Finding fun after dark on Las Olas Boulevard once bordered on impossible.
The sleepy stretch of street favored quaint shopping and early dinners, not happy hours and bar crowds.
An infusion of young professionals and trendy businesses is fueling the transformation of the mile-long strip that's on the brink of becoming South Florida's hottest, hippest destination north of Miami Beach.
Boozy bikes that seat 15 people. Celebrity sightings. Shops that stay open late. Las Olas grows its party atmosphere with each new store, pub or restaurant — several of which are on tap to open or expand in 2014.
"People came for dinner and then went somewhere else," Andy Fox, director of operations for Grille 401, said of the Las Olas Boulevard of just a few years ago. "Now they stay the whole night. We are evolving to become a night-life destination."
It wasn't that long ago that Las Olas — Spanish for "The Waves" — was the place locals went to run errands. To fix flat tires. To get gas. To get groceries. Exclusive boutiques catering to wealthy snowbirds shared Fort Lauderdale's signature street with hardware stores, drugstores and movie theaters.
Merchants long talked of attracting a younger crowd, but Las Olas remained largely a matronly, prestigious collection of shops. Until recently.
Charles King, 40, lives five blocks north of Las Olas but used to head to Pompano Beach for sports bars. Now he hangs out on Las Olas.
"When I was a kid, there wasn't much downtown," King said. "Nobody wanted to be close to downtown. They wanted to be close to the beach. There's definitely a lot to do now. Seems like wherever I go, there's tons of people."
Nightspots long balked at investing on Las Olas, said Tim Petrillo, co-founder of Fort Lauderdale-based The Restaurant People, which operates four venues in Fort Lauderdale, including the two credited with kick-starting the evolution of downtown Fort Lauderdale night life — YOLO and Vibe Las Olas.
"We opened Vibe solely to keep people on Las Olas," Petrillo said of the strip's only nightclub, which opened in late 2010.
Petrillo's investment opened the door for hot spots like The Royal Pig and Voodka, both attracting young professionals looking to network or simply relax.
Others catering to that crowd followed: At least three new restaurants opened last year, including Sky Thai Sushi, across the street from Vibe; Wild Sea Oyster Bar & Grille, at the base of the Riverside Hotel; and Lobster Bar Sea Grille, at the site of the former landmark Jackson's Steakhouse.
What used to be a bridal shop, at Southeast Eighth Avenue and Las Olas Boulevard, is now home to American Social, one of the area's busiest sports bars, drawing shoulder-to-shoulder crowds of 30-somethings during college football season. Even a decades-old tuxedo shop has moved out to make room for an upscale bar and restaurant just west of Rocco's Tacos that wants to rival the popular Mexican restaurant in attracting the young and hip.
Grille 401, hidden in relative anonymity in the Bank of America building, is spending about a half-million dollars to renovate and expand its outdoor bar area, which is scheduled for completion in March. It plans to host musicians to play on the sidewalk and add a sushi bar, for the late-night crowds who want small bites while sipping cocktails.
This summer, Petrillo plans to open a fifth venue, an Italian restaurant centered around meatballs.
The veteran restaurateur believes more cutting-edge spots will open on Las Olas in the coming years, "pushing the envelope."
"People will take bigger risks," he said.
That includes retailers — the lifeblood of Las Olas for decades.
The Archives, an urban footwear and apparel and accessories store, recently closed its original location to move three blocks west to be closer to the action, owner Brad Minto said. The store, with a target audience of 25 to 35 years old — stays open longer hours at its new site, at least until 11 p.m., Minto said.
"Traffic is great here," he said. "People leave restaurants and stumble onto our store and start shopping.
"Before, the boulevard was just art galleries and antiques shops that appealed to snowbirds," he said. "Now, I see a movement toward the locals. Places are appealing to the younger professionals who before went to Miami."
Almost 21,000 people live within one mile of Las Olas Boulevard and U.S.1, according to 2013 data, the first count ever made by the Greater Fort Lauderdale Alliance. More than half of those people are between 20 and 49 years old.
One of the new complexes, New River Yacht Club — adjacent to the New River and just south of Las Olas — is expected to build 249 luxurious rental units and open this year.
Jim Ellis, president of Ellis Diversified Inc, also plans to offer nearly 800 rental units in about three years, when he completes two residential projects less than a mile away from Las Olas.
"We are in a very unique situation that can't be replicated in other markets like West Palm Beach or Miami," Ellis said.
Staff researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.
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