Maybe the South Beach restaurant boom reflects this region's rich cuisine. Or maybe it's just another get-rich-quick scheme.
If you can't stand the heat...
"Okay guys, I'm dying!" croaks Jeffrey Applebaum as he shuffles back and forth in front of a long, stainless steel counter under the bright lights of his kitchen. "Come on, we're half an hour on this ticket! Let's get this food up! It's too hot in this place! I'm dying!"
Applebaum, a short, chubby man wearing restaurant-issue checkered pants bunched at his heels, rips a slip of paper off a small printing machine, "Three roast chickens, two meat loafs," the executive chef hollers, jamming the paper into a clip above the counter where a dozen other orders waver in the insufficient breeze from a small fan perched on a chair nearby. "Need a refire on this ravioli, and a lamb medium-rare." Applebaum's ten-strong kitchen staff is going full bore. "OK, let's pull it out! Roast chicken coming, two New Yorks rare. Fire another steamed fish. Pierre, fire a double shrimp. For Didier's table, two lambs medium-rare, ravioli. On the grill I need to fire a mahi and a breast." All the while, waiters, waitresses, and runners quickly ferry out the beautifully bedecked plates, held aloft on large trays.
Amid the whoosh of the oven vents, the sizzle from the grill and saute pans, and the perpetual chatter of the printer spewing out computerized orders from up front, there's little talk. Speaking wastes precious time. "OK, the breast is up with the two grouper specials, and I need a meat loaf, no gravy, right now!" Applebaum prods his four line cooks -- two on saute, two on grill -- who labor silently over their furnaces with a remarkable economy of movement. Brows and forearms glistening with sweat, squinting through the smoke and heat, the men resemble a 1930s WPA propaganda poster.
Applebaum grabs two plates adorned with seared rare tuna, mixed greens, and a miso vinaigrette. He garnishes the dish with black sesame seeds and delicately adjusts the arrangement with his pudgy fingers. The plate is out the door on a waiter's tray within seconds. It's as close to actual food preparation as Applebaum's going to get tonight. At 10:30 on a Saturday night, the crunch-time ballet has begun, and Applebaum has a dance to choreograph. "Okay guys! We're getting busy out there!" the chef warns, ripping a series of orders off the printer. "It's time ...to start ...hammering!"
Beyond the two heavy swinging doors it's all fun and beauty and money and revelry and gluttony in the dining room of The Strand restaurant on Miami Beach's Washington Avenue. Beneath the roar of conversation among the thirty- and fortysomething crowd, the funk music is but a muted throb. A normal speaking voice won't cut it. The waiters are in overdrive, it's three-deep at the bar, and anyone waiting for a table had better get comfortable for an hour, minimum. Charles Schreiner, one of three Frenchmen who bought the lease to the six-year-old restaurant in August of 1991 for $600,000, schmoozes with patrons and selectively distributes gold-laminated passes for a nightclub he recently debuted up the block. Beneath his long blond mane of corkscrew curls, Schreiner wears the smug grin of a host whose party is -- or at least appears to be -- going precisely as planned.
Two blocks away, on Ocean Drive, a chilly breeze is blowing off the Atlantic. Most of the 30-plus restaurants and watering holes on the strip are packed -- inside and out. But at the Sugar Reef, an outdoor restaurant nestled between the Bentley Hotel and the Monaco Hotel near Fifth Street, the breeze blows perhaps a little cooler. Here, a handful of people wearing wind-breakers and sweatshirts are hunched at the tiki bar. All but three of the 24 tables are empty.
"When the weather's good, we do fine," owner Rich O'Keefe says glumly. "But we've had a rainy year." He is leaning against the preparation counter in the kitchen of the restaurant he opened with his brother and two other investors five months ago, nursing a cranberry juice through a straw and swapping tales of past culinary exploits with the cook, Donald Usher. Except for a steak Martinique and a jerk chicken under way, there isn't another order in sight.
Until he bought Sugar Reef, which opened on the site of the short-lived Palm Cafe, O'Keefe was the executive chef for a restaurant in a Palm Beach County hotel, overseeing a kitchen staff of 45 and hauling down a healthy salary. "But the company went more corporate and there were memos for everything," he explains. "I had to have meetings to change the menu. I was gray and balding. Now it's growing back." The 30-year-old restaurateur grips a tuft of dark brown hair on his head. "No shit." The reminiscences get more and more wistful as the two frustrated cooks speak of kitchens past -- the real hot ones that cranked out 200, 300, and more meals a night.
O'Keefe and his partners originally served standard seafood fare, but business was slow. O'Keefe won't say how much he sunk into the place -- he shifts uncomfortably and looks away at the slightest mention of investments -- and when asked whether he thinks he will at least make back his money, he replies, "I hope it will soon. I don't want to get much into that." He looks down at his boat shoes. "The thing is that with me and my brother, this is all we know and we're kind of stuck in it."
