Hidden Fort Lauderdale: A 24-hour date night reveals all in North Beach Village

Hidden Fort Lauderdale: A 24-hour date night reveals all in North Beach Village
·12 min read

The Fort Lauderdale oceanfront is a tale of two beaches.

The A1A strip at Las Olas Boulevard is a dizzying eruption of garish lights, thumping music and a side of fries, a place to get bumped and Elbo-ed and Gumped.

Farther north on A1A, things are more refined and exclusive, in towers where we get pampered and romanced and four-starred, with elevated prices to match.

But somewhere in between there is a third story, still being written, set among the low-slung mid-century inns, terraces and cafes of North Beach Village, where a distinctively laidback, Old Florida beach vibe has managed, quietly, to hold on.

Located a block from the ocean and the luxe hotels on A1A, North Beach Village is a forgotten Fort Lauderdale, a strolling, biking and relaxing neighborhood, dotted by a unique repository of the city’s signature, “Mad Men”-era mid-century modern architecture. Its centerpiece is architect Charles McKirahan’s iconic, neon-splashed Birch Tower.

But the area, bordered by Breakers Avenue between Bayshore Drive and Vistamar Street, also has evolved into an interesting date-night destination of boutique hotels, diverse dining options and Wine Garden, one of South Florida’s great hidden wine bars.

As a portal back to another time — let’s just say it: a better time — North Beach Village feels enchanted. Understandably, locals and in-the-know visitors would rather its existence not be revealed.

“Don’t ruin it for me. It’s such a nice little area,” says resident Jon Solti, 27, lingering over a Friday-evening cocktail at Botanic, the new restaurant inside the boutique Kimpton Goodland Hotel Fort Lauderdale. Solti works from home for a health-care company and moved to North Beach Village about a year ago from Miami.

“I lived downtown, Brickell, went to South Beach every weekend. I wanted to take it down a notch,” he says. “Fort Lauderdale’s a little bit more down to earth. It’s very flashy in Miami, especially now, there’s a lot of people coming in from different places. Here it’s a little bit more low-key.”

Seated next to him is former University of Miami classmate Ali Jahanzeb, 25, who recently moved from Miami’s Brickell District to Boca Raton.

Jahanzeb says he was “shocked” the first time he visited Solti’s North Beach Village condo at Tiffany House, a small tower that adjoins the Goodland.

“I’m born and raised in South Florida, so I feel like I know the whole area, but this is an isolated place that nobody knows about,” Jahanzeb says. “It’s not the typical Fort Lauderdale you think of, Las Olas and all that. It has a secluded vibe.”

Such is the magic of North Beach Village that prolific downtown developer Dev Motwani, whose aspirations are relentlessly vertical, went horizontal in helping to renovate the abandoned 70-year-old Escape Hotel. The new property, a project originally called the Gale Hotel, opened in April as the sprawling, two-story MiMo gem known as the Goodland.

Motwani grew up nearby in his family’s 49-room Merrimac Beach Resort Hotel, in the 1980s a popular A1A Spring Break destination on a lot that is now home to the Conrad Fort Lauderdale Beach Hotel.

“When I was a kid [the Escape Hotel] was a boundary of where I was allowed to ride my bike from our little motel. I would do laps around that property,” Motwani says. “We purchased it, renovated it and had it designated historic to keep it as it was when I was a kid.”

Steps away from the Conrad, Motwani’s Merrimac Ventures development company cleared the family’s oceanfront Tropic Cay Beach Resort to make way for the soon-to-open Four Seasons Hotel and Residences Fort Lauderdale.

The story of how North Beach Village has endured is a triumph over multiple economic challenges, beginning in the mid-1980s when the city effectively ended Spring Break tourism. A dark decade followed, with crime problems and properties falling into disrepair.

In the mid-1990s, hotel owners, including Motwani’s family, began to renovate the neighborhood and market its MiMo style to European travelers. Since 2010, Swedish entrepreneur Par Sanda has remodeled more than 18 small hotels and other properties in a bid to create a European-style village.

The city got on board with zoning and investment policies designed to encourage redevelopment in North Beach Village that “maintained the fabric of the neighborhood,” Motwani says.

A $1 trillion federal infrastructure plan approved in August includes a request from U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch for more than $5 million for a streetscape project on Breakers Avenue, including lighting and utility improvements that would allow the street to be converted into a pedestrian-only festival venue from time to time.

