If you ever want to witness the convivial qualities of beer, look no further than the Riverside Market Cafe. It's tucked away in the enchanted but rough-around-the edges Fort Lauderdale neighborhood known as Riverside Park. You drive over a bridge and then one way around a tiny park and then to a gravel parking and what looks like a market. Parking can be tight.
Inside, a canoe hangs from the ceiling. That's a fighting chair above the cooler. Those are buckets of beer-bottle caps on the floor. And those strings dangling from the ceiling hold bottle openers. Beer paraphernalia and beer — 550 different bottles and 20 on draft — is just about everywhere.
"To me, it's like a man cave, a living room and a tribute to old Florida all rolled up into one," says Julian Siegel, who owns the Riverside with wife Lisa.
It is a Fort Lauderdale original. The real deal.
Ten years ago, the former commercial-real-estate developer bought Bayside Market across the street from his current spot because he wanted a convenience store in his neighborhood where he could buy good beer, organic milk and Parmesan cheese. Until he took it over, it was the kind of place that sold hair extensions and oversize T-shirts. He eventually bought Rehard's Grocery across the street, thinking he'd put in some townhouses.
"I started taking it apart," he says, "and started to appreciate its construction: the Dade County pine, tongue-and-groove ceiling and the solid, cinder-block building. This would make a really good hangout, a market cafe."
At the Riverside Market Cafe, you help yourself to beer from the wall of coolers. It's not incorrect to say the place has the largest selection of beer in South Florida. Guests sit on backless stools at high-top tables or on the well-worn leather sofa and chairs. Service is ultracasual.
The small menu starts with $8 omelets at breakfast and then moves into salads ($5-$8) and house-made hummus ($6) — a specialty of the house served with chips or tortillas. It's offered in four flavors: original garlic, roasted red pepper, jalapeno and sun-dried tomato.
Most of the menu is taken up with subs, clubs, wraps and sandwiches. The North Fork ($7 small/$9 large) is a combination of roast beef, pastrami, roasted turkey, house-made garlic mayo, lettuce, tomato, pepper, oil and vinegar.
Siegel, 45, grew up in Fort Lauderdale's Galt Ocean Mile neighborhood and used to walk to the La Spada's Original Hoagies in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. He understands a good sandwich, and offers tuna melts ($8), Reubens ($8), veggie wraps ($8) and something called Not Your Mom's Egg Salad ($8) — hard-boiled eggs served on a toasted croissant with cayenne dressing over greens.
The kitchen also makes a very good margherita pizza ($10 small/$15 large) with lots of fresh basil. Chicken wings ($8), eight pieces served Buffalo-style, can be had mild, medium or hot or with Thai sweet-chili sauce. I wish they were served at a hotter temperature. The Carolina pulled-pork sandwich ($8) on a soft, white bun isn't overly sauced. Next time, I'll order it with a side of hand-cut sweet-potato fries ($3) or French fries ($2). A recent meat loaf cupcake ($10) special arrives as an orb of meat loaf over mashed potatoes with a scattering of corn, bacon and ketchup. It is divine comfort food.
This week is American Craft Beer Week, and the Riverside will mark the occasion with special events Friday and Saturday nights. No matter the night, the Riverside will attract anyone and everyone.
"You can have tattooed skateboarders or you can have billionaires," Siegel says. "You can have misguided students or Pulitzer Prize-winning photographers. It's the most-versatile crowd you'll ever come across." Children are always welcome.
The one thing you won't find here are televisions, Siegel says, "because if you can't have a conversation with your friends, why are you going out?"
Riverside Market Cafe
608 SW 12th Ave., Fort Lauderdale
Cuisine: Eclectic American