Let’s face it, when it comes to historic settings, Fort Lauderdale can’t compete with cities such as Boston, Philadelphia or New York. Instead of measuring the history of a building in centuries, we do it in decades. Here, anything before 1950 is practically considered ancient. For the next two columns, as we gear up for Stonewall Pride, we’ll look at some historic dining establishments in the area, starting with our hometown favorites in Wilton Manors.
Among the most historic is the now-shuttered Tropics, 2000 Wilton Dr. It was one of the first restaurants in Wilton Manors. Al Hagen, who moved to the area in the 1930s, won land in Wilton Manors along the southern border west of Wilton Drive. in a bet on a golf game. He sold some of the lots off for housing. After WWII he bought the land east of Wilton Dr. and built “The Tropical Club” on the corner of 20th St. and Wilton Drive. It was a liquor store with a “poker room” in the rear. A dining room and kitchen were added in the 1950s. For a while it even served as the city’s unofficial “town hall.”
In 1990 Tony Dee moved to Wilton Manors and bought the entire block of buildings across from Alibi, the centerpiece of which was a supper club called Chardee’s (where Southern Nights is now located). After selling Chardee’s, he bought Tropics and added a piano bar adjacent to the restaurant, taking a lot of the clientele from Chardee’s with him. Mr. Dee sold Tropics a few years ago.
The new owners, after operating on their own for a few years, then leased the building and business to Jackson Padgett (previous owner of Georgie’s Alibi). After falling behind on the rent and running into trouble with the liquor commission, Padgett had to close Tropics a short time later.
Now, after sitting vacant for six months, the property is in the process of renovation by Paul Hugo, the owner of EAT and The Manor. He plans to re-open the space as The Grille on the Drive, a steak and chop house with live entertainment. Even though the space has undergone major renovations (including an upgraded sound system) the layout remains basically the same with the cabaret area renamed The Tropic Room. The enclosed outdoor bar will be dubbed The Garden. Look for the place to re-open near the end of May.
While Tropics may be the oldest restaurant in town, The Wilton Manors Dairy Queen, 1950 Wilton Dr., runs a close second. It was opened in 1953 and has operated continuously since then under four different owners, including the current proprietor, Lynn Lawrence, since 2008.
Andrews Diner, 2980 N. Andrews, opened in the 1980s. Current owners Angelo and Gerri Karaliolios took it over in 1991. They agreed to have the diner participate in a HGTV make-over show a couple of years ago. At that time the décor and menu were updated. The new look was a success, but customers preferred the old menu, so Angelo and his kitchen crew returned to an array of the old favorites. Gerri rules the dining room, playfully needling her regular customers while flashing them her toothpaste-commercial-worthy smile.
While technically not in Wilton Manors, Fort Lauderdale’s The Floridian, 1410 E. Las Olas, or The Flo, as it is fondly known, opened in 1937 and figures prominently in Wilton Manors’ and Fort Lauderdale’s LGBT history. As a 24-hour spot, located in an area that was home to several gay bars and businesses in the 1980s and early 90s, it was a popular gathering place after the bars closed. It was also a favorite gathering spot for the movers and shakers of the community at the time. Before there were hashtags it’s where the movers and shakers of the community hashed things out over hashed browns. SFGN publisher Norm Kent, even broadcast a radio show from the restaurant for a while.
In our next column: some of Fort Lauderdale’s most historic and infamous restaurants.