North Beach Village is a place where residents, shopkeepers, bartenders invoke the cliché “hidden gem” frequently and affectionately. And if they linger a bit over the word “hidden,” well, you know what they mean.

Here are some ways to get immersed in the invigorating unpretentiousness of North Beach Village over the course of 24 hours — call it a quick staycation or a long date night. We picked Friday, Sept. 24, for our excursion, in part because the Goodland Hotel will be packed this weekend for FemAle Brew Fest on Saturday, Sept. 18. But any time is a good time to visit.

Check in: The Goodland

Among a variety of small hotels, inns and B&Bs in North Beach Village (some actively remodeling), the newest is the 96-room Kimpton Goodland Hotel Fort Lauderdale Beach (formerly the Escape Hotel), opened in April, a stylish, palm-draped refuge behind a crisp MiMo façade.

It is located two blocks from the ocean and two blocks from the Water Taxi stop on the Intracoastal (2901 Seville St.). The rate for a room with a king bed on Sept. 24 starts at $189.05.

The pet-friendly hotel tries to keep things quiet — the poolside Good Bar closes at 6:30 p.m. and the pool closes at 9 p.m.

“We get a lot of locals and a lot of return guests, because it’s off the beaten path. People that come here want to escape. They want to relax,” says Diane Millar, the Goodland restaurant and bar manager.

The Kimpton Goodland Hotel Fort Lauderdale Beach is at 2900 Riomar St. Call 954-908-7301 or visit GoodlandHotelFtLauderdale.com.

Drinks: Botanic

Assuming we check in around 3 p.m., after a quick change, we’re catching pre-dinner drinks at Botanic, the restaurant overlooking the pool at the Goodland. If the mood strikes, the bar-bites menu includes several salads, ceviches ($12-$16), three pizza options ($14-$17) and other items. Botanic also has a full dinner menu, including an impressive looking Botanic Burger, with duck-fat fries ($22).

Says Tiffany House resident Jon Solti: “Botanic is great, it has great happy hour deals, it’s always a good vibe, people are friendly. It doesn’t get too loud, but just loud enough.”

Botanic is inside the Goodland, 2900 Riomar St. Call 954-908-7301 or visit Botanicfl.com.

Dinner: Casa Del Mare Ristorante

There are several ways to go with dinner in North Beach Village, including Botanic, of course, the lovely Village Café at the North Beach Hotel and the somehow even lovelier Wine Garden.

But we’re doing early dinner at 6 p.m. at Casa Del Mare, both for its location in the Sea Club Resort Hotel, a kitschy waterfront spot that resembles a ski chalet on the ocean, and for new chef and partner Fabrizio Polizzi.

While the name of the restaurant is the same, its ambitions have changed since the June 1 arrival of Polizzi, who spent more than five years as sous chef at Miami’s revered Casa Tua. Born in Belgium to Sicilian parents, the personable chef bills the menu he is developing as “fresh seafood with an Italian twist.”

“All the pastas on the menu are homemade, fresh, all of them. Which makes a difference,” Polizzi says. And you can’t beat the view.

Casa Del Mare Ristorante is on the second floor of the Sea Club Resort Hotel, 619 N. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd. Call 954-537-1722 or visit CasaDelMareRistorante.com.

Movie: ‘La La Land’ at Las Olas Oceanside Park

Of course dinner and a movie. It’s a date night. The Movies by Moonlight Summer Series continues on Sept. 24 with a free screening of the Oscar-winning musical rom-com “La La Land” at Las Olas Oceanside Park, a mile down A1A from North Beach Village. The film begins at sunset (around 7:30 p.m.). Bring a blanket.

Las Olas Oceanside Park is at 3000 E. Las Olas Blvd. Visit MyFortLauderdaleBeach.com.

More drinks: Wine Garden

There is nothing in Greger Nilzen’s circuitous resume that could have predicted his destiny in North Beach Village, where he runs Wine Garden, an unassuming, down-a-random-alley revelation distinguished by soothing design, a thoughtful wine list and an attentive staff.

Once you find it — there are no signs on either of the two alley entries — Wine Garden will be one of your new favorite spots.

Raised in Sweden, Nilzen graduated from flight school a week before 9/11 grounded aviation. He then got a degree in hospitality, worked on Star Clippers’ luxurious “Star Flyer” sailing ship, then was a GM of a ski resort in the French Alps. He moved to Dallas to become GM of the bar at the prestigious Mansion on Turtle Creek, then opened a wildly popular Cowboys-friendly sports bar.

