The Heat is On
When Miami Beach was incorporated first as a town and then two years later as a city, wealthy entrepreneurs such as John S. Collins, Carl Graham Fisher, the Lummus brothers, and the Pancoast family had high hopes for the tropical paradise. Exactly 100 years later, the collective vision these intrepid pioneers had of drinking tropical cocktails, dining on sumptuous treats, and cavorting in Eden-like circumstances has paid off, not only for Miami Beach but for the entire Miami-Dade County region.
For 2015, the National Restaurant Association has predicted that Florida will be the No. 2 market in the country in terms of growth, with sales projected to reach $34.6 billion. Miami is largely responsible for that position, and CREW-Miami, an association of commercial real estate professionals, confirms the Magic City is "fueling the growth of the entire state's industry."
Such a forecast is noteworthy for any market that isn't New York City, Chicago, or San Francisco. But it's even more remarkable for one that has been devastated by Category 5 hurricanes twice. A city that has absorbed wave after wave of political refugees from Cuba, Haiti, and other countries. And, one that was allowed to fall, during the '70s and '80s, into an economic slump that could have spelled the end of what is today considered one of America's most significant architectural districts. As it turned out, the inclusion of that Art Deco District (otherwise known as South Beach) on the National Register of Historic Places, and its subsequent rescue-by-renovation, was one of the most instrumental elements in Miami's extraordinary comeback and the city's current food-and-beverage market growth.
Landmarks Then and Now
Some restaurants have not only survived since those early days, they've also thrived. Joe's Stone Crab, located at the southern point of South Beach, is a case in point. Open since 1913, it began as a simple lunch counter, serving fish sandwiches; morphed into a seafood restaurant with clients including Al Capone; and, in 1921, began experimenting with stone crabs. Boiled and served cold with mustard sauce at 75 cents per order, stone crabs were an immediate sensation. Joe's began to draw an even larger crowd that included celebrities and socialites and—even when Fort Lauderdale, in the throes of spring break fame, was as far south as visitors would stay—Joe's was considered a mandatory epicurean experience for residents and tourists alike. Today, run by Jo Ann Bass, Joe's granddaughter, with her son Stephen and daughter Jodi, Joe's Stone Crab is a multi-generation enterprise that grossed $35.3 million in 2014—and it doesn't even stay open year-round, closing after stone crab season ends on May 15 and reopening when it begins on October 15.
The Fontainebleau Miami Beach hotel, located about 40 blocks north of Joe's, has a slightly rockier history that reflects the ups and downs that have plagued the city. Once the site of Firestone Mansion, it debuted in 1954 as the largest property in the entire South Florida region and was an instantaneous hit with the reigning luminaries of the time, including Elvis Presley, Bob Hope, and Lucille Ball.
After 25 years, the Fontainebleau, like every other property in the Magic City, lost allure. And when South Beach began to re-emerge from its slump in the mid-1990s, the historic resort was miles north of the excitement.
Enter perhaps the smartest business decision made in the new Millennium: A $1 billion investment to renovate and expand the structure. In 2008, after three years of construction, the Fontainebleau Miami Beach unveiled more than 1,500 luxurious guestrooms, the high-energy LIV Nightclub, and 12 restaurants and lounges. These include Michelin-starred Hakkasan, Scarpetta, and StripSteak and Michael Mina 74, both from award-winning chef Michael Mina.
Bringing in Chef Mina, who also operates Bourbon Steak Miami, one of the two signature restaurants in Turnberry Isle Miami (the other is Corsair by Scott Conant, also of Scarpetta), was a distinct coup.
"Fontainebleau is an iconic destination that draws visitors from all corners of the globe who have a distinct expectation for great experiences," says Joshua Summers, vice president of operations, food, and beverage. "Michael Mina is one of the best out there and … brings an elevated, freshness-focused culinary experience that is a hit for our market."
Nor is the Fontainebleau management content to stay stagnant for a moment, Summers notes. "In the past 18 months alone, we've really pushed the envelope. We developed BleauFish, an ocean-to-table program complete with our own commercial fishing boat and six massive saltwater tanks in our basement, and we opened Chez Bon Bon, a coffee and patisserie shop [in the hotel lobby]."
