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A tourist trap, of course. Or, if you prefer, Tantra.
It seems as if South Beach restaurant Tantra, now in its terrible twos, has achieved something of a detrimental reputation, at least as far as the resident dining public goes. But then, notoriety is practically guaranteed when the place is featured on tabloid news shows like the E! channel's Wild on South Beach, and when celebrities such as Matthew McConaughey pop in to dance barefoot and turn somersaults on the sod.
As a result Tantra has started making the papers in less than flattering ways: This year New Times awarded it “Best Tourist Trap,” and the Herald recently published a dispute between owner Tim Hogle and millionaire Ron Leyland over a $700 bill. Leyland and party refused to pay after they claim they found a palmetto bug in one of the meals; Hogle says the insect was a rubber fake. He'd offered the party the $85 lobster and a bottle of champagne worth another $85 -- complimentary as restaurant etiquette goes, perfectly appropriate actions; but apparently Leyland wanted him to pick up the entire tab. So they scrammed without serving up the cash, but got chased down by the bodyguards and police Hogle had set on them. Hogle got his money, but he also got a police report on file, which means reporters have access to it. Voilà! Unappetizing publicity.
But that's what happens when you're a tourist trap. Or, if your prefer, Tantra. Hogle winces every time the words “tourist trap” are uttered. “The aphrodisiac approach to food is usually considered immature or gimmicky -- most of the time rightly so,” he admits. “You could walk out of here and say sex sells. However, we are very serious about the authenticity and the ancient origins of this diet.”
The diet to which he refers is not one of oysters and Spanish fly, but of the cuisine he and James Beard-nominated chef Willis Loughhead have concocted. In doing his research on Tantra -- both the restaurant and the spiritual tradition -- Hogle discovered that spices had not been added to the food of ancient cultures to make it taste better. They were used by medicine women, who sprinkled flavorings like cinnamon and vanilla beans over basic sustenance to treat a tribe's illnesses and make its women bear more children. “It was to make them more virile, not horny. It was to make sure that the species survived,” he explains. In Tantra the restaurant, then, “it's not that food equals Viagra. It's just that the food, for evolutionary reasons, will make you feel sexy.”
But there's another component Hogle wants his customers to feel: emotion. Tantra is the practice of controlling your senses, he enthuses. “It's not crazy sex or crazy eating.” Still, he expounds, the only two times that human beings engage all five of their senses are when they are having sex or eating food. If you can learn to control your senses, then you can turn them on your inner self, learning not only to acknowledge your feelings but to own them, something Western religions seem to discourage.
Yet apparently it's more appropriate, or maybe just more acceptable, for women to engage these senses than men. Tantra's customer base is 58 percent female, 42 percent male. Hogle is convinced that females are drawn to the restaurant because of its “goddess” properties. “When we designed the interior of the restaurant, our mission was to build it for women, and once they come, to protect them.... Previously we had observed the male-oriented design vastly predominated the restaurant industry. Hence the overwhelming and continued success of Tantra is fueled by women.”
How so, exactly? Well, Hogle describes goddess-based religions as “Heaven on Earth, rather than Heaven far away, as it is in patriarchal religions. They're strong on earthy elements, on the cycle of moons and tides.” So the grass floor represents earth; the water wall stands in for, well, water; the pressed copper bars are for the metal; candlelight for fire; the fiber-optic ceiling is to bring in sky. “We brought elements as raw as possible into the space. They make for the soothing of human spirit,” Hogle explains. But, he adds, the pillows are really just to “make it luxurious.”
As for protecting us females, Hogle admits to screening potential patrons for pick-up bar qualities. If he or his bodyguard/bouncers are confronted by a large group of, well, let's just call them customers, who don't have a dinner reservation and only want to hang at the bar, they'll likely be denied entrance. Despite the DJs spinning tracks, the dancing on speakers, and the sexual scenes flashing on the walls, Hogle insists, “Tantra is not a bar or a club. It is a fine-dining restaurant where you're allowed to have fun. The atmosphere is like a dinner party rather than a club experience. Patrons feel free to move around, talk to friends at the bar, be unstructured.” But, he adds sincerely, they're not allowed to treat the place like a swingers' club. Tantra may promote sensuality, but it doesn't want raucous sex -- or even the bargaining for it -- on the premises.
Hogle's real hope for Tantra is that it teaches men a thing or two. “Men have been in control for so long, they've warped women's mentality about their own beauty and strength,” he says. “Guys who don't like the way women are have only themselves to blame. It's the men of this race who are going to have to evolve first.” Getting in touch with your sensuality, what some men might consider feminine, is one way to do that. Hogle considers himself a feminist, and bestows the ultimate compliment on his chef: “He's in touch with his feminine side.” In traditional terms that means he can cook. From Hogle's point of view, it means he can also open himself up to emotional possibilities.
Like love? Absolutely. Hogle knows about half a dozen couples who have been matched for life at Tantra; he himself, unmarried until his late forties, met his wife there. “If Tantra had failed -- and it could have, given our bad location and a landlord who wouldn't let us fix up the building -- it still would have been a personal success for me.”
But Tantra hasn't failed. In fact despite local condemnation of prices and gimmick, Tantra has been invited to open in Hollywood, near Mann's Chinese Theater, and in Las Vegas. The latter project will be completed first, by year's end, and cost about ten million dollars-- chump change in Vegas, but about nine million more than the South Beach Tantra cost. Hogle and Loughhead also are putting together an aphrodisiac cookbook, and a TV Food Network about wine.
As for the so-called gimmicks, Hogle says he tried to remove the grass floor and stop showing Kama Sutra, but customers complained. So he just shrugs about them now, and freely admits it was his wife who first started dancing on the speakers until the trend caught on. “I don't know when it became politically incorrect to have fun. But the restaurant business isn't about food alone. I see the whole industry as entertainment.”
So feel free to scoff and call the place a tourist trap. Proprietor Hogle, of course, would have you call it Tantra. In the end, though, he's the one laughing all the way to the bank. Or to the bedroom, if you prefer.