The Sunset Lounge in West Palm Beach, Fla., was once the South’s premier African American dining and entertainment venue. During the 1940s and ’50s it attracted notable artists like Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole, and was known as the “Cotton Club of the South,” in reference to the famed Harlem club.
Now, it’s being restored to its former glory through a $12.5-million renovation led by the City of West Palm Beach and its Community Redevelopment Agency. The city purchased the building in 2015, in part because of feedback from the local community.
“The Sunset Lounge was historically the entertainment hub for the northwest [part of the city], which was a segregated neighborhood until the 1960s,” said Genia Baker, a project manager for the CRA. “We engaged the community back in 2014 to try to ascertain what was important to them, and both past and present residents of the area pointed to the Sunset Lounge.”
The landmark venue anticipates a winter 2022 debut, and once the multi-year project is complete, visitors can expect a complete rehabilitation of the existing 12,308 square-foot building, plus the addition of a new, two-story 7,200 square foot building. The combined spaces will accommodate a lobby and box office, a 150-seat bar and restaurant, an updated entertainment venue with an elevated stage and ballroom, plus a rooftop bar and patio.
To make it happen, CRA enlisted locally based design firm V Starr, which is led by principal and CEO (and world-class tennis player) Venus Williams. They’re looking to historic images and artifacts as reference points for maintaining the establishment’s character, while also updating the space with modern amenities.
The original Sunset Lounge didn’t have a kitchen. Instead, patrons would bring in food from the nearby Silver Grill, or bring food from home to share with other patrons.
Dining will be a major component at the updated venue, so to find an operator, the CRA put out a request for proposal seeking experienced restaurateurs to manage the food and beverage programs. The call attracted about two dozen interested parties, and with no past cuisine to replicate, the Sunset Lounge isn’t bound by a particular concept.
“We don’t have much of a preconceived notion for what the cuisine will be,” said Chris Roog, executive director of the CRA. “What we’d like to see is a representative group of folks from the community.”
They hope to make a decision on the operator by July, at which time they should have the temporary certificate of occupancy in place. Then, they can get into the space with the new operator to start dialing in the F&B concept and operations.
“I’m really excited about this project, mainly because so much input has been generated from the community, who have real-life experience about what the Sunset Lounge was,” said Roog. “There are so many positive memories about this facility, which shows the importance of the investment. For a community to embrace a project like this is quite wonderful.”