The days are numbered for The Yard at Wilton Manors, home to The Alchemist Cafe and other eateries, at least as it lingers in your memory: the welcoming ramshacklery and coffee-scented authenticity that has defined many a languorous weekend morning that became afternoon.
Sequestered off Northeast 13th Avenue, an unremarkable side street near busy Five Points, The Alchemist and its neighbors at The Yard are not just a hidden gem, but perhaps the hidden gem in the Fort Lauderdale area.
Now is not the time for a eulogy for The Yard, but a call to enjoy this distinctive space while we may.
Within 10 months, a developer expects to demolish the property to make way for a six-story residential project that will include 190 apartments and a parking garage for more than 300 vehicles, as well as a dog park, about 8,500 square feet of retail-restaurant space and a public terrace.
Called Generation Wilton Manors, the 3.5-acre development by Bal Harbour-based Kaplan Residential will cover The Yard, an adjacent former lumber yard and several properties just south of The Yard on Northeast 24 Street. The project is in the last stages of approval, with a final vote by the city commission likely on Aug. 22.
Kaplan Residential president Morris Kaplan calls the project a “labor of love” and has pledged to try to recreate the atmosphere of The Yard at Generation Wilton Manors. He has invited The Yard’s three restaurants — The Alchemist, La Mexicana Taco Bar and Voo La Voo Café — to reopen in the new buildings.
Kaplan said he first visited The Yard while scouting locations for the project in Wilton Manors and Fort Lauderdale about five years ago.
“I was very impressed. It was very bohemian, an eclectic, cool place, the way people are just hanging out. It’s something, that vibe, you really don’t see anyplace else,” he said.
Kaplan said he has more recently toured the property with project consultants and told them: “When we rebuild, let’s try our best to replicate this as best we can.”
Fans of The Yard are not convinced it is possible to revive such an organic environment — The Yard literally began as a plant nursery — within the steel-and-glass bubble of a modern residential development.
“We’ll see, but you’d have to be pretty skeptical,” said Jane Darrow, 24, of Fort Lauderdale, seated outside The Alchemist recently. “This is such a special place, warts and all.”
Kaitlyn Berry, a 19-year-old college student from Fort Lauderdale, said she discovered The Alchemist on Pinterest and Instagram in middle school and encouraged her mom to take a gang of her friends there.
“It’s so sad. It’s a condo buying what’s a Fort Lauderdale staple, you know?” Berry said, seated in front of a Nutella Slicer, one of The Alchemist’s signature, open-faced sandwiches. It’s the same thing she’s ordered since seventh grade.
Carlos Cruz, a managing partner at The Alchemist, said he and business partner Bruce Brill are planning to make the move to the new building. But he does have deep affection for the quirky space the restaurant has occupied for more than a decade, its former life as a brick and paver shop illustrated on the uneven, mismatched floor.
The magic is in the imperfections, Cruz said.
“Everybody has the same reaction. First timers, they come in here and they say, ‘Oh, my god, this is beautiful.’ Maybe they are expecting glass and steel, like Starbucks. They say, ‘This reminds me of Montana. This reminds me of Switzerland.’ Everywhere there is a corner in here that will remind these people of places they came from. It’s amazing. It’s magical,” Cruz said.
Cruz fell under its spell six years ago, when he visited while on hiatus from his job as a TV producer for Telemundo. He soon was asking Brill if he wanted a partner.
“It reminds me a lot of Puerto Rico. I grew up in places like this, all broken down. It was Puerto Rico for me,” Cruz said.
With an eye for set design, Cruz is planning to salvage many of the elements that give The Alchemist its signature warmth, especially the sections of old wood that line the walls, to decorate the new restaurant.
Cruz is hoping to keep The Alchemist open, even during construction, by temporarily moving the operation to a small house on the southeast corner of the property, augmented by a food truck. Kaplan acknowledged that option is under discussion.
Conversations with customers about the changes coming to The Alchemist are emotional, Cruz admitted.
“They get mad. They get frustrated,” he said. “But they are so happy when they know that we are not going anywhere.”
The owner of La Mexicana Taco Bar, Diva Namé, is sanguine about leaving the building. The property was in need of frequent repair — Kaplan recently reroofed the building and repaired the sign out front that was damaged by storms — so she’s looking forward to being in a new space.
Namé was one of the first retail tenants at The Yard, running a juice bar before expanding into an adjoining space and opening a restaurant dedicated to the Mexican cuisine she loved while working in the industry in New York. (Namé was raised in Colombia by a Jewish father and Lebanese mother.)
She is hopeful that La Mexicana will have a home in Generation Wilton Manors, but also is working to create a second location nearby that would be open before she has to vacate The Yard. Namé shares her customers’ regrets about losing “the experience” of The Yard as it exists today.
“Definitely they are extremely sad. There is people that have been coming here for years,” she said. “We’ve been trying to explain to people that … the project is going to be good. That they can come back when the project is done. But at the end, of course, it’s going to be different.”
‘We like to explore’
The Yard was created in 2012, then known as Eucalyptus Gardens, with remnants of that history seen as an umbrella-lined asphalt walkway, undulating over tree roots, gives way to a gravel path where overhead garden lights become more sparse.
Many visitors to The Yard do not venture to the back of the property, which is a shame. Along the path is a rustic enclosure for Doris the tortoise and Lola’s Market, a weekends-only indoor shopping maze of nostalgic home goods, fashion items and thoughtfully curated kitsch.
The path ends at an abandoned, roofless concrete structure covered in murals, including one depicting the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting victims. Other prominent murals honor the LGBT community and Deputy Shannon Bennett, a gay deputy in the Broward County Sheriff’s Office who died in the early days of COVID.
Calling the works “important to the community,” Kaplan has pledged to preserve them for display at Generation Wilton Manors. The most likely scenario, he said, includes creating large digital images of the murals that would be transferred onto new walls on the site.
Taking selfies toward the back of the property, Tanha Fiza, 19, of Coral Springs, said she and best friend Manar Elsayed came to The Alchemist after seeing pictures in friends’ Instagram stories.
“We like to explore. We liked the aesthetic of it as well, how they decorated it and everything. I thought it was really cool,” Fiza said. “The food is good, too. I really liked the coffee.”
Fiza was disappointed to learn The Yard would be torn down and plans to return before that happens.
“People who enjoy coming to The Alchemist, the food, the vibe, the happiness they get coming here, it’s all gonna be gone,” she said. “You just see buildings everywhere [in South Florida], so it’s nice to be able to come to a place, cute places like this, that you want to come and explore. There’s not many like that.”
A few steps away, a mural that Namé painted on the side of La Mexicana a few years ago displays words from artist Frida Kahlo: “Nothing is absolute. Everything changes, everything moves, everything revolves, everything flies and goes away.”