Sublime restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, a fixture and forerunner of South Florida’s vegan and vegetarian scene, shuttered suddenly this week after 15 years, leaving legions of fans upset and some customers wondering about whether they will get refunds on unused gift cards.
“I have mixed feelings, but it was just the right time for me to close,” Sublime owner and founder Nanci Alexander, 71, says in a telephone interview Thursday. “Running a restaurant, it’s draining.”
Alexander is noncommital about refunds on gift cards.
“There are unused cards every year. How can I refund them?” Alexander says. Asked if she could issue checks to gift-card holders upon request, Alexander says, “I don’t know yet.”
The surprise closing was in contrast with the planned finale of another highly regarded Florida restaurant, 32 East in Delray Beach, which served its final meals this week after 22 years. Sublime and 32 East each earned four-star reviews from the Sun Sentinel and SouthFlorida.com in the past, and repeated accolades in the annual Best of South Florida competition.
Sublime, a striking, 11,000-square-foot standalone building on North Federal Highway, attracted visiting celebrities such as Paul McCartney, Alicia Silverstone and Pamela Anderson and featured a waterfall wall along with popular dishes such as cauliflower fritto misto, mushroom ravioli and coconut cake. When Alec Baldwin was in town filming “Rock of Ages,” he dined at Sublime and tweeted that it was “the Le Bernardin of vegan cuisine.”
But the fine-dining restaurant had lost its luster in recent years, as vegan cuisine expanded with newer, trendier and bolder options, including fast-casual Green Bar in Fort Lauderdale and striking newcomers in Miami-Dade County such as Plant Miami (formerly Plant Food + Wine) near Wynwood, and Planta, a new venture in South Beach from nightclub mogul David Grutman.
Alexander, an animal-rights activist who held fundraisers and awards banquets for PETA and other groups, says business remained steady, but she tired of ongoing construction and traffic in the area, near the big bend where U.S. 1 and East Sunrise Boulevard merge. She said Sublime was a project that consumed nearly two decades of her life, including the land acquisition and construction. She bought the site for $1.66 million in 2001 and opened Sublime in 2003. The site is now valued at $3 million by the Broward County Property Appraiser and has an annual property tax bill surpassing $60,000.
Alexander says she intends to sell the site, but only to another vegan or animal-friendly operator. “It can be another vegan restaurant, or a nightclub or some kind of artistic space, but it’s not going to be a leather furniture showroom,” she says. “I’m asking some of my vegan friends and contacts around the country if anybody is interested. The area keeps growing and there are more vegans and vegetarians than ever.”
Alexander announced the closing on Facebook on May 15, the day after final service on Mother’s Day. She thanked loyal customers and asked them to “embark on [a path] in pursuit of compassion for all,” including animals. She said she plans to continue the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida, a nonprofit she ran in conjunction with the restaurant.
“This is going to leave a huge void in the vegan community in South Florida,” customer Judy Campbell Karpis wrote on Sublime’s Facebook page.
Neil Kaplan wrote, “Sorry to see the end of a South Florida institution, the restaurant that started it all locally.”
At least a half-dozen customers posted inquiries about unused gift cards, noting the restaurant’s phone is not accepting messages. Kent Atherton wrote on the Sublime Facebook page that he had $300 in unused gift cards and hadn’t gotten a response about a refund. “Rather disheartening after the years we went there and then stiffing us,” Atherton wrote. “It kinda hurts … We can only hope Nanci is reading our comments and will decide to do the right thing.”
A Facebook commenter named Robert Bill wrote, “Maybe you should have listened to your guests asking for a new menu. Abruptly shutting down shows your lack of respect for your employees.”
At 32 East, employees had ample advance notice after owner Butch Johnson announced last year that the restaurant would close after Mother’s Day 2018 to make way for a new outpost of Louie Bossi Ristorante. The mood in the restaurant was more celebratory than somber on Sunday night, and the server who took care of my table gushed about how she has been allowed to hold two jobs the past few months, starting at Houston’s in Boca Raton earlier this year.
32 East opened in 1996 and spurred the redevelopment of the Atlantic Avenue corridor into one of South Florida’s top entertainment and dining destinations
Johnson, who turned 70 this month, was on hand with his wife and business partners for a final meal on Sunday, and to say farewell to loyal customers. “It’s been a bittersweet few weeks, but I feel good about what we have done,” Johnson said. Johnson said he might look to open a smaller restaurant in an undeveloped area of Palm Beach County. Longtime general manager and wine maven John Bates has announced he is launching a new winetasting room and kitchen later this year on Atlantic Avenue, in the former home of Caffe Martier.
Executive chef John Thomas is exploring his options, and he will cook two popup dinners in upcoming weeks at Jewell Bistro in Lake Worth. He also changed his Instagram handle from “chefJT_32east” to “chefJT_ronin.” As Thomas explained in his Instagram bio, ronin is “a wandering samurai who has no lord or master.”