This past month, in an effort to boost the business, the partners hired Donald Usher and changed the menu to Caribbean.
Now they're considering a name change, too. "It's a learning experience. I guess we were a little slow catching on," O'Keefe says, gazing at the empty seats, at the cloaked throngs hustling by along Ocean Drive. "It's just getting through the first year that's hard. If you get through the first year, you're all set. At least that's what they tell me down here."
There was once a time, not very long ago, when activity in the local restaurant industry meant a menu change at Wolfie's. And for heady debate, local food fiends would guess the early-bird special at the Rascal House. "Even five years ago," observes Alan Richman, GQ magazine's food and wine columnist, "Miami was the black hole of dining."
But all that has changed. National restaurant critics and food writers say once-vibrant dining capitals such as New York and Los Angeles have stagnated. Other major markets -- Chicago, Boston, Washington, Dallas, and Houston included -- are merely sputtering along. (The exception is San Francisco, which remains relatively healthy.) "I'll tell you how bad it is up here," groans GQ's Richman, speaking from Manhattan. "People spent six months in a tizzy over who was going to be the new chef at Le Cirque, and everyone who eats there is so old they can't taste the food."
Not so in Miami. Nowhere in the nation is the dining landscape transforming as quickly as it is here. That change is most radically evident in tumultuous and combustible South Beach; restaurant industry experts say that the area has experienced more recent growth per square mile than anywhere else in the U.S. Coral Gables, of course, was always regarded as the de facto gastronomic center of Dade County, and it still offers a relatively traditional view of fine dining preferred by the charity-ball circuit and the Miami elite. But the Gables establishments, some of which have been in existence since the Seventies, have shifted increasingly to the back of the dining room as the glitzy and exuberant enterprises of South Beach commandeer the prime tables like ill-mannered teenagers.
One simple and vivid measure of the Beach's growth as a food nexus is Ocean Drive: in 1985 only one sit-down restaurant (located in the Cardozo Hotel at Thirteenth Street) was open on the block; there are now more than 30. According to City of Miami Beach statistics, more than 80 full-service restaurants currently operate in the triangle between Dade Boulevard, the bay, and the ocean.
And a lot of people are looking for someone else to do the cooking: a 1992 survey by the National Restaurant Association, a trade association for the food-service industry, found that out of every dollar Dade residents spend on food, 52.1 cents go to restaurants. (By comparison, Bostonians spend 49.5 cents, New Yorkers 48.9 cents, and San Franciscans 48 cents out of every dollar. The national average is 42 cents.) And that doesn't even begin to calculate the dollars dished out by hungry tourists.
Yes, there's a fortune to be made somewhere in those numbers, but the question is how? And where? And serving what? There certainly hasn't been a shortage of people trying to find the answers. Says Andrew Delaplaine, the editor of the Beach weekly Wire and an industry refugee himself: "It's difficult to walk a block in South Beach and not find someone who was involved in the restaurant business."
Restaurateurs fancy themselves as pretty daring people. On the scale of courage, the average restaurant proprietor places himself right up toward the top, somewhere between smoke jumper and mercenary soldier. Fighter pilot? They have parachutes! Inner-city police officers? They have guaranteed salaries and pension plans! Without much prompting, restaurant owners will rattle off statistics telling just how brave they are to fool around in a business like theirs. Eight out of ten restaurants fail in their first two years, they say; only one will see its fifth birthday. They brag about these numbers, seeming to thrive on the threat of failure.
Indeed, restaurants are as perilously fragile as a souffle. An endless array of circumstances can cause a place to collapse, including culinary inconsistency, a confused concept, unflattering press, disorganized management, awful service, unfavorable weather, and just plain terrible food. Too often, industry specialists say, people enter the business with a limited knowledge of what they're doing. While hairdressers need to pass certification exams and cabbies are required to have chauffeur's licenses, anybody can serve food with the right building permits and enough money. "People talk about the riskiness of the restaurant business, but that's because they don't know it," scoffs Mike Hearst, professor of restaurant management at Florida International University and past president of the National Restaurant Association. "Many people go in on the basis of a good idea and a good location, and they like food."
Usually, Hearst stresses, that's not enough.
Attracted by the gold-rush mentality that has governed the past few years of South Beach development, dozens of entrepreneurs have stumbled onto the Beach carrying satchels of cash and grand strategies to reap the elusive spoils of the restaurant wars. Some of their ventures were critical raves and wildly popular. Others were stillborn. Most lost a lot of money. A stroll through Miami Beach's food-service graveyard offers insight into the vagaries of the trade:
*Andrew Delaplaine had been a playwright and publisher without any restaurant experience to speak of when he entered the business in 1987. That year he and his sister Renee took an old Rolls Royce garage on Jefferson Avenue and Fifth Street, and converted it into a theater and bar called Scratch. Soon Scratch had become a theater and supper club by evening, mutating into a dance hall at night. One of only a handful of dining spots on the Beach -- The Strand, Osteria del Teatro, Mezzanotte, and Tropics International were about the only competition -- Scratch helped set the early standard for style and hipness in the area, even though many who remember the club's heyday don't number the food and service among the highlights.
