Lights Are Dim, Not Out

Is the South Beach scene declining?

Even before the catastrophic events of the past weeks, culinary forecasters -- New Times among them -- have been predicting the decline and fall of the South Beach scene. Our seasonal mainstay of models, photogs, and film crews largely declined to shoot around town last year, but prices in restaurants and hotels rose both stratospherically and unjustifiably. Conversely the glut of this season's new eateries will be competing, thanks to a cesspool economy, for an even scarcer dollar. If the current South Beach eateries were an equation, they would read: Too few customers (A-listers or otherwise) + too many choices = survival of the fittest. And those of us who sup around the sand know that only a fistful of these cafés and bistros are actually toned to the taut degree of, say, Suzanne Somers's thighs. The rest? Let's just call them cellulite and offer them up to liposuction.

But now, given the unforgivable hijacking of what is amounting to the American way of life, and taking into account the impending war and the impact it will have on foreign travelers, industry folk are saying the SoBe restaurant biz can kiss the tourist trade goodbye.

As usual I beg to differ. Actually forget that -- I never beg. I just differ.

Yes, there has been an abrupt slowdown, and the Miami Herald reports that the tourism industry is losing upward of $20 million per day, a slide that is sadly resulting in untold layoffs. The Fontainebleau reportedly has about a three percent occupancy -- a meager 36 rooms out of 1200 -- which is less than it did during Hurricane Andrew. The Loews is at about twelve percent. As far as the restaurants go, places like Pacific Time, chef-proprietor Jonathan Eismann tells me, are doing less than half the business they did at this time last year, about 55 covers per night compared with 120. "And that's better than the seven people restaurants like Rumi are seeing," he adds.

Like the tanking economy, however, the dearth of diners has roots that grabbed fertile soil months ago. After the hippety-hoppety violence on Memorial Day weekend that caught police off-guard, restaurants like China Grill and Tuscan Steak reported a decrease in business, particularly during special-events weekends like the Source awards. High valet fees are restricting mobile diners to parking-friendlier neighborhoods, while major construction projects are discouraging restaurant walk-ins. Then there's the traditional summertime shaking out of eateries that just haven't cut the very literal mustard. The restaurant business was already slowing to a stop. The attacks just helped it crash to a halt.

While I'm not exactly an optimist, I do believe that the standstill, at least as it pertains to Miami Beach, is only temporary. Call it a stay of execution. Sooner or later knives will once again chop.

This is not to say that the restaurateurs and chefs around these parts are going to see a lot of cash-box action in the immediate future. Uncertain of where and when the United States will attack, and fearful of flying in general, citizens of just about every nation are staying put. But life will return to some semblance of normalcy. When it does, even if it is during wartime, Americans will want to take vacation. They won't want to leave the relative and arguable safety of the homeland. They will come to Miami -- for the weather, for the cultural influences, for the pleasure-seeking society that will help them forget the tragedy, if only for a few days.

Indeed wartime historically inspires one of two reactions. There's the stoic and patriotic rationing and puritanical behavior; look to prohibition, passed as legislation during the first World War in order to help keep the troops sober, for an example. Or there's a certain controlled hedonism, demonstrated during World War II when, as Andrew Barr writes in Drink: A Social History of America, "A Food Distribution Administration Order of 1943 required brewers to set aside fifteen percent of total beer production for use by the armed forces. In January 1945 the War Labor Board ordered the Teamsters Union to end a strike against Minneapolis breweries because beer manufacturing was considered an essential industry."

Hear hear. As in, when it comes to Miami, number two consumer of the bubbly stuff in the nation, I can already hear the corks popping. No doubt sipping champagne -- make that California sparkling wine -- is a patriotic duty.

Speaking of bubbles, economic necessity will force national magazines to shoot their layouts domestically. So we will most likely see a return of the model/photographer combo, which has classically taken advantage of the excellent light and permanent bikini weather afforded by our subtropical climate. Where beautiful people go, the rest of us are sure to follow. Even if our heads are filled with more than air and CO2.

Even New Yorkers, habitual fine diners, are beginning to seek opportunity -- many patrons, the Baltimore Sun has mentioned, are delighting in eating in some of the most exclusive restaurants, such as Po, Gramercy Tavern, and Babbo, without a reservation. Jonathan Eismann fervently hopes that's true. Because his mother is a Holocaust survivor, his father remembers Pearl Harbor, and his New York apartment is located at Ground Zero, the chef probably has more insight than most. "I feel for everybody -- for me, for you, for the world. I feel torn by the roots. But then I have the selfish thoughts like, Hey, we just opened a three-million-dollar restaurant in SoHo [called Thom in the Thompson Hotel], and people haven't wanted to come down here."

Klime Kovaceski, chef-proprietor of Crystal Café, dismisses those kinds of guilty pangs, both from a business side and a consumer point of view. A Macedonian, he has lived with unsettled violence as a fact of life. "I grew up with the fighting of wars," he recollects. "It's pretty scary, and it obviously affects everyone. But going to restaurants and ordering a cognac and talking for hours is all part of the [wartime] fabric." He notes that his clientele hasn't really fallen off; rather people seem to be dining out as an act of confirmation of life or rebellion against the loss of it.

So while things may not seem so rosy -- or rosé -- at the moment, it is within striking distance that South Beach will manage to emerge victorious from the slump. Of course we must do our part as locals and show some loyalty to our hometown eateries. As a bonus you can also help out by exhibiting an appetite. On October 11 a national campaign will mark the inauguration of the Window of Hope Family Relief Fund, which will aid those who lost relatives who worked in Windows on the World and other culinary support systems of the World Trade Center.

Restaurants, which will include Pacific Time (restaurateurs interested in participating are invited to contact Eismann), will donate monies made on this night, the one-month anniversary of the catastrophe, to the fund. And it may indeed be self-serving to consider helping the victims' families in this way. But no doubt Eismann's pan-Eastern fare is a reward far more singular than the Oreo and juice you get for donating blood, which is never going to make it out of South Florida anyway.

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