It took only four months for a five-person group led by business owners Gil Terem and Poplife's Aramis Lorie to transform Piccadilly Garden into the District Restaurant and Lounge.
Since Piccadilly Hearth was renamed and reopened by then-new owner Mary Klein in 1994, the restaurant had earned a reputation among locals as a charming if slightly eccentric hangout. The courtyard outside the restaurant was cluttered with plants, booths, chairs, and tables. Inside, a baby grand piano sat near the middle of the floor, where a lounge singer would play tunes during happy hour. Dinner tables were scattered everywhere, turning the place into an obstacle course that required agile maneuvering to navigate.
After Urbana Development purchased the property from Klein for a reported four million dollars this past January, the company turned over the restaurant business to a group that included Terem, Lorie, Barbara Basti, and Lowry and Ryan Brescia. They gutted the interior, removing the low ceilings and ripping out the bar. They contracted Zero One Eden, a local design firm, to install a new bar -- which they built out of glass that changes colors. Overlooking it is a glass ceiling with running water inside it and a DJ booth. Lorie fitted the restaurant with audio equipment and took the piano home; he says he's having it detuned.
On the restaurant side of the building, the group put in new wooden tables. They hired artist Royi Akavia to draw fanciful pictures on them (one features a smiling, waving crab), and his paintings were hung on the walls. But they stopped short of stuffing the place with dining tables and chairs. Instead one section was reserved for couches and ottomans, and a considerable amount of empty space was left in the middle of the floor. "I hate dirty environments," says Lorie. "I wanted everything to be clean."
Out in the courtyard, they replaced the rickety booths with gleaming white couches, ottomans, and dark wooden tables. These were kept under the rafters circling the area, while the courtyard itself was decorated with the same tables used inside the restaurant. A swath of empty space was left around the water fountain in the middle of the patio, which itself was bordered by palm trees and decorated with colored titles by Aramis Lorie's father, who is a professional artist. White drapes were hung from the rafters.
All in all, the renovations cost some $750,000. From the looks of it, the money was well spent. Today, on a sunny afternoon, the courtyard and restaurant are already filled with diners. At the moment there are not enough waiters to serve everyone, and it seems that even Terem and his associates underestimated how popular the place would be only days after opening.
Some measure of disappointment awaits those who expected a sequel to the neo-glam charm of I/O Lounge, the much-celebrated home of Poplife, which is managed by Lorie and Basti with Ray and Paola Milian and which was held at Piccadilly Garden until last summer. Lorie does say he is developing some event nights. He and Josh Menendez spin an eclectic mix of music there on Thursday nights, and intriguingly there are tentative plans to add a soul-food party on Tuesday and a Sunday jazz brunch. Still Lorie, who just three months ago opened the eatery PS 14 with two business partners, emphasizes: "Our priority with this place ... is really the restaurant aspect. However, since it has a beautiful ambiance and atmosphere, we might as well carry it on into the night."
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Only time can tell which crowd ends up hanging out at the District -- the well-heeled businesspeople who turned its May 7 opening party into a de rigueur affair, or the young club kids who frequent Poplife, a few of whom attended that party and seemed out of place amid all the moneyed interests.
For now, though, the District's aesthetic similarities to Grass, its friendly competitor across the street, highlights the fact that the Design District is evolving from an art lover's esoteric, urban paradise into a hip albeit expensive neighborhood. Both Lorie and Terem say it is joining "the hangout movement," a return to smaller, more intimate places perfect for conversations and, uh, high-priced liquor. At least there's no velvet rope at the entrance.
Maybe it's for the best. Lorie envisions the Design District as a mini-New York, but structurally Miami doesn't have New York's congested skyline, which overlooks its basements full of weird freaks and hidden gems. A better comparison for this city would be Los Angeles, with its concrete sprawl, multiethnic enclaves, and movie-obsessed glitterati. In the rapidly gentrifying Design District, a handful of real estate developers are trying to create an oasis for upwardly mobile people in the middle of what they see as nowhere. They want to avoid the mistakes they believe South Beach made when it changed from an exclusive resort town to an overpriced, 24-hour party trap.
"It's getting too busy on the Beach, and people don't like it," says Terem. "Too noisy, too busy, too dirty."