By the time Aruba Beach Café opened its doors in 1989, head chef Chris Nealon was already an experienced chef in yacht galleys and Fort Lauderdale.
“You couldn’t put your hands in your pockets,” Nealon remembers. “He was like my second father, but he was tough. He was a good teacher, but he was tough.”
Nealon was tutored in a way of cooking that was exacting, regimented and not particularly unique to Fort Lauderdale. Then he went to sea.
Working as a chef on several private yachts, he traveled the Caribbean. He found a French influence in the Francophone Caribbean, but also many new flavors and styles. Simplified and seasonal. Borrowing from Europe, but also unique to the region.
“When I came back to Aruba, I was seasoned in Caribbean cuisine,” he says. He was ready to take on a new restaurant facing the ocean at the end of Commercial Boulevard.
Nearly three decades later, Aruba Beach Café is undoubtedly the sort of place people would cite when asked to give a good example of a great restaurant that’s not just in Fort Lauderdale but of it. (Okay okay, technically it’s in Lauderdale-By-The-Sea.) If we were to define what Lauderdale cuisine is, it might be easier to just point at a place like Aruba and say “something like that”. Because if you ask five different chefs or restaurateurs what Lauderdale cuisine is, there’s a good bet you’ll get five different answers.
Sure, there are common themes. Nealon reckons his menu’s 70-percent seafood, a trend that’s not exactly uncommon. Restaurants tend towards the casual, and old seafood favorites make many of the same menus.
But there has been change and evolution over the years.
“I’ve seen the evolution of Fort Lauderdale’s dining scene,” he says. It took many years to shake off Spring Break, particularly on the beach. “You think Vegas, you think gambling. It kind of fell in that pigeonhole.”
Eventually though, people began to see the potential.
“There was a huge gap between Delray and Miami,” he says. He worked around the city when people in the restaurant business were starting to examine the trends from the country but also create some of their own. Today his restaurant does plenty of seafood, but he also experiments with different dishes and flavors that he wouldn’t have dared try a few years ago.
“Ten years ago, I’d be considered an innovator,” he says. “Twenty years ago, I’d be out of business in a week.”
People still love the traditional old fish dishes, but they’re more adventurous and knowledgeable now. Paul Flanigan has seen the changes. A member of the Flanigan family that owns the classic Floridian restaurant chain of the same name, he set out on his own and now has a stable of restaurants including the popular Quarterdeck establishments. If you go into a Quarterdeck today you can, among the classic fish sandwiches, burgers and conch fritters, also get quality sushi.
“Nobody believed we could do it,” he says of Japanese fish in a South Florida beach restaurant. “If I hadn’t done that, nobody would believe that I could do it.”
Today’s customers have food knowledge, and they’re willing to spend on quality. That creates a market where those different dishes work. It wasn’t always like that. Nealon laughs when he remembers first trying one particular dish years ago.
“Back in, I want to say, ’90 or ’91, I would take a tuna loin and make a London broil and put it on a salad. It was our Salad Nicoise. Constantly people were sending it back.” Today it’s a popular and fairly common kind of salad. Back then, customers just assumed the tuna was undercooked.
Today, there’s more adventure.
“It’s such a melting pot now of everything,” Nealon says, noting that his kitchen serves up plenty of seafood with Asian influences something that a beachside Fort Lauderdale restaurant wouldn’t have done years ago. Younger patrons in particular are willing to try more foods. Millennials, he says, are “more like foodies. They love sushi. I see how our waiters and waitresses eat – they’re all in their 20s.” And Nealon incorporates what they like, which is why Aruba has dishes with miso, pot stickers, bok choi - things “that you wouldn’t normally find at a beach restaurant.”
Tim Petrillo is president and co-founder of The Restaurant People. He sees several big trends in the food industry, not all of which are particularly unique. For one thing, interesting food is no longer as confined to the largest cities as it once was. Around the US, foodie cities and towns are popping up genuine culinary scenes exist today in places such as Nashville or Asheville, where ambitious restaurateurs are trying concepts that not long ago would have been reserved for places like New York or Los Angeles.
“They’re taking big risks, and they’re getting big rewards,” Petrillo says. “And I think Fort Lauderdale is starting to see that.”
He’s now planning a sort of open-to-the-public test kitchen working title, TRP Taste that would be small, not open every night, and offer evenings such as ticketed events with chefs from around the country. It would be a place to try out new ideas and ambitious foods that could then be rolled out in Restaurant People restaurants.
“There’s people that are coming to this market that want to open up,” he says. “This is an option to see if (patrons) like what you’re selling. Collaborate for, say, a four-day stint. Instead of creating a restaurant, let’s create a culinary community.”
That idea dovetails into something else Petrillo believes. He thinks customers are more adventurous now because the culture around food has changed. In today’s world of cooking shows and celebrity chefs, interesting ingredients and formerly exotic ways of cooking are more attainable people know this stuff from the TV.
“People are responding to that,” Petrillo says. “Because people have learned people really enjoy learning about cooking and ingredients, and now it can be delivered in that environment.”
You can put things on a menu now that you wouldn’t have dreamed of before.
“I always crack up – you look in a Wendy’s salad, they’ve got different kinds of greens, blueberries with a Cajun vinaigrette that 15 years ago people would have said, ‘Are you out of your mind?’”
Petrillo describes his kids as having grown up in restaurants, and he agrees with Nealon’s assessment that younger diners are particularly willing to try things.
