Leonce Picot's Down Under Deal

by Bernard McCormick Thursday, September 20, 2018 No Comment(s)

It appeared to be a perfect deal. Not only was the Down Under a successful restaurant, but it was an excellent investment for the handful of friends of Leonce Picot who backed him in what at the time was the most popular high-end restaurant in Fort Lauderdale. It also helped advance the careers of a number of people who were associated with it, including the young architect who designed it.

When Gold Coast magazine wrote about the Down Under in the 1970s, it wasn’t about the cuisine, which was excellent. It was about the deal, how well it had turned out for Picot, his investors and, ultimately, his loyal customers. What would seem to be a questionable location, almost hidden below the Intracoastal Waterway bridge at Oakland Park Boulevard, turned out, with the help of the name, to be an asset. It made Picot, who died at 86 on Aug. 24, seem to be a business genius.

Although the Down Under was the first of several successful restaurants (La Vieille Maison in Boca Raton and Casa Vecchia in Fort Lauderdale) owned by Picot, he was not a novice when he conceived his first venture in the late 1960s. He had grown up in Fort Lauderdale and had good business contacts, partly through his association with the Mai-Kai, which at the time was a hangout for a number of prominent business people. He was director of marketing for the restaurant, which had been successful since it opened in 1955. Picot had a good sense of what would make a winning formula.

His location was not his first choice. According to Dan Duckham, a young architect who was designing his first restaurant, Picot hoped to have a Las Olas Boulevard location. That was a logical choice, for in the ’60s there were not many restaurants on what today has become the leading entertainment venue in the area. But Oakland Park Boulevard was not a bad second option. Much of the town’s business was centered on Oakland Park and Commercial boulevards. Commercial was a particularly strong party drag. The late Jack Riker, a popular bartender known as “Turtle,” used to joke that he was working on a book called “How to see Commercial Boulevard on $1,000 a Day.”

Stan’s Lounge had shown that a waterfront location next to the Commercial Boulevard bridge was viable for a restaurant, but it still took a deft touch to make the Down Under the fast success that it was. Duckham created a beautiful design and Picot assembled a group of prominent backers. Part of the deal was free or discounted meals. His investors were there often, bringing friends. Then, as now, people attract people. As in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.”

Within a few years most of the investors had been bought out at a substantial profit, a pleasant bonus to the fact that they had eaten well and often and generally had fun. Dan Duckham, who went on to design almost 80 restaurants, was one of them. He had converted part of his fee into stock. Duckham, now in his mid-80s and still working in Cashiers, North Carolina, recalls: “I quadrupled my money, and we got a $3,000 dividend each quarter—$12,000 a year. The restaurant was going great.”

Indeed it was, and it continued that way for years, lasting under Picot’s ownership from 1968 until 1996. The Sun-Sentinel’s Mike Mayo, who wrote Picot’s obituary a few weeks ago, caught the flavor of the restaurant at its peak. He quoted Picot’s daughter, Laura Picot Sayles, describing busy Fridays when regulars arrived for lunch and were often still at the bar as the dinner hour approached. That may be an understatement. It wasn’t just Fridays. Some weeks it was that busy almost every afternoon. With time it earned the award of an abbreviation—regulars called it the DU. It also inspired some levity. There was a joke about a new cemetery in Plantation to be called the Down Under West.

Smart as he was, not everything Leonce Picot did was brilliant business. A longtime friend was as good a customer as any restaurant could have. His office was close to the restaurant and he was one of those who often went to lunch and was still around at the dinner hour. I don’t know how much he spent a week, but there were days when he dropped $50 on me, for lunch and lubricants. These were 1970s dollars. He entertained customers there all the time. One night he had a spontaneous office party for an employee who was getting married in a few days. He sent a staffer to the bar to get a bottle of Champagne from the bartender. Now, that is technically illegal; a restaurant isn’t supposed to sell stuff for takeout, but it happens all the time, especially for such a steady patron.

Leonce wasn’t working that night, and the manager on duty saw the person leaving with a bottle. There was a confrontation. We don’t know what was said, and in those days nobody had a cell phone to record the incident. But the Champagne did not leave the restaurant, and when our friend arrived at his office the next morning, there was a message to call Mr. Picot before he came in the restaurant again. The conversation was apparently not pleasant, and our friend did not set foot in the place for about eight years. The man eventually did attend a function at the Down Under. When Picot saw him, he could not have been more cordial, the Champagne altercation all but forgotten. All’s well that ends well—to coin a phrase.

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