“We were running three [restaurants], and it was at that point things started to unravel,” Richter explains. “After you spread yourself a little too thin, and it's not a large organization....” Richter, a well-groomed woman who chooses her words with politically correct care, often lets silence speak for itself. “Things started to go wrong,” she rephrases. “Mark wasn't interested in the Grove. Noble House was coming in [to be partners with Weiner], and they wanted Mark to do things their way, which would never happen. Mark is an artist, and he's certainly not going to conform his food or values to a system.” Put another way, the partnership was falling apart. The pair pulled out of Grove Isle after a year, and one of Mark's most loyal chefs de cuisine, Doug Riess, was installed as an owner of a seemingly “new” eatery. But the business still didn't take off, and Riess and company departed some months later. (Today the spot is Robbin Haas's Baleen.)
At the same time, Mark's Place closed for renovations, and no one knew for sure if it would reopen. It did, in the winter of 1996, but Militello and Richter were still at odds. So in 1997 they decided to close the venerable Mark's Place. “When Mark had ownership, he had other responsibilities,” Richter notes, implying that he wasn't fulfilling those duties. “The success of Mark's Place was largely due to press and PR, but Mark wouldn't cooperate.” Richter also pulled out of the operations end of Mark's Las Olas. “I was still an owner, but I was an inactive owner,” she clarifies.
Militello was creating his own PR problems as well. His comments to the press verged on arrogance. He despised being classified with competitors Norman Van Aken, Allen Susser, and Robbin Haas as a member of the so-called Mango Gang. When he announced the impending closing of Mark's Place, he informed the Herald's Joan Fleishman that “I set out to make Mark's the number one restaurant in South Florida.... Miami was completely untapped.... I think I proved myself.”
Maybe so, but to Richter he also proved himself a difficult partner. These days she tries to remain positive about the experience. “We had a great thirteen-year run at Mark's Place,” she emphasizes. When asked about Militello, words like “talent” and “artist” crop up frequently. But eventually she sighs. “I hate to burn any bridges in life. Sometimes that can't be avoided. Unfortunately hard feelings and ill will does happen.” She went on to open Petrossian in Bal Harbour at the end of 1998, though it too has now closed.
As stranger things have happened, it's conceivable that Richter and Militello might someday make up. But when asked if she would ever work with Militello again, Richter avoids the question with a slight smile. “Well, I'd go back into business with Dennis,” she says.
Next week: Dissension, divestment, and divorce. Max's dynasty shows the wear and tear. Also, Militello as the prodigal chef proves that you can come home again, and even charge $20 for appetizers while you do it.