“As teenagers, they are very comfortable going out and ordering off a menu. They like exploring that type of thing, where my generation, give me mac and cheese and don’t give me anything else.”
Younger diners and the city’s growth are changing the scene in another way too, he reckons.
“Fort Lauderdale is becoming a year-round, 24-hour city,” he says. “It’s because of density. The people who are moving here are demanding these things. They want funkier stuff.
“A very cool business can open up and the game-changer’s been social media. People will find Riverside Market because the locals love it and have bragged about it on social media. Social media has created access, and that’s a total game changer.”
But if diners in Fort Lauderdale and farther afield have become more adventurous in their choices, and if the city has grown, Fort Lauderdale remains unique in other ways. This is a casual city.
“We try to give a high-end product with an accessible environment,” Miracolo says. “We don’t want people to feel like they have to be dressed up to have quality.”
Petrillo, who is from Boca Raton and started working in Fort Lauderdale in the mid-1990s at Houston’s, has seen the shift.
“When I was first starting out and going to work for people, to get great food was a very formal experience,” he says. “Now you get great food at very casual places and very casual environments.”
Part of that’s undoubtedly down to the influence of tourism, but Petrillo sees it with locals as well.
“When [Broward] people are going down to Miami, it’s a different mindset,” he says. “When they cross the Dade County line, they are dressed up to the nines. They are going to have a totally different experience and pay for a totally different experience, and they’re okay with that. At home, they don’t want the same kind of flash and cost.”
So then a menu that’s more creative, diverse and international than it used to be, served in a casual setting. That’s a recipe for a good foodie culture. But Nealon wants people to think about one more thing about a part of the process that comes long before the restaurant.
There are plenty of places where you have access to all sorts of seafood. There are also plenty of places where you have access to local and regional farming and produce. Florida’s one of the smaller number of places where you have both. It’s easy to forget that you can drive not very far northwest of here and get into serious farming country. The rural areas surrounding Lake Okeechobee provide the country with a great deal of produce and mean local chefs can have fresh produce to go along with fresh fish. That’s as important as any restaurant concept.
Miracolo cites the slow food movement the idea of getting back to local, to seasonal. “We’re starting to realize what food’s supposed to taste like,” he says. “In the ’80s, food was so convoluted … a tomato tasted like water. Now a tomato tastes like a tomato again.”
In the end, Fort Lauderdale cuisine may be a bit like Fort Lauderdale itself evolving and changing, absorbing new people and cultures and working them into the already diverse mix. For Petrillo, that’s part of what makes this a great city to be a restaurateur.
“I have no idea what’s happening with local cuisine I think that’s the fun part of it,” he says. “I go to eat at every new place I see … it’s interesting about how this town is evolving. What’s exciting to me is that there’s no clear path on what it is, and it’s taking on a lot of different influences.”
Quarterdeck head man Flanigan has seen the changes, and reckons this is a boom time.
“Now we’re in a renaissance,” he says. “People have money, the economy’s booming. Florida is in a renaissance period.
“Before you might have seen black, white and grey; now there’s a whole spectrum of colors. There’s a restaurant for everybody."
Gene Harvey, current co-owner Jack Studiale’s mother’s cousin, opened Tropical Acres on Griffin Road in 1949. He already had a New York restaurant that he’d opened three years earlier.
“Once he opened this one,” Studiale explains, “he returned to New York and named them both Tropical Acres.” In the 1950s Harvey opened two more Tropical Acres, in Pompano Beach and Boynton Beach. These were family businesses – the man Studiale knew as Uncle Gene often had family members run the restaurants. Then, in 1964, the Griffin Road location suffered a devastating fire. Little remained, and Uncle Gene wasn’t going to reopen it. Studiale’s father, Sam, who was just retiring from the Navy, offered to rebuild and run it.
“They agreed to 50/50 ownership if my father stepped in and rebuilt the restaurant and then ran it,” Studiale says. Seven years later, his father bought out Uncle Gene, and the restaurant was the Studiales alone. In the following decades, the other Tropical Acres were sold or closed until eventually there was only one.
Studiale finished college in 1973 and came onboard. A decade later his sister Carolyn Greenlaw got involved. They remain there, and now their sons, Michael Greenlaw and Joseph Studiale, are the next generation to get involved in the business.
It’s a family business, and a rule Studiale lives by is that nobody ever forgets that.
“Don’t ever get complacent,” he says. “If you think one of the family doesn’t have to be here tomorrow, you’re sorely mistaken. One of us has to be present; the customer has to see someone from the family. There has to be a recognizable face.”
Studiale calls himself an old-school guy, and he maintains old-school ways at the restaurant. For example, it’s not an a la carte place.
“You still get your choice of salad and a side,” Studiale says. “We keep saying we can generate some more revenue if we a la carte everything. I fight the boys – I say no, that’s not us. We’ve always provided a salad and a side.
“The boys have good ideas and sometimes I try to temper them – to keep that old-school approach.
“We are reaping the benefits of that attitude. We are authentic. And it’s still going strong. The life of a restaurant starts to rise, and then there’s a decline. Well, we haven’t witnessed a decline really.”
The importance of family extends to the unofficial family – many of the staff have been there for years, even decades. Studiale mentions one man who started as a busboy, did pretty much every job in the place and 20 years later is assistant manager. The head chef started as a busboy at 15. He’s been there 40 years. That’s the way you make a restaurant last this long.
“It’s an honorable profession,” Studiale says, “and we approach it as such.”