Funny how savvy restaurant operators find a way to grow and expand no matter how bad the overall economy gets. That’s what partners Tim Petrillo and Peter Boulukos are proving is possible right now at Fort Lauderdale’s YOLO, a 300-seat upscale-but-not-quite-fine-dining restaurant they opened last October. YOLO is an acronym for You Only Live Once, a slogan that hits just the right note when you’re trying to convince people to spend money during these troubled times.
Although the times don’t seem so troubled when you roll past YOLO at night. That’s when it draws overflow crowds for both dinner and drinks at its companion O Lounge. Why so busy? YOLO is big, hip and smart, so it’s getting the sort of play that kind of new restaurant usually does. But it’s also doing well because Petrillo and Boulukos are unusually attuned to what the people who frequent Fort Lauderdale’s restaurant-rich Las Olas Boulevard want.
The pair developed their market insight from the ground up. They got their restaurant industry start at Mark Militello’s upscale standout Mark’s Las Olas, but headed for Fort Lauderdale’s funkier side, Himmarshee Village, when they struck out on their own. Naming their company The Restaurant People, they opened Himmarshee Bar & Grill in 1997. It was a highenergy restaurant whose mix of adventurous food and a happening scene earned national attention.
They sold that one—it’s still going—and moved two doors down to open Key West fishing-themed Tarpon Bend Food & Tackle, a second version of which (Tarpon Bend Raw Bar & Grill) now operates in downtown Coral Gables. The pair also runs fine dining spot River House, located just around the corner from the Fort Lauderdale Tarpon Bend.
All of which helped them identify what the Fort Lauderdale market lacked: a spot that blended highend casual dining with vibrant nightlife. Enter YOLO.
“It’s the ultimate neighborhood restaurant,” Boulukos points out. “The food is creative, but approachable, made with the freshest ingredients and lots of love, but definitely affordable. Las Olas has had a well-earned reputation as a place to dine but never really had a great spot to drink and people watch.”
It does now with the 6,300 sq.-ft. YOLO. It’s a minicomplex that houses two bars, a dine-in patio, a main dining room, a private dining suite and O Lounge.
The menu mixes a handful of international influences with smartly done mainstream favorites. Starters ($4-$10) are where the adventurous flavors reside. The list includes Italian-influenced meatball sliders, Mexican-tinged chorizo queso fundido, Mediterranean mussels and Asian-style Szechwan calamari.
Main courses, on the other hand, stick with the familiar. Offerings here ($16-$30) reflect the partners’ expertise in seafood (cedar-roasted salmon; pepperherb seared tuna) plus straight-ahead items such as prime rib, bourbon-mustard glazed pork chops and slow-cooked BBQ pork ribs. Guests who want to keep it really basic can opt for a simple rotisserie chicken.
We’ve got to tip our hat to Petrillo and Boulukos for the clever way they present YOLO’s nightly specials. No verbal spiel from a server here. Instead, a member of the waitstaff walks up and—wham!— stamps the night’s specials on the butcher paper that sits top YOLO’s white tablecloths at dinner. If you want to get people to notice and talk about your specials, this system’s hard to beat.
Another business key: Not only does YOLO’s location on Las Olas Boulevard appeal to nighttime scenemakers. It’s also near enough to Fort Lauderdale’s sizable office contingent to draw lunch business from local lawyers, bankers, money managers and the like.
We know the market’s tough right now for full-service operators, but keep the YOLO formula in mind if you’re wondering how you could grow or expand your concept. It combines splashy design, good but not envelope-pushing food, a rockin’ bar (or bars) and affordable prices. It’s working big time for The Restaurant People in Fort Lauderdale; something like it could do just as well in your town, too.