Las Olas Riverfront: A Night Out with the Old Girl
Until recently, the last time I was at Las Olas Riverfront, right next to the downtown Fort Lauderdale financial district, was right around the time Mr. Wonderful and I started seeing each other, about a year ago. Back then, in the days when Mark Lowe held nightly court, Living Room was still very much a hot and happening place to spend a Friday (gay) or Saturday (closeted) night, and the one-block-square surrounding 300 S.W. 1st Ave., included a slew of themed straight and nearly-straight establishments—Automatic Slims, Crazy Eights, Voodoo Lounge, Off the Hookah, among others—to provide before-and-after scenery. Today, all but that last one has closed it doors.
On TripAdvisor.com the other day, I read the owner’s description of the once-popular Fort Lauderdale “riverside entertainment and retail complex,” which it said “offers movie theaters, games for kids, stores, a flea market, and a surplus of places to eat, all in an open-air environment.” That’s branding. The reality was that, of 51 reviews from locals, the number of “Excellent” ratings (18) was almost the same as the second highest ranking, “Poor,” which had 12 votes. Tied for third were “Very Good” and “Terrible,” each with eight votes, so you have an idea of how drastically things have changed. It’s unfortunate but true, the Old Girl ain’t what she used to be.
Sadly, many factors have contributed to the decline of Riverfront from a once-great game and entertainment center (no lie: I saw “Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace” for the first—and only—time at the now resold and renamed Las Olas Riverfront Cinema, in 1999). But all that having been said, there is still a lot to do that’s fun and interesting in that seven-block stretch of Southwest 2nd Street (also called “Himmarshee”) running from the Avenue of the Arts (Southwest 7th Avenue), abutting historic Sailboat Bend, to South Andrews Avenue, on Riverfront’s east flank.
Starting at the far west end of this zone is the Grand Dame of Fort Lauderdale’s Arts and Entertainment District, the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, which, although touching the aforementioned Avenue of the Arts, is so big that it takes up two blocks of real estate. Opened in 1991, the Broward Center has hosted some of the biggest names and productions in show business. It has over 3,000 seating capacity, and a season schedule that offers something for every taste, from big, flashy shows like “Jersey Boys,” “Stomp,” “Avenue Q,” and “Mamma Mia”—all of which I have enjoyed watching performed there—to more intimate, but no less compelling, performances like the “Laughing Matterz” troupe, which includes local talent and familiar faces (like Richard Cortez).
Just across Himmarshee from the Broward Center is one of the largest museums of its kind in Florida (and the most-visited museum in the Sunshine State), the Museum of Discovery and Science (“MODS”), which includes the IMAX theater, home of large-screen (and I mean LARGE) 3-D entertainment, and an amazing series of “eco-scapes,” an airplane simulator, a simulated trip to Mars, and an impressive and popular variety of native and exotic Floridian animal species on display and available for up-close-and-personal inspection and demonstrations. There is a lot more to do, especially if your family includes kids. Opened in 1992, MODS’ Great Gravity Clock, at the museum’s entrance, is one of only three in the world (the others are in Mexico and Japan).
Farther down 2nd Street is the heart of the Himmarshee dining and club scene, including one of Fort Lauderdale’s first watering holes, Dicey Riley’s, which sports an Irish name but a rock and roll attitude, and a staff with a downtown pedigree. I have been to Dicey’s with mixed gay/straight groups, as well as one-on-one dates with guy friends (including Mr. Wonderful), and we were always made to feel welcome. The Poorhouse next door sports an Ybor City-like vibe, with openly gay patrons chatting at outside tables with bikers and tattoo-sporting modern primitives, and where “Scene” and “Emo”-types will look sideways at you if you inquire “Scene, or emo?”
America’s Backyard and RevolutionLIVE are still bringing in crowds, with many big performing names making the rounds on Revolution’s Upcoming Shows boards (it was only three years ago that Mother Monster herself—Lady Gaga—played the place, which once housed other well-known venues, including The Edge, the Chili Pepper, and the legendary Backstreet). For eats, try PL8 (pronounced “plate”), which has a tasty twist to the tapas concept, and Tarpon Bend continues to serve the most delicious seafood-based sandwiches of any port city on the east coast.
A night in the Arts and Entertainment corridor must end with a slice—or better still, a calzone—from the venerable Squiggy’s, where the vibe is “Goodfellas”-meets-meets-“Mean Streets,” the jokes are always at someone else’s expense, and the service is both warm and personable. It seems that with Riverfront, there’s still some life in the Old Girl, after all.