New Fort Lauderdale restaurant to open in old River House

It’s hard not to root for Fort Lauderdale hospitality veteran Steven D’Apuzzo’s next magic act — not so much for what it means for him, but for what it means for you.

D’Apuzzo and his Society 8 Hospitality Group are the latest in a line of dreamers who have tried to solve the riddle of downtown Fort Lauderdale’s most beautiful and enigmatic restaurant property, commonly known as the River House, located in two conjoined homes on the New River that are among the city’s oldest.

If he succeeds, locals will (again) be able to enjoy one of those places that all interesting city centers seem to have — an out-of-the-way, word-of-mouth, dining-and-drinking spot that offers a vital combination of authentic local history and natural beauty.

The new restaurant, to be called The House on the River, is slated to open in late summer or early fall.

“The place is nostalgic. It is an oasis, going back to what I perceive as Old Florida, in a charming way,” says D’Apuzzo, a Brooklyn native who has lived in South Florida for 25 years. “We have to create an experience for people to get that nostalgic part of Fort Lauderdale, to get that history of what it’s about, that true Southern charm.”

Society 8 is best known for creating engaging, locals-oriented Fort Lauderdale dining destinations such as downtown’s Sistrunk Marketplace, as well as Park & ​​Ocean and Wild Thyme Oceanside Eatery at the Atlantic Hotel & Spa on the beach.

An enchanting refuge created out of an old boathouse among a grove of sea grape trees in oceanfront Hugh Taylor Birch State Park, Park & ​​Ocean is a template for the comforting vibe D’Apuzzo is trying to create at The House on the River.

Located under a thick canopy of trees steps from the New River, just west of the Brightline/FEC railroad tracks, the two homes were built in 1903, before the city was incorporated, for Fort Lauderdale pioneer Philemon Bryan’s two sons, Tom and Reed. The city-owned structures, at 301 SW Third Ave., are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“They picked an unbelievable spot on the river. I could sit here for hours. It does something to your inner being,” D’Apuzzo says. “Everything is very soothing, and it takes you to a place that I don’t think can be replicated anywhere. The trees, the house, just standing here, you feel it.”

He envisions multiple environments at The House on the River, beginning with the two rustic brick terraces outside each home, where tables will be set under strings of cafe lights with prime river views. Inside, the historic homes will offer dining in a maze of rooms of varying sizes, all warmed by old Dade County pine floors.

D’Apuzzo has yet to decide on a head chef, but says the “affordable Southern-style” menu will feature locally sourced seafood, meat, fruits and vegetables. The restaurant will be open for breakfast, lunch and dinner on weekends, including brunch, and initially just dinner during the week.

The home on the east side of the property will have a bar and a funkier atmosphere for more casual dining and drinking.

“I don’t want to compare it to a Dada in Delray, but it has that charm. That’s the vision of the east house,” D’Apuzzo says.

The adjoining home to the west will be the setting for more ambitious meals, where visiting chefs will show off their work and a long, communal table will be a featured space on the larger, river-facing patio. It also will have its own bar, featuring local rum and bourbon.

“The west house is banquet- and event-driven, in terms of specialty dinners, tastings for wine. But nothing unapproachable,” D’Apuzzo says. “It’s very important that nothing is intimidating about the property.”

D’Apuzzo is not the first ambitious restaurateur to dream big in the Bryans’ old homes.

More than three decades ago the property was operated as part of the Chart House chain, then was taken over in 1998 by local visionary Ron Morrison — locals still revere his three biggest hits: Mistral and Evangeline on the beach, and Sage on North Federal Highway . Under Morrison, the homes were known as Reed’s River House and, next door, Reed’s Mosquito Bar.

The Restaurant People brought their sterling track record created at nearby Himmarshee Bar & Grill to the property in the early 2000s, just as the gloomy Las Olas Riverfront entertainment center was turning the New River area into a dead zone. After closing in 2009, the River House property sat empty for several years.

In 2015, the city leased the site to James Campbell, of Riverfront Cruises and Anticipation Yacht Charters, as a tourist welcome center and special-events space.

A turning point in the trajectory of the area occurred in 2017 when Las Olas Riverfront was demolished, clearing the way for construction of two major residential projects, Four West Las Olas and Society Las Olas, which opened in 2020.

Most recently, Campbell teamed with charismatic Food Network Chef Jonny NoBones on a vegan restaurant that opened at the River House site in 2020, during the height of the pandemic. Jonny NoBones Old Riverhouse Vegan Village closed after about four months.

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D’Apuzzo is undaunted, citing demographic changes in Fort Lauderdale, inspired by new residential construction and population shifts during the pandemic, that he says have created a unique environment for success at The House on the River.

“A lot has to do with timing. This area has had kind of a roller coaster [history], in favor and out of favor, lack of attention and development. I think the timing is right,” D’Apuzzo says.

Residential development has created more competition among restaurants in downtown Fort Lauderdale, especially along the western edge of touristy Las Olas Boulevard, where nationally known Eddie V’s Prime Seafood is packing them in, and Fogo de Chão is poised to open across the street.

D’Apuzzo believes that not having a Las Olas address is a positive for The House on the River, which he hopes will draw a word-of-mouth audience among the joggers and dog walkers he sees passing by along the river.

“I think we’re going to become part of the lifestyle. This is where you become a local,” he says.

For updates on the House on the River, visit Society8.com.

Staff writer Ben Crandell can be reached at bcrandell@sunsentinel.com.

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