By Kerri Adams, Editor-at-Large
If you are a south Florida local, you may or may not have heard of Riverside Market. With two locations in Fort Lauderdale, this restaurant and bar offers the ultimate craft beer selection and a menu featuring elevated bar food.
It’s laid-back charm, along with its delicious bar bites and fridges full of hundreds of grab-your-own craft beers is part of the reason both spots have become a locals’ favorite hang-out.
We sat down with the owner of both restaurants, Julian Siegel to learn why his and wife started the concept, what menu items foodies can’t resist and what’s to come.
What influenced you and your wife to open the concept?
Siegel: Years ago, I bought a convenience store, where I put 200 craft beers for sale. The convenience store was in the middle of a residential neighborhood. Then the real estate started getting really valuable. So I wanted to level with my convenience store and the adjoining house to build town houses.
So when I bought the other store, which is the current home of Riverside Market, I really overpaid for the property. I had to get rid of the building. By the time I bought it, the real estate market had dissolved, collapsed, and I was stuck paying a ton of money for this horrible store.
So I thought, what can I do with store? So I started gutting it. When I ripped down the ceiling, I found this gorgeous tongue and groove ceiling. When I ripped up the 70 years of linoleum, I found a nice concrete slab. So we kept the concrete slab and we cleaned up the ceiling. I didn’t want to compete with a convenience store, I thought “I’m just going to make this a second home.” I filled it up 500 craft beers, we actually have 650 now, and we decided we we’re going to make some great food - fun, fast, and affordable - and we we're going have a good time.
And I did it, and no one came. So it really took three to four years of working for free, 80 hours a week, to get the place known. The real reason we go on the honor system here is because I didn't have a sophisticated POS system, I just had a really simple cash register. So we would let people grab their own beers, drink them, and bring up the empties and then we would guess how much they cost. And this evolved and now, we're a three and a half million-dollar a year business. We are opening up a third location and we're building a brewery for the restaurant.
Why the Fort Lauderdale area?
Siegel: It was really close to my house. I enjoy the cozy little neighborhood that we're in. It's called New River, it's a historical middle-class neighborhood. It’s very tropical with palm trees everywhere.
Why do the two Riverside Market locations both have different menus?
Siegel: Well, the kitchen at South is a different kitchen. There's about 70% overlay, but the kitchen at South is so much bigger. So we offer more vegetarian options and it's a more diverse menu.
Our core products are our pizzas, fish tacos, hoagies, hand-cut french fries, hummus, that's at both stores. The only real difference between the South menu and the original is that South has crab cakes, turkey meatball sliders and it has more of a bar. We have some bar snacks at South that we don't offer at the original.
What are your most popular menu items and beers?
Siegel: Most popular menu items are fish tacos, pita and hummus. In the fish tacos, we use local Mahi, we hand-batter it with panko, lightly season it, and it's an amazing product. The hummus we make by hand as well. Our recipe is perfect, four flavors of hummus. We do a garlic, roasted red pepper, sun-dried tomato and jalapeno. With our pizza, we hand-mix our dough, we throw a stout beer in every batch, and we do not use a commercial mixer. We make more pizzas than you could ever imagine, hand-mixing our dough. We make everything with love and we make everything from scratch.
Again, we have 650 different beers here. I would say the locals are the first to go. Civil Society Fresh, Cigar City White-Oak High Life, South Caramel Cream, those are all super popular, big sellers.
Why the grab-your-own beer fridges?
Siegel: It’s the honor system. We like to go ahead and put the trust out there. Believe me, people steal from us, we find empty bottles of beer around the building, but we just feel if you put the trust out there, most people do the right thing.
We also have customers that when they pay their tab, they pay an extra $10 or $20 dollars and say, "this is for the people that steal beer from you." So we're fine with that.
There’s a lot of people in the beer business that put glass showcases of beer behind the bartender, and it's not fun that way. Why would you want to have a bartender grab your beer for a fridge? Do you know how many friendships you can form, standing in front of a walk-in cooler with 650 beers you grab yourself? A total stranger could become your best friend as you discuss the label of a beer. We pride ourselves on our connection to the community and the relationships that get built here over beer.
What are your future plans for the restaurants?
Siegel: We're building a brewery right now and we're building the Riverside Café in Plantation, which we will be opening up next month. That's going to be an amazing building. It's going to be a hybrid, between Riverside South and regular Riverside.
So that's it. I just want to spend time with my family, while working as much as I can at the same time.