Not to be left behind, the neighboring Eden Roc Miami Beach partnered with Nobu Hotels to become the Nobu Hotel at Eden Roc Miami Beach, which after a multi-million-dollar renovation, will house the largest Nobu Restaurant and Bar Lounge on the planet.
In Coral Gables, the celebrated Biltmore Hotel, a national historic landmark, is also keeping up with its contemporaries, albeit with a smaller food-and-beverage program that stays true to its roots. Its signature French restaurant, Palme d'Or, has undergone several revisions throughout the years, from offering nouvelle cuisine to molecular gastronomically influenced fare with James Beard–nominated chef Philippe Ruiz. Now the restaurant offers a prix fixe tasting extravaganza under Michelin-starred executive chef Gregory Pugin, who imports ingredients daily from his native France.
From a caretaker's standpoint, careful and intelligent investment in viable concepts—not wholesale change—is the key to keeping a property compelling. Shareef Malnick, who took over the beloved Rat Pack–era restaurant The Forge from father Al in 1990, has installed, among other improvements, an Enomatic wine system to complement the establishment's famed cellar. The wine collection took a multi-million-dollar hit when Miami Beach lost electricity for weeks after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, but the restaurant has added "Winebar" to its moniker and now serves 80 vintages by the glass.
"I reinvested in the restaurant in part because the city has been consistently improving as a tourist destination and as a bastion for international and national migration," Malnick says.
Magic City On the Move
Miami has a reputation for being a place for transients, and that's not completely incorrect. Part of what creates the city's compelling culinary energy is the immigration that continually sweeps through, adding layer after layer of flavor. But just as the restaurateurs and chefs of Miami's iconic properties have been shepherding them into the future, the stalwarts of the city's initial revitalization have also remained true to the region.
The original James Beard Award–winning outliers of New World Cuisine, once dubbed the "Mango Gang"—Mark Militello, Douglas Rodriguez, Allen Susser, and Norman Van Aken—have all moved on from the restaurants that made their reputations in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But they've stayed local for the most part, working on various projects throughout the decades.
Allen Susser, for instance, now owns and operates the Daily Melt, a chain of grilled cheese sandwich shops that on the surface is 180 degrees from his special occasion Chef Allen's, but includes all the little touches that turn it into something special—like homemade mango ketchup and house-cured pickles.
As for Van Aken, he is readying a cooking school in the freshly remodeled Vagabond Hotel in the Miami Modern Historic District, where the restaurant, innovative cocktail bar, and pool lounge are hip hangouts—quite an accomplishment for a derelict property that recently housed a rundown, if architecturally worthy, motel. Vagabond Restaurant & Bar partner Christopher Wang says the opportunities to re-evaluate such properties and install high-energy establishments in them are the culmination of Miami experiencing "an economic boom unrivaled by most cities in this country."
Now is perhaps the golden era for the Magic City, as Wang adds there is "a once-in-a-lifetime confluence of different people and ideas in Miami. For restaurateurs, Miami affords so many conceptual options because the demand just keeps building both in numbers as well as cultural representation. … It is one of the epicenters for entrepreneurship in the world at the moment."
Graziano Sbroggio, founder of the Graspa Group, is one such entrepreneur and (at press time) was preparing to re-open TiramesU. The groundbreaking restaurant launched on a largely untouched Ocean Drive in 1988 and moved to Lincoln Road in 1997. In April 2014, Sbroggio decided to move the restaurant back to its origins—or at least as close as possible. Now on Washington Avenue, TiramesU retains Chef Fabrizio Pintus, who has been executive chef since 2010.
Meanwhile, Sbroggio and Graspa Group have introduced revolutionary projects all over town, from Spris and Segafredo L'Originale to Salumeria 104 and Midtown Oyster Bar. The latter, an "ocean-inspired" departure for Graspa Group that serves dishes such as crab cakes, Maine lobster rolls, and "Oyster Rockafella," became a resoundingly popular destination in less than a year.
Sbroggio hints that even with two restaurants debuting this summer, he's neither finished nor forcing the issue of expansion. "It's important to mention that, in our growth process, every step is carefully considered to ensure we provide our patrons with the highest quality ingredients, with a knowledgeable team, and with a welcoming laid-back environment. And although Miami is going through a growth spurt in the restaurant industry, we want to nurture the fundamental values of it in our concepts."
