The food and drink scene on Las Olas Boulevard is coming back to life with recent arrivals aimed at those looking for a more casual dining experience. These are places where you can enjoy a craft beer or a glass of wine along with appetizers or a gourmet burger. And the biggest shock: Some are building a late-night bar scene. Here’s a sampling.
The former Samba Room has gotten a dramatic makeover as the Royal Pig Pub (pictured). It’s from the company that owns Hooter’s and Dan Marino’s Town Tavern, but this is a more upscale concept. Chef Stanton Bundy has designed a menu with items like duck nachos and hoisin-glazed, free-range turkey burger. (Despite the name pork, isn’t a focus.) Bundy is bringing some of the New Orleans flavors he picked up working for Emeril Lagasse, and is trying to use locally grown ingredients. The restaurant has a clubby feel with dark woods and cozy leather booths. The brick-lined atrium over the giant bar provides a focal point. They’re focusing on craft beers, offering flights and oversized schooners. We enjoyed the New Orleans barbecued shrimp appetizer of five large-sized shellfish with bread to soak up the spicy sauce. A wedge salad made an eye-catching presentation with the lettuce wrapped into a circle, but didn’t have enough blue cheese. The Cactus Jack Burger was the big disappointment, dry and lacking the promised smoky Gouda and fried shallots. A side of bacon mac and cheese is a decadent dish for sharing. The potential is there if they work out operational kinks.
With Life magazine covers adorning the exposed brick wall and big, comfy couches to sit on, American Social has the feel of a cozy basement rec room that’s a good fit for the 20-something crowd that seems to be its target audience. On Friday or Saturday night you could find yourself stuck outside behind the velvet ropes, but go for happy hour or an early weekend dinner and you’ll find a relaxed atmosphere. The menu focuses heavily on appetizers, flatbreads and sliders, which are designed to be shared. The selections won’t wow you with creativity, but they do a better than average job on the basics. A wide selection of craft beers includes a section of pour-your-own taps. An order of four piping hot soft pretzel sticks with a choice of dipping sauces is great for sharing. Short rib sliders included a nice portion of meat but the dish could have used more warm bacon-onion chutney. A flatbread special of barbecued chicken was overflowing with toppings, but we could have done without the pineapple chunks. The New Yorker sandwich promises Carnegie Deli corned beef. It’s not like we remember from New York, but the restaurant gets an A for effort and bonus points for lean corned beef.
It’s easy to miss Las Olas Wine Cafe, tucked in a little courtyard set back from the street. Owned by the Weston Dining Group, it’s a place for a quiet date night or catching up with the girls. Take a seat in the dimly lit courtyard or the small, starkly modern dining room with glass tables, black leather chairs, flat-screen TVs and crystal chandeliers. Lining one wall are self-service wine dispensers offering pours of varying sizes. It’s fun, but can get pricey. It’s more economical to pick a bottle from the shelves under the machines, including a number under $20. Menu choices are simple: sandwiches, salads, tapas and cheese plates. Most everything is $10 or less except some of the larger cheese plates. It’s a great place to graze while enjoying the wine, but don’t order everything at once: Dishes come on large white china plates that are too big for the small tables. Our favorites were the design-your-own cheese plate and empanadas, stuffed with beef or chicken and served with mango-papaya chutney. Hummus with pita bread and an oven-roasted chicken sandwich with fontina cheese were solid executions, and our $15 bottle of wine was a great bargain.