The twisted tower of bricks in the dining room that gives The Chimney House Grill & Cafe its name looks like a mistake, a precarious malformity that seems destined to topple into your pulpo a la parrilla.
The downtown Fort Lauderdale restaurant’s owner, Frank Rodriguez, says he’s heard there may have been an architectural purpose for the leaning chimney, but he prefers another theory, dating to when the renovated old home was built almost a century ago.
“That explanation, which I like better, is that people in the 1920s were very mystical and believed in bad spirits. They’d make the chimney crooked so bad spirits could not come down into the house,” he says.
If ever there was a place that seemed to invite good spirits, it is The Chimney House.
The indoor-outdoor Latin fusion eatery is hidden in plain sight on the edge of Sailboat Bend, its location at the corner of West Las Olas Boulevard and the Avenue of the Arts far less glamorous than it sounds. Riverfront neighbors across the street, the Broward Center for the Performing Arts and The Symphony condominium tower, show their backs to The Chimney House.
And yet, the restaurant remains a beloved destination for in-the-know locals whose word-of-mouth praise typically begins with a mention of its distinctive menu — traditional South American recipes with influences of Asia — but spends more time in admiration of its relaxing atmosphere, attractive patio, uncommonly accommodating staff and the personal warmth of Rodriguez and his wife, Yady.
On Thursday, Sept. 15, the couple will kick off a four-day celebration of the 10th anniversary of The Chimney House, including live music, food and drink specials and giveaways.
Another reason for the celebratory mood: Frank Rodriguez says that with a full slate of Broadway shows and other programming scheduled for the Broward Center for the Performing Arts and a general resurgence in the economy, this season may be the best ever for The Chimney House. In anticipation of that business, he recently completed an expansion of the kitchen.
But it wasn’t long ago that Chimney House regulars worried the restaurant would not reach this anniversary.
When they first envisioned turning the dilapidated old house into a casual neighborhood restaurant more than 15 years ago, Frank and Yady were looking down on it from a unit they had purchased preconstruction in The Symphony tower.
Despite its deteriorating condition (homeless were frequent visitors), the home had been designated historic — it was built in the early 1920s by cabinetmaker Benjamin Blosch, son of Kansas transplants who arrived a year after the city was incorporated.
Frank, who moved from Bogota, Colombia, to Queens, N.Y., when he was 11, brought valuable experience to the table. He had been a red-jacketed waiter at New York’s iconic Theater District dining destination Sardi’s, and he was raised by a mother and stepfather who had spent decades working in the restaurant business, both in New York and South Florida. His mother operated the well-reviewed Tamarac restaurant Tierras Colombianas in the early 2000s.
Renovating such a home, located in the Sailboat Bend Historic District, created challenges. Turning that home into a commercial property added another layer of red tape, further complicated by additional health-department regulations governing new restaurants.
The job was too much for the architects they sought out, until they found Fort Lauderdale architect Ron Fairchild, who Frank says was critical to overcoming myriad design issues in a renovation that stretched over six years before its debut in 2012.
Frank paired his hospitality experience with years in New York’s financial industry, making him well-versed in the practicalities of running a profitable business. He decided early on that the fireplace in the center of the future dining room had to go. This would allow them to add more tables and better flow from the kitchen, Frank reasoned. Besides, the fireplace was old, and it was green, and the chimney on top was weird.
But Yady, who had worked in marketing and been a painter in her native Colombia, saw something else. They stripped more than 20 layers of paint from the brick, which revealed its ruddy warmth.
“It was so beautiful,” Yady says.
So the fireplace and its kooky chimney became a centerpiece and namesake for the restaurant, a tribute to Fort Lauderdale history and a metaphor for the homey atmosphere that has become its trademark. Plus, as regulars know, when temperatures drop below 60, The Chimney House serves hot spiced wine around the gas-lit fireplace.
When the pandemic hit, small, locally owned restaurants like The Chimney House seemed particularly vulnerable.
Its location across the street from the Broward Center for the Performing Arts made it a popular spot for the theater’s 500 employees, and a pre-show stop for audience members as well as actors and musicians often dining in anonymity.
“[Restaurant patrons] didn’t know who they were, until we grabbed them to take a picture,” Yadi says, with a laugh.
When the pandemic closed the Broward Center — cutting off that lifeline of business for six months, then a year, then 18 months — fans of The Chimney House worried.
“It probably made more sense to just close, on some level, and maybe reopen later. But we wanted to keep our staff employed, and we wanted to make sure people knew we were here,” Frank says.
It was then that interesting things started to happen.
Takeout was immediately steady among its traditional lunch crowd of law enforcement and government officials. Attorneys would call to sponsor meals for employees at Broward Health, with Frank delivering 50 at a time in The Chimney House van.
Customers from Sailboat Bend and neighbors near Frank and Yady’s house in Coral Ridge also placed frequent takeout orders.
“People came and helped us out, whether it was takeout all the time, sponsored meals. We couldn’t have made it without the support of the community. It was the community, completely. It was amazing,” Frank says.
One day, a woman — one half of an older, retired couple who were regular customers — called to say she would be coming in with “something I think you may need.” Frank assumed it would be boxes of gloves or masks, until he saw she had dropped off an envelope.
“It was, I think, her stimulus check. They wrote a $1,200 check from their personal account. The note was, ‘We’re retired. We don’t need it. You do what you see fit.’ Amazing. That was one that kind of hit here,” Frank says, tapping his heart. “At the time our bank account was … It was perfect timing. You couldn’t make that up.”
Another longtime customer, Fort Lauderdale therapist Denise Grant, decided to invoke the power of James Beard Award-winning chef Michelle Bernstein and her popular restaurant-review show, “Check, Please! South Florida,” which is broadcast on local PBS affiliates WPBT-Ch. 2 and WXEL-Ch. 42.
“You know, COVID was going on and restaurants were closing, and my neighbor and I were lamenting the possibility that we would lose Chimney House, because it was one of our favorite spots to eat here in the neighborhood,” Grant says.
She counts the restaurant’s shredded pork dish Lechón Asado as her favorite entrée, and Frank’s mother’s signature flan as her favorite dessert.
“The food is really good, and we love the atmosphere. Frank and his wife are very personable and attentive. Of course, those are very good things when you’re looking for a place to go eat,” she says.
Grant wrote to “Check, Please!” in early 2021, urging them to visit The Chimney House, but the show itself was slowed by the pandemic. Eventually The Chimney House was added to the shooting schedule, and TV cameras arrived in November. The episode aired in May.
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The show, which spotlights a favorite restaurant recommended by each member of a three-person panel of locals, spent more than six minutes on Grant’s pick, The Chimney House. Fellow panelists Amanda Kahan, of Lake Worth, and Kevin Pianfetti, of Delray Beach, were trying The Chimney House for the first time and raved about it.
“This is a sexy restaurant,” Pianfetti said, calling his introduction to ahi tuna ceviche “just superb.”
Kahan could barely contain her joy over the Arroz Marinero, a paella-style meeting of shellfish and Spanish chorizo: “It just made me really happy. It was like comfort food.”
“It was a therapeutic dinner,” Grant told Bernstein, with a wink.
Frank and Yady got a kick out of the reactions. During the upcoming celebration, The Chimney House will have commemorative T-shirts on hand that acknowledge its 10th anniversary, but in smaller type they pay tribute to its new rep as “sexy & therapeutic.”
The Chimney House is located at 701 W. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Call 954-900-5352 or visit ChimneyHouseFL.com.
Staff writer Ben Crandell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.