Along the Avenues: Marking the life of Elwood's founder

By Thom Smith  

    Just like old times … with one big exception. No Elwood.
    Michael Elwood Gochenour had left this world a couple of weeks earlier, but on the night of June 15, which would have been his 60th birthday, his spirit was alive and, as friends who gathered in tribute noted, he no doubt was enjoying the moment.
    “Tonight and tonight only, good evening, Elwood’s,” Delray Mayor Woodie McDuffie declared as he opened the celebration at Johnny Brown’s, which had been Elwood’s until Gochenour sold it two years ago.
    Gochenour died at home, alone, May 30. The East Hampton Star in East Hampton, N.Y., one of his former haunts, reported it was a ruptured esophagus and that he had been ill for some time. A friend at the memorial gathering said oxycontin was involved. At press time, the county Medical Examiner’s Office had not yet released the cause of death.
    But the crowd that turned up at Johnny Brown’s was there to celebrate a life, not mourn a death.
    Jim Jackson, former news anchor at WPBF-Channel 25, was a radio disc jockey when he first met Gochenour in the ’70s in Richmond, Va. He lived in a turn-of-the-century row house that had been converted to a duplex.
    “The ceilings were really high, and really narrow stairs led to the second floor,” Jackson recalled. “It was really a long climb up those stairs. At the top, I walk into the living room, and right in the middle is Mike’s Harley.
    “He’d ride it up the stairs every night because he didn’t want it to get wet or dirty. We became fast friends.”
    In Richmond, Elwood was known as “Oakie.” He was a photographer and a good one, Jackson said, who’d built quite a reputation among the Long Island social elite.
    He’d also been a magazine art director and owned a used car business in Richmond, then tended bar and ran a barbecue restaurant in Amagansett, N.Y., where his curly blond locks earned him the nickname “Frampton.”
    On June 19, old Long Island friends gathered to pay tribute at Stephen Talkhouse, his old haunt in Amagansett.
    The resuscitation of the gas station that became Elwood’s in 1993 cost Gochenour $100,000 and the city Community Redevelopment Agency chipped in $25,000 for the historic preservation.
    “He`s very creative. He delivers an incredibly high quality product,” then CRA Director Chris Brown said. “We encouraged him to come downtown because we needed more food establishments.”
    That creativity dialed a wakeup call for sleepy Delray.
    “He really changed the avenue,” friend Jay Chavez said. “He brought it to life.”
    “He opened without a liquor license,” Elwood’s brother Dave said, “so he gave away the beer and sold the chips.”
    Bikers and beach types, old and young, came for barbecue, beer, rock ‘n’ roll and Elvis tributes.
    Two years ago, Elwood sold the joint for a reported $2 million to Pittsburgh-based Primanti Bros., which reopened it as Johnnie Brown’s, as in Addison Mizner’s pet monkey.
    But Michael couldn’t stay away. A few months ago he announced he was bringing Elwood’s back at 301 NE Third Ave., once occupied by The Annex and Two Thirds Tavern. It was a noble effort that departed quietly just days after Michael.
    He left thousands of grieving friends who knew they’d lost someone special.
    “He never met a stranger,” brother Dave said with a grin, and then added, “We have to move on.”
        While the second Elwood’s is history, the Back Room Blues Bar is into its fourth incarnation. John Yurt got the bug in 1992, opening on West Atlantic then moving to East Atlantic, back to West Atlantic and for four years on Dixie Highway in north Boca.
     That ended last November, but Yurt prefers singing the blues, not crying them, so he jumped at a vacancy in Congress Square on the southwest corner of Congress and Atlantic.
    It’s the farthest west that Yurt has pitched his tent, but he has more space, food and lots of music. JP Soars and the Red Hots (mostly Tuesdays) and Junior Drinkwater and the Westside Blues Band (Wednesdays) are the house bands. Savannah-born Eric Culbertson comes in July 2, and on July 30 Yurt’s grand opening party will have 10 bands going from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m., $5 cover. (860-4679).
     Imagine the legendary Ira Sullivan playing in a garage. Well, not actually where cars park, but in an area with 130 seats  — it’s air-conditioned — in the parking garage by Old School Square. Sullivan’s June 11 show sold out and the sponsoring Creative City Collaborative expects vocalist Dana Paul (July 9), saxmen Ed Calle (July 23) and Turk Mauro (Aug. 13) and Brazilian vocalist Rose Max (Aug. 27) to do the same. Advance tickets are $20, reserved tables for six, $150. (243-7129)

     Four decades ago, the builders of The Bridge Hotel, just inside Boca Inlet, had ambitious plans that included a casino. Slots, roulette and other games of chance still aren’t legal in hotels, so the present owners have put much of the hotel’s $2 million renovation into entertainment.
    In addition to the great view, Carmen’s restaurant on the top floor offers a supper club for dining and dancing. Wednesdays are set aside for Jazz, Bossa & Blues. For just a $10 cover, South Florida’s best singers and musicians perform, while you eat, drink, dance, talk — or listen. Recent acts included Nicole Henry and Anthony Corrado.
    Latin jazz guitarist Jorge Garcia and Grammy-winning violinist Federico Britos perform July 8, and a week later, it’s two shows for the price of one with sax man Michael Kennedy and pianist-vocalist Hal Roland. (368-9500).