Missing the ocean, he was closing a deal on a restaurant in Delray Beach a few years ago when he sought advice from a friendly voice, a countryman, who understood the local lifestyle. He Googled “hospitality, Florida, Swedish, LinkedIn” and found NBV hotelier Par Sanda. After a few conversations, Nilzen dropped the Delray Beach idea and partnered with Sanda to create Wine Garden in a former apartment building.

Open full time since May 2020 (his final permit came in two days before COVID hit), Nilzen says one secret to Wine Garden’s success is that it’s always changing: He’s currently creating a new gathering area down a narrow alley, just outside a bright, mod party room carved out of two ground-floor apartments.

Nilzen lives across the street in Birch Tower with his wife and infant daughter, and most days you’ll find him at work, sometimes bussing tables or planting new shrubs in the garden.

“There is nothing in my life that I am more proud of than Wine Garden. Because it’s the first place that’s really me,” Nilzen says.

Wine Garden is at 608 Breakers Ave. Call 954-302-2922 or visit WineAndGarden.com.

Midnight snack: Vegan Brüder

About a block from Wine Garden, at the corner of Breakers Avenue and Belmar Street, two food trucks are permanently moored next to each other in a landscaped spot with lights, umbrellas, tables and chairs. Plaza Bistro is open for breakfast and lunch 8 a.m.-2 p.m. daily, while Vegan Brüder serves 11 a.m.-2 a.m. While the name (and the flag) might suggest a German take on vegan food (brüder means “brothers”), the vegan menu is deliciously straightforward. The Mushroom & Jalapeno Burger ($13.99) with vegan cheese ($1) on a pretzel bun is one of the best burgers I’ve had in a while, vegan or no.

Vegan Brüder is at 619 Breakers Ave. Call 305-549-0441 or visit VeganBruder.com.

Breakfast: Archibald’s Village Bakery

Opened Memorial Day weekend by Chef Justin Mathys-Archibald and husband Christopher Mathys-Archibald, the bakery offers a variety of savory items (killer breakfast sandwiches on house-made bread) and sweets to enjoy in its sunny indoor space or umbrella-dotted patio from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday-Monday.

Some of the recipes come from a wooden box of hand-written note cards handed down to Jason (an Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale graduate from rural Ohio) from his great-grandmother in Kentucky. Christopher (a one-time cruise line choreographer from Leeds, England) is not shy about pointing out that English specialties such as raspberry jam scones are “quite popular.”

Christopher says the bakery has already developed a loyal following that seems evenly split between locals and tourists at nearby hotels.

“We get called a hidden gem all the time, and I get it,” Christopher says. “You walk one block over and you’re at the beach, with all that hustle and bustle that’s happening there. But you walk back one block and it’s so nice and chill. It’s quite fabulous.”

If the running crowd that used to patronize the late, great St. Bart’s Coffee Co. down the beach is looking for a new early-morning hangout, this may be it.

Archibald’s Village Bakery is at 608 Breakers Ave. Call 754-300-5926 or visit ArrchibaldsVillageBakery.com.

Bike, beer, beach: Park & Ocean

You can’t spend 24 hours on Fort Lauderdale beach without dipping your toes in the sand, can you? Locals will tell you: Yes. Yes, you can.

But here’s an idea: A couple of blocks east of the Goodland at Bayshore Drive and A1A, there’s a Broward BCycle station for as many as eight electric bikes. They cost $5.35 for the first 30 minutes, $5 for subsequent 30-minute blocks. Visit Broward.bcycle.com.

A mile north on A1A is Hugh Taylor Birch State Park, where you’ll find Park & Ocean, a café created out of an old boathouse in a shady thicket of sea grape trees. They have local crafts beers and elevated beach food, plus most recent Saturdays, from noon-4 p.m., have featured local singer-songwriter Mark Zaden, a quality dude. You’ll also find kayaks, canoes, SUP boards and jet skis — and tunnel access to the beach. Totally optional.

By this point, presumably, you’ve either checked out of the Goodland — or decided to rinse and repeat for the weekend.

Park & Ocean is at 3109 E. Sunrise Blvd. Call 954-357-2610 or visit ParkAndOcean.com.

Staff writer Ben Crandell can be reached at bcrandell@sunsentinel.com.

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