Planet Versace

So much more than a meal

Most of us remember the shooting death of Gianni Versace at his Miami home, Casa Casuarina, the way our parents recall the assassination of President Kennedy: as a tragedy of international proportions. Many vividly recall the resulting hordes of tourists swarming the Ocean Drive mansion for the gruesome photo op of a lifetime, posing next to the bloodstains left on the steps. A lot of us have kept avid track of what's been happening to the property at 1116 Ocean Dr. ever since -- from when it was first reopened in the fall of 1997 by Versace's siblings Donatella and Santo for a benefit for the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce, to when it was put on the market in 2000 and sold to telecommunications entrepreneur Peter Lofton for $19 million. Hey, that was only four to six million under the asking price. What a bargain.

Far fewer of us recollect how pissed off Miami was ten years ago, at the height of Art Deco restoration fever, when Gianni Versace bought Casa Casuarina (formerly the Amsterdam Palace apartment building) and its neighbor, the Revere Hotel, for his private use. Hardly anybody seems to remember the hue and cry when Versace razed the historic Revere in September 1993 so he could add a pool and gardens to his villa, six months before the Miami Beach City Commission approved an ordinance that would have prevented him from doing just that. Almost no one appears to recall the resentment people felt toward Versace, whose security forces maintained a respectful distance around the beachfront mansion, interrupting for an entire block the party that was Ocean Drive.

And ten years from now, it is doubtful that anyone at all will associate the words Amsterdam and Revere with Casa Casuarina, which is about to be turned into an overwhelmingly pricey boutique hotel and restaurant. Indeed it's possible that even Versace's unwitting role in the hotel's development will have been completely forgotten.

Of course interest will be high at first because of the Versace connection. But after the initial curiosity factor wears off, the hotel and restaurant are going to have to survive on their own merits. Which means that the fifteen suites will need to justify their nightly price tags, currently said to be ranging from $2000 to $6000. And the city's design and preservation groups, which are said to have supported the proposed project precisely because of the lost Revere, will need to reassess their public approval. At the moment manager Tom Mooney has been quoted as saying, "What's happening right now is the step in the right direction.... As a hotel, the building will be made more public." Somehow I doubt that much of the public can afford a six-grand-per-night stay; I foresee a return to the keep-your-hands-off-the-fence Versace days.

As for the restaurant, about which nothing has so far been speculated, it will face the same challenges as any gastronomically oriented place on Ocean Drive, which hasn't seen an expensive success since the Norman Van Aken a Mano days: a big tourist contingency more interested in partying at Mango's than laying out bucks for dinner. A hard time finding -- and keeping -- good help. And a serious lack of interest from local foodies, who disdain going to Ocean Drive restaurants for a multitude of reasons, including challenging parking issues and poor dining value.

In fact the Casa Casuarina café will probably have to perform not just as well as but better than any other new eatery set on opening in competitive South Beach. We Miami diners are perverse, and for some reason we like to see big-name projects like this one, which will be run by Chris Blackwell's Island Outpost (responsible for the Marlin and the Tides hotels), fail. Don't ask me why. It's just our pessimistic nature.

One sure road to a rapid demise would be to memorialize Versace. Don't honor him by putting his favorite dishes on the menu. Don't post runway models at the host stand or decorate the place with a retrospective of Versace's sometimes brilliant and often bizarre work. Above all, don't make the restaurant Italian. Even without the Versace connection, we have far too many of those already.

I suppose a Versace homage could be done tastefully -- tables set with the china he designed, staff dressed in his prints. It could even be subtle, if Island Outpost could get hold of his Picasso collection that was sold at public auction in 1999. But references to Versace, however complimentary, will only remind prospective patrons of the manner of his death. And there's nothing like lost appetites to ensure poor check averages.

Nor is commemorating the Amsterdam Palace and the Revere by utilizing Art Deco décor a smart way for the restaurant to go. I'd be all for it except that there's no hook for a good concept there. Since the Revere has been leveled, any Thirties references have been deleted along with it. Nor is there any fresh ground to cover there. What would Blackwell install, a supper club? Um, been there....

If the Island Outpost people are interested in a concept, however, there is one I think would work. The original structure of Casa Casuarina was built in 1930 for a million bucks. It was a replica of the Alcázar de Colón in Santo Domingo, which as the home of Christopher Columbus's son is supposedly the oldest house in existence in the Western Hemisphere. Despite Columbus's politically correct rep as a purveyor of syphilis and blind ethnocentrism, his travels allowed for the introduction and trade of cultural foodstuffs. The trade routes he established played a huge role in the development of many nations' cuisines, including our own New World regional fare.

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