O’Malley’s 2.0: Hollywood beach bar goes upscale

08/22/2013 12:00 AM

08/22/2013 10:54 AM

If O’Malley’s Upper Deck were an app, it never would have made it past beta.

The Hollywood landmark began life 25 years ago on the second level of the Hollywood Beach Resort Oceanwalk Mall. From its origins as a Mexican restaurant, through a move outdoors to become a beach bar, through yet another move back indoors, the restaurant has repeatedly reinvented itself. These days, its elegant island-bar persona offers a welcome change from the usual Hollywood Broadwalk offerings.

Maybe it was the oxymoronic name, but O’Malley’s Mexican Cantina never found its footing. In 1991, the Mexican theme was abandoned, and the restaurant was relocated to a large gazebo next to the mall, where it became a beach bar. It changed hands but continued to falter, and in 2001, O’Malley’s was left for dead.

Enter Richard J. Schecher Sr., a Hollywood native and an investor in the Hollywood Beach Resort. The exasperated owners of O’Malley’s offered him its bankrupt carcass. It is a decision they have likely come to regret.

Schecher, 65, is the dynamo behind SG Resort Properties, with stakes in Miami Beach (Casablanca, Sixty Sixty) and the Dominican Republic (Watermark Beach Resort) as well as the Hollywood property. The entrepreneur saw opportunity in O’Malley’s, but decided it needed to be retooled. He kept the beach-bar concept, but made it a family-friendly restaurant.

Schecher did so well with the place — and bears sufficient resemblance to Ernest “Papa” Hemingway — that he has come to be known as Papa O’Malley. Almost overnight, a Hollywood institution was born.

Success on Schecher’s scale does not come without playing hardball, and there’s little doubt he’s had his share. But by all accounts, he is also a sentimentalist with a fierce loyalty to his employees. And he harbors a strong attachment to the property O’Malley’s calls home.

“I love that resort,” he says. “I grew up in Hollywood, and every Saturday I’d ride my bike down Hollywood Boulevard to the beach.

“In those days, the resort wasn’t obstructed by the bridge. It was a spectacular site. I’d see that amazing building and wonder about all the rich people who lived there.

“And now I own much of it.”

Under Schecher’s stewardship, locals and tourists alike began pouring into O’Malley’s. They loved to drift away in the island bar’s meme: “No shirt, no shoes, no problem!”

Proudly welcoming “regulars and irregulars,” O’Malley’s fostered a sense of family among patrons and staff. The bond was strengthened by charity events, fishing outings and free Thanksgiving dinners for customers with no local family. Weddings were hosted, and even a funeral, with the ashes of a departed employee spread on the beach in a touching farewell that was attended by more than 200 people.

One of Schecher’s first moves was to hire Joe Udell as general manager, and the owner credits him with O’Malley’s success.

Udell, a soft-spoken man who had managed a fine-dining establishment (Martha’s), seems an unlikely fit for a boisterous beach hangout. Amid G-string-clad coeds clutching umbrella drinks and grinding to the music, he looks like he is lost and trying to find an exit.

It turns out, though, that Udell is a born master of ceremonies who has turned O’Malley’s into an impromptu daily cabaret of “colorful” locals and risqué-seeking tourists. Yet somehow, he manages to make families feel comfortable amid the antics.

“We made O’Malley’s a naughty beach bar that’s family friendly,” he says. (Those families include Gloria Estefan’s, says Schecher’s son, Richard Jr.)

Then, last year, O’Malley’s found itself once again facing the gallows: Lease negotiations broke down, and the outdoor space was shuttered.

Patrons were stunned. Schecher, however, remained unfazed. No stranger to bold decisions, he moved the entire O’Malley’s operation to an indoor-outdoor space he leased upstairs. (The gazebo has since reopened as a bar with a confusingly similar name.)

“I had just completed renovation upstairs, where the O’Malley’s name was born,” he says.

O’Malley’s Upper Deck/Club Atlantic Restaurant — O’Malley’s 2.0 as some tag it — is a far cry from its former incarnation as an ocean pub. If O’Malley’s Upper Deck is like a visit to the beach, it’s a beach with VIP skyboxes.

Exposed brick, high ceilings and wall of windows evoke the tranquil coziness of an alpine ski lodge, but with a tropical Atlantic view. Beachcombers can enjoy an elegant downtown dining experience without having to cross the bridge. And event promoters have discovered O’Malley’s Upper Deck as a throbbing late-night party space.

The menu on the restaurant side of the room, known as Club Atlantic, is by executive chef Martin Moncrieffe, who trained at Club Med Paradise Island and ran the kitchen at Shula’s in Miami Lakes. Favorites include a 14-ounce grilled skirt steak with chimichurri sauce, Bahamian conch chowder and seared mahi-mahi with sweet basil butter. There are also burgers, chicken, pizza, quesadillas and a kid’s menu.

O’Malley’s Upper Deck has an arsenal of TVs for every sport and happy-hour drink specials that last all day. The huge indoor bar area is air conditioned, while the large outdoor patio offers steady Atlantic breezes.

From its origins as a Mexican cantina, O’Malley’s has always had an unconventional spirit that required an unconventional touch. O’Malley’s Upper Deck continues the family bond that turned it into a Hollywood Broadwalk institution.

J.D. Champ is a South Florida writer. He can be reached at jd@jdchamp.com.

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