Other small, Miami-based groups similarly see multiple opportunities. As one of three partners of The Pubbelly Restaurant Group—which owns Pubbelly Gastropub, Pubbelly Sushi, Barceloneta, and PB Station and Pawn Broker (coming this fall)—Andreas Schreiner says, "The city was still starting its growth in the gastronomic scene back in 2010 when we started. We saw more opportunity here versus a city like Chicago that was already at the forefront of all the major culinary trends."
Chef Cindy Hutson and business-life partner Delius Shirley are also devoted to growing the local epicurean scene, and opened Norma's on the Beach in 1994. When the location in an outdoor pedestrian mall became too, well, pedestrian for their tastes, they moved their business to Coral Gables' Miracle Mile and renamed it Ortanique on the Mile. Currently, the pair, who also run restaurants in the Caribbean, are working on Zest and Zest MRKT, Asian-Latin-Caribbean fusion restaurants scheduled to open this fall in the Southeast Financial Center.
Shirley, who sees a thriving market for growth, offers this advice: "Get in now while you can because the city is being snatched up à la minute."
The Sixth Borough and Beyond
New York City and Miami have always enjoyed a reciprocal relationship, so much so that many visitors fondly refer to Miami as "the sixth borough." While Miami enjoys the tourism trade from the Northeast in the winter, it has also benefited from chefs and restaurateurs who see the Magic City as an easy way to expand outside Manhattan without changing time zones.
Samba Brands Management is just one of the restaurant groups that has been investing in the area for more than a decade. Shimon Bokovza, concept developer and partner of Samba Brands Management, recalls how warmly the locals received SushiSamba Miami Beach. "We opened right after September 11th , and that was very tough. However, it was amazing to see how the community came together and embraced us." Today, with four restaurants in the city, including the James Beard–nominated Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill in Midtown Miami, Bokovza says, "We are solidifying Miami as our No. 1 market in the United States."
Another New Yorker come South is internationally acclaimed chef Daniel Boulud, who first opened in South Florida in 2003 in Palm Beach. Chef Boulud acknowledges that in opening db Bistro Moderne Miami in the JW Marriott Marquis Miami, "We were early to the scene and it just keeps getting better. We like that we appeal to local residents and travelers, and that people seek us out for the quality of our cuisine." Partnering with Ricardo Glas, whom he calls "a transformational developer," Boulud continues, "We were and are excited about the future of downtown Miami and the buildings and the people the area is attracting. The economies of the Caribbean and South America keep growing, and we want to be part of that."
He's certainly not alone, and the chefs willing to speculate on opening Miami restaurants are no longer mainly from New York or Chicago. A list of chefs and restaurateurs who recently came to town or are in the process of opening reads like an international Who's Who of gastronomy: Tom Colicchio, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Stephen Starr, Danny Elmaleh, Juan Manuel Barrientos, Itay Sacish, Paul Qui, Francis Mallmann, Gaston Acurio, Masaharu Morimoto, and Jonathan Lane.
Unfortunately, growth doesn't always arrive without the pain of change. New construction in areas like Downtown/Brickell, Wynwood and the Design District, South Beach, and Doral promise more space for culinary ventures, but can impinge on restaurants that already exist. Chef and restaurateur David Bracha has seen an 18 percent drop in business at his River Oyster Bar on South Miami Avenue thanks to construction. Still, Bracha expects he will remain in the location at least three more years. He's taking this opportunity to update the River's interior and rework the menu.
Likewise, James Beard Award–winning chef Michelle Bernstein and husband David Martinez closed the eponymous Michy's on the Upper East Side in June 2014. After debuting Seagrape at the Thompson Miami Beach in November, Bernstein and Martinez unveiled CENA by Michy in May, a completely reworked concept in the same Upper East Side space.