    Lake Worth now has The Hideaway (129 N. Federal Highway), offering live and recorded jazz and dancing in a century-old building every day but Monday from “Swing Time Happy Hour” at 4 p.m. until close. It’s the musical love child of Ada Litt and her partner, Reggie B.  (540-4411)

    The announcement in 2003 by legendary restaurateur Daniel Boulud that he was bringing a restaurant to Palm Beach was met with more than a little skepticism. After all, big names chefs had failed before, most notably Charlie Palmer’s Aquaterra.
    Now, it seems everyone loves Café Boulud, even the naysayers. Credit goes not only to Boulud, who demands the best, but to the people who work for him, such as Zach Bell, the executive chef in Palm Beach from the start.
    On June 15, Boulud announced that Bell is leaving and will be replaced by another veteran, Jim Leiken. Both were at his side and surrounded by staff.
    Unlike so many restaurant changes in South Florida, this one is amicable. Bell, who grew up in citrus country west of Orlando, will become executive chef at Addison Reserve, a 700-home country club development west of Delray Beach. He confessed he and wife, Jennifer Reed, former Boulud pastry chef who runs The Sugar Monkey in West Palm Beach, want more family time.

     Down the road in Lantana, the pot continues to boil. We reported last month that Leo Balestrieri was putting his upscale Italian concept Apicius to rest, turning over the Ocean Avenue boite to new managers who would open Bar Italia.
    Now for the rest of the story. . . Balestrieri has brought in new investors from New York. He’ll retain some control, but will turn his attention to a new restaurant — possibly called Harry’s American Bar — in Palm Beach, just north of Tiffany.
       But there’s more  ... A partner in Bar Italia is Mark Militello. An original member of the Mango Gang, which created a culinary identity for South Florida, he cut his relationship with David Manero at The Office in Delray in the spring of 2010, headed south to Trina on Lauderdale Beach and then was going to create Cabo Blue, a grill and tequila bar in the new Wyndham Deerfield Beach Resort.
    But, as of mid-June, it’s Bar Italia. Modified menu, he says, that will feature lower prices. Can’t wait till Militello and Balestrieri disagree. Think Vesuvius.
    Down in Boca, another new restaurant, Philippe Chow, takes over the old III Forks spot on East Palmetto Park Road. Chow has made quite a name for himself with his Philippe eateries in New York and Miami Beach and    has some high-profile followers, including Oprah Winfrey and Paris Hilton.        

         One of his South Beach investors — who is also taking a stake in the Boca venture — is former Miami Heat star Alonzo Mourning.
    Another familiar name is that of Philippe Restaurant Group CEO: Stratis Morfogen is the younger brother of 32 East Executive Chef Nick Morfogen. Some wags already are punning “the Morfogen the better.”
    Head Football Coach Howard Schnellenberger says construction of FAU’s football stadium is ahead of schedule and under budget. Paying for it just became a little easier, thanks to a gift of $2 million from Richard and Barbara Schmidt through the Schmidt Family Foundation. They’ll get an acknowledgement on the scoreboard.
    The university will kick off its 50th anniversary celebration with a “50 on the 50” fundraising gala in the stadium on Oct. 29. The $250 tickets will go to scholarships.
    Although FAU didn’t enroll students until 1964, the Florida Legislature approved it in 1961, so school officials are tying in that year with the stadium’s opening. Alumni are asked to share their experiences at 
               Steve Weagle’s annual Red Cross bike ride is over, but the money’s still coming in.
    “The last figure I heard was $50,000,” the Channel 5 weather anchor said of his 11th annual trek that starts in Sebastian and wraps in Boca.         

       Weagle modified his tour this year to stop for the first time in Delray Beach at Old School Square. The ride was so effortless, helped by favorable winds and temperatures, that Weagle and his four cycle-mates arrived more than an hour early and refreshed with a beer at Bru’s Room.
    A surprise this year was a visit during Weagle’s stop at CityPlace by American Idol’s Taylor Hicks, a big Red Cross supporter who helped with tornado relief in Alabama.

Sold! And considering the real estate market, both the anonymous buyer and the seller, boxing promoter Don King, got good deals.
Sales price: $15.95 million for two homes on adjacent lots on 300 feet of beach in Manalapan. King was asking $19.95 million, down from a 2009 price of $27.5 million, but considering King — actually his late wife, Henrietta — bought it for $14.3 million in 1999, an 11 percent return is better than a short sale.
Jack Elkins of Engel & Volkers handled the sale. All parties agreed not to identify the buyer, but local real estate sources say the new owner is not someone with ties to the Palm Beaches.

 Email Thom Smith at

Jan Norris contributed to this report.

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