For most of a rainy, gray Wednesday, the Sweet 16th edition of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival looked as if it would get off to a soggy start in Fort Lauderdale. But when the gates opened at 7 p.m. to the Seaside Eats event at the Bonnet House Museum & Gardens, there were clear skies, a sellout crowd of 500 and a deluge of delicious dishes.
"One ugly day that turned into a beautiful night," Lee Schrager, the festival founder and organizer, said by phone.
It was the second straight year that Fort Lauderdale hosted the kickoff event of the annual festival, a five-day movable feast that attracts 65,000 food enthusiasts and 350 chefs, wine experts and food professionals to 90 events throughout South Florida. Seaside Eats was also the first of seven events in the Taste Fort Lauderdale Series, meant to spotlight Broward dining and nightlife.
"To have an event like this – it's like a dream, "said Stacy Ritter, head of the greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau, as she roamed the tents with the food and wine.
Festival founder Schrager did not make it to Bonnet House, snagged in the rain and Miami traffic earlier in the evening, but the party went on without him.
"This place is beautiful, "gushed Food Network personality Anne Burrell, host of the event, as fans swarmed her for photos. "The South Beach food festival is like spring break for chefs, without the wet T-shirt contests."
18 Broward-based restaurants served up seafood treats such as lobster toast and scallops with monkfish liver. Spanish Rioja wine flowed, and a band played amid illuminated banyan trees. During welcoming remarks, Ritter presented Burrell with the gift of a cutting board in the shape of Florida.
"I like that South Beach has finally reached out to Fort Lauderdale - it's a natural extension," said chef Jeff Pfeiffer of Lobster Bar and Grille on Las Olas Boulevard, as he plated grilled octopus. "This is fun. Doing 500 plates is tough, but that's nothing compared to the 3,000 plates we do on Sunday at the Grand Tasting Village in South Beach."
"We like that it's in Fort Lauderdale," said Sherry Giambrone. "It's easier for us and closer to home." The Fort Lauderdale resident was on hand with her husband, Greg, and four relatives visiting from Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
Said tourist chief Ritter, "For us, this isn't about room nights, but about promoting the destination in general. We've really tried to make Fort Lauderdale more of a dining destination."
Among the highlights of the Taste Fort Lauderdale Series: a return of the Bloody Mary Brunch ($175) at the Fort Lauderdale Ritz-Carlton on Sunday, co-hosted by actors Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka, and the launch of a Friday-night cocktail event in artsy Fat Village, DRINK Fort Lauderdale ($95).
“It’s a natural progression,” Schrager says of the expansion to Broward. “This should have happened years ago. We’ve run out of space [in Miami Beach].”
Most of the 90-event festival’s biggest gatherings will still be clustered in an area along the southern sands of Miami Beach, including the ever-popular Burger Bash (Friday, $250) and Grand Tasting Village (Saturday-Sunday, $225).
But Fort Lauderdale has become part of the permanent picture. The Taste Fort Lauderdale series continues Thursday with dinners at Casa D’Angelo in Fort Lauderdale (sold out), co-hosted by chefs Amanda Freitag and Angelo Elia, and at S3 restaurant on Fort Lauderdale beach ($250), co-hosted by actor Raul Esparza and chefs Marc Murphy and Chris Miracolo.
The festival, sponsored by Food Network and Cooking Channel, runs through Sunday in Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Miami Beach. For ticket availability and the full schedule, go to Sobefest.com.