Wilton Drive: Heartbeat of an All-Inclusive City
By: Janet K. Keeler
Talk about being a kid in a candy store.
Where to start in Wilton Manors? This Broward County city packs lots to do and see in just under two square miles and mostly along one major road.
You could join the good, bad and warbly at Friday night karaoke at Manor Lanes bowling alley, a throwback place to throw back a few and test your pipes (and 10-pin skills).
Then there’s wake-me-up java and a raspberry-coconut scones at Stork’s Bakery and Coffee House and close-it-down drinks at any number of bars and clubs on Wilton Drive, the street that brings the funk through the center of town. Bookend your exploration of Wilton Manors with these activities and fill the middle with shopping, food and history.
Start at Antonio Dumas’ candy and gift emporium To the Moon Marketplace. With sweets from more than 95 countries stacked in supreme organization on facing shelves, the question of where to plunge in is a delicious conundrum. Dumas can’t even tell you how much candy he has, but when he offers a house-made peanut butter cup, you just might think that’s all you’ll need.
Still, there’s the nostalgic wash of Turkish Taffy, wax bottles filled with a couple of teaspoons of fruity liquid, candy cigarettes that puff powdered sugar, Idaho Spud bars and Gold Mine pouches stuffed with nuggets of gum. Don’t remember the Idaho Spud? It’s marshmallow covered in chocolate and sprinkled with coconut. And the Spud celebrates its 100th birthday in 2018.
You’ll easily spend an hour or more eyeing candy (how long would it take to eat that Frisbee-plus-sized lollipop?) and wicked-fun greeting cards, novelty socks, vintage lunch boxes and other gifts for those with slightly cracked funny bones. To the Moon is Dumas’ homage to his parents, Ralph and Alice, and Jackie Gleason’s famous Honeymooners’ line “To the moon, Alice!”
Wilton Drive is home to about 40 shops and restaurants. The town is just north of Fort Lauderdale and even closer to the roar of the Atlantic Ocean. With numbers from the 2010 census, Wilton Manors bills itself as the “second gayest city” in the United States. (The first according to a UCLA law school report is Provincetown, Mass.) Wilton Manors has long been a welcoming haven for LGBTQ residents and visitors, and boasts that in 1988 it became the first city in Broward County to elect an openly gay mayor.
There are hints of its roots and conviction in many places. At Out of the Closet thrift store, shoppers scour the racks and shelves for good deals, especially in the weeks leading up to Halloween. They can also get free HIV/AIDS testing daily from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Money raised from the sale of used suits, patio furniture and 1980s kitchen mixers benefits the Aids Healthcare Foundation. Poverello is another thrift store whose proceeds go to provide food to men, women and youth with HIV/AIDS. The center offers many health, education and support services, too.
Take a tour of the World Aids Museum and Educational Center with manager Ed Sparan. It’s sobering and eye-opening for those who know the story of the pandemic only from its meteoric rise to public consciousness in the 1980s. A timeline of the disease begins in 1908 (that is not a typo). The AIDS Memorial Quilt, made of tribute panels to those who have died, is so large now (48,000 panels and 55 tons) that it is rarely displayed in its entirety. The panels can be viewed on screen at the AIDS Museum, catalogued so that visitors can search a database to locate the panel of a friend, lover or relative. Revolving exhibitions, classes and other events bring relevance and education to the community.
Just south of Wilton Drive is Pride Center at Equality Park, a large resource organization for the community, and on the first Saturday of the month the grounds and indoor space become a flea market. Browse here for vintage cufflinks, blooming orchids, artisan candles, old books and wall hangings you won’t find anywhere else, except maybe your grandfather’s back closet. For junkers, this is a must-stop and haggling is welcome.
A late lunch puts us back on Wilton Drive at Rosie’s Bar & Grill, where rainbow-colored lanterns swing overhead on the patio. Rosie’s is a hot Sunday brunch (Bloody Mary bar! Omelet porn! Nelly Frittata!) spot so get there early or plan to wait. Brunch is popular all over town and it’s wise to learn to cool your heels. While away the time people- and dog-watching. There might just be as many pooches on the streets and in cafes as people in Wilton Manors, pop. 11,600. There are at least a dozen pet groomers, day-care providers and boutiques to cater to the dog-loving residents.
Rosie’s casual menu is extensive and the names of the “Big Girl Burgers” give a playful wink to a drag-queen show lineup. Ivana Hooker, Hellena Bun and Georgia Bleu for example. We can vouch for the Anita Mojito, a beefy twist on the Cuban sandwich. She was a big girl, indeed.
A nap is in order after noshing that entire burger, but there is more to check out. The beds at Island City Traders, a furniture and design store, tempt but a brisk walk through the aisles of delicious goods restores flagging energy. Stay in the walking mode and truck west on Wilton Drive, past chocolate (too soon), gelato (still too soon) and the windows of Shades of the Past Antiques, a vintage lighting specialist. Mid-century modern lives among proper antiques, much of it found through estate sales. And then there’s Mojo’s Barbershop, a palace of pampering complete with chandeliers. There are lots of chairs and stylists so Mojo’s just might be able to squeeze you in on a whim. When doesn’t a hot towel shave sound like a good idea?
All this window shopping, walking and eating, calls for a cocktail. Infinity Lounge is a welcoming place with big crowds on weekend nights. Get yourself a martini, rocks or no, and take in the vibe inside or sit al fresco for a more intimate experience. When you’re done, cross the street, toward To the Moon, and began the trek back east. Past the grilled cheese eatery, another sushi place, clothing stores and more ice cream.
Hungry again? Stork’s, the early-morning coffee-pastry stop, is open until midnight. It’s time for a cup of snickerdoodle decaf, blackberry butterscotch cheesecake and a whole lot of dog watching.
Photos by Scott Keeler for VISIT FLORIDA