Michael Sullivan, who like Chef Bernstein is a Miami native, is also experiencing growing pains. In June, he closed his well-liked business, Over the Counter—the first high-end, over-the-counter eatery in the city—to focus on the launch of Golden Fig, a sustainable farmhouse restaurant with regional and seasonal ingredients informing the menu. He's ready to take a chance on something new, he says, precisely because there's change all around him. "It's an interesting time for us because there has been an incredible amount of momentum over the past few years. Each day that goes by, more big-name chefs are making their way to Miami," he says. "With that in mind, I believe it makes Miami a safer bet for future growth. There are multiple opportunities to be the first restaurant doing certain things, whether it's the food, décor, or location, which can make it easier to have a more successful restaurant."
Others, however, are experiencing such rapid growth they almost have no choice but to expand. Juan Carlos Marchan, vice president of Centurion Restaurant Group, which operates Bulla Gastrobar in Coral Gables and soon-to-be Bulla Gastrobar in Downtown Doral, as well as Pisco y Nazca forthcoming in Downtown Doral and Town & Country, says his company has seen phenomenal success. "Our goal [was] to return our investment in a period of at least five years," he says. "With our Bulla brand, we have achieved that in three years."
Certainly no one can question that the Spanish and Latin American interest in Miami is intense, perhaps at an all-time high. That attention is creating a spiral of additional interest. Pablo Fernandez-Valdes, Barcelona native and co-founder of KLIMA Restaurant and Bar on South Beach, says, "Some world-class names from the culinary world—including from South America and Europe—are viewing the region as a serious investment opportunity. … It is undeniably the right time to invest in Miami and capitalize on its growing economy."
Whether it's investment or concept, the concentration on all things Spanish and Latino isn't likely to suddenly dissolve. MR Hospitality has hired eminent executive chef Jean Paul Lourdes to head the forthcoming Marion Mediterranean restaurant and El Tucán Cuban cabaret. And the Pacha Group is working several Miami-based managing partners on an exclusive Ibizan nightlife concept called Lío—a fusion of club, restaurant, and cabaret—that will open its first international location in Miami Beach in November.
As it is elsewhere, Miami's craft beer industry is exploding, with several breweries, including J. Wakefield, Wynwood Brewing Company, and Concrete Beach all recently debuting.
Also impressive is the amount of promotion that imports such as Estrella Damm are willing to undertake. Brewed in Barcelona, Estrella Damm finds a unique way to market its product by pairing the beer with prix fixe menus in local Spanish- and Latin-influenced restaurants including Dolores But You Can Call Me Lolita, Fooq's, Jimmy'z Kitchen Wynwood, multiple Novecento locations, Perfecto Gastrobar, Piripi, Tapas y Tintos, The Embassy, Tongue & Cheek, Wynwood Kitchen and Bar and Xixón.
Additionally, the Miami region is home to two national wine and spirits distributing companies: Southern Wine & Spirits and Premier Beverage Company. No doubt, the quality wine, beer, and liquors that flood this market as a result enhance restaurant numbers and inspire the city's reputation as a culinary destination. Festivals, including the Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival, are numerous. And launches of specialty liquors are commonplace—like Whistle Pig's Old World 12 Year Whiskey at barbecue joint Pride & Joy in Wynwood.
Bacardi is also based in Miami and debuted its Bacardi Tangerine in July. While Afrohead Rum, crafted in small lots, was launched in Miami in January. Other luxury, independent spirits companies, such as William Grant & Sons, hold their national sales meetings in the city, precisely because the tourism, dining, and mixology scene enables sales associates to be tutored in a "show, don't tell" way.
Largely, then, the mixology scene is driving sales. Sparked by well-traveled barmen including Gabriel Orta and Elad Zvi of The Broken Shaker, who helped design many restaurant and lounge cocktail lists including W South Beach's Living Room. The booze boom has been beneficial to drinkers and distillers alike.
For the aficionado, there's now a host of bars and lounges where inventive cocktails are the norm not the revelation: The Drawing Room Bar & Lounge at the Shelborne Wyndham Grand South Beach, for example, where mixologist Albert Trummer labels his menu "A Selection of House Medicines;" The Rum Line, an al fresco Caribbean-inspired bar on the terrace of the St. Moritz Tower at the Loews Miami Beach Hotel; the Regent Cocktail Club in the Gale South Beach, where master bartender and managing partner Julio Cabrera mixes classics; and Radio Bar South Beach and Bodega Taqueria y Tequila, both from Menin Hospitality.