just olive oil, lemon, oregano, and Santorini capers.
Before opening Kyma, a concept based on regional Greek cuisine, in Atlanta, Karatassos sent his son Pano Jr., a Culinary Institute of America grad (like his father) and alumnus of Eric Ripert's Le Bernadin in New York and Thomas Keller's the French Laundry in Napa Valley, to Athens to get first-hand experience with Greek cuisine.
"After a couple of years at the French Laundry, I told Pano Jr. I wanted to open a Greek restaurant," says Karatassos. "I told him to come to Greece; he stayed with family for about four to six months learning to deal with fish the Greek way."
While in the Mediterranean, the Karatassoses established contacts with fishermen. They opened Boutique Seafood Brokers based out of Atlanta to import directly to their restaurants.
Lobster Bar works with local fishermen for Florida seafood; however, the restaurant also offers rarer selections like dorade royale, a Greek fish reminiscent of red snapper; sweet Dover sole from Holland; and branzino, a mild Mediterranean sea bass — each of which is said to go from water to table within 48 hours.
Whole fish is prepared on the grill or encrusted in sea salt; it is served either whole or deboned from the kitchen per guest request.
"We use no shortcuts here," says Karatassos. "We get impeccable, brand-new fish, and we want it to be that way for our guests; we keep it in a 27-, 28-degree environment with humidity control and cut it in a refrigerated room."
In addition to whole fish, the menu offers composed dishes such as Chilean sea bass "Bangkok" grilled à la plancha — on a metal plate — served over sticky-rice cakes with tomato jam and a fragrant broth of BKK Sauce- and horseradish-crusted snapper with fava beans, corn, and wild mushroom.
To wash it all down, a selection of Greek wines, selected by family member and wine expert Sophia Perpera, is available by the glass or bottle.
Karatassos admits his main goal with Lobster Bar was to open an upscale seafood restaurant, whether at 450 Las Olas Blvd. or somewhere else; however, he's pleased with the location.
"It wasn't rocket science to figure it out," says Karatassos about the decision to take over the former Jackson's. "It was an iconic space, and we wanted to open another landmark restaurant."