The success didn't last. "We think we made over a million the first year. I'm not sure; I was too drunk to count," says Dela-plaine, perched on a chair at his niece's Passport Cafe and Market on Collins Avenue, cradling his third glass of white wine in 45 minutes. "My job was to fill the place up, which I did," he continues. "Meanwhile, I pursued my oblivion at the bottom of a glass of Scotch. By the time I sobered up, I was too late to save the place."
Besides his own personal excesses, Delaplaine blames Scratch's demise on underhanded employees who robbed him blind. "By the time we put in proper management, the cash flow -- I don't know how you'd say this in financial terms, but it was hemorrhaging. If we'd been properly managed and financed, we'd still be around." Scratch closed about eighteen months after it opened. In 1991, when Delaplaine was forced to file for bankruptcy because of an unrelated legal dispute, he lost the old garage. He figures the entire Scratch venture cost him one million dollars. "It was the perfect example," he chirps, "of a glorious failure."
*Remember Lucky's? Opened in 1988 at the renovated Park Central Hotel on Ocean Drive, the restaurant quickly became one of the most popular dining and drinking spots in Miami Beach. "Lucky's wasn't just a restaurant," gloats 49-year-old developer Tony Goldman, who owns restaurants in both New York and Miami Beach, "it was an integral part of a statement and an articulation of courage and commitment and taste and style."
At the time of Lucky's startup, Goldman already owned eighteen properties in the then-forlorn Deco district. He says he poured one million dollars into the restaurant and opened the place "as a means to establish the reputation of the hotel." Less than three years later, though, it was closed. This despite a glowing review in 1991 by Bryan Miller, restaurant critic for the New York Times, describing Lucky's as "the classiest restaurant in South Beach."
Goldman says it was the summers that crushed Lucky's. Indeed, if there's one aggressor that has plagued every South Beach restaurant, it's the off-season doldrums. Thousands of big spenders can fill a place to bursting from November to April, but the business can't just pack up and hibernate for the rest of the year. That was the case with Lucky's, says Goldman, who recently opened the Riviera Kitchen and Bar in his Imperial Hotel on Ocean Drive. But as a strategy, Goldman insists the restaurant was a raving success. "It served as a beacon of style, of taste, of what one could do, and it showed the restaurant world of New York that there was opportunity here," he boasts. "Back then, to start to think of a high-priced restaurant without a tablecloth was almost a shandeh, as we say in Yiddish. It was almost an absolute no-no. You don't do that! I brought the 21st Century into the community in every way!"
*Al Amir, a Middle Eastern restaurant, opened at the end of 1989 on Washington Avenue. Excellent reviews didn't stop its sudden closing in May 1991. "It was doing very well for the first few months, then the Gulf War came and that was the beginning of the end, as they say," explains owner Michael Levkovitz, speaking from California, where he says he's involved in other restaurant ventures.
Al Amir experienced about a 50 percent dropoff in business during the war, the owner notes. But even before Iraq, business hadn't been great. "Maybe it was too elegant for the community," Levkovitz conjectures. "Maybe it wasn't a cozy place where
you can walk in wearing shorts and T-shirts. I think we succeeded in building one of the nicest places in town. But unfortunately people like to go to places like Mezzanotte and eat pasta and squeeze
into a noisy place where they can't have any concentration."
*Former model Gary James opened ESP on Espanola Way with two partners in June 1991 and closed it the following July. What he imagined to be a "casual bistro-type place with diner-ish food," he says, became a fashionable and fancy restaurant with "chandeliers, tablecloths, a piano, lots of browns and blacks. And as we went along, we thought the food had to get more sophisticated and upscale." James blames one of his partners for forcing the restaurant in a different direction than they had originally planned.
In the end, James explains, neither the owners nor the patrons were clear on what ESP was supposed to be. "You really have to have a concept where everyone has the same feeling about what it is," he says. "Look at all the successful restaurants: you can put them in unambiguous categories." James says he lost about $300,000 in the venture.
Undaunted, he opened The Spot, a popular bar, later that year and is a partner in Tony Goldman's Riviera Kitchen and Bar on Ocean Drive.
While starry-eyed restaurateurs scrambled to capitalize on the South Beach boom -- and there were far more failures than successes -- a seismic shift was under way on the Greater Miami restaurant scene, one that was strong enough to rattle silverware halfway around the world. Seemingly out of nowhere, the national culinary press descended, hailing Miami as the nation's newest dining emporium.
"Something new is happening under the tropical sun in this metropolis by the sea," gushed Bryan Miller in a March 1991 New York Times review of several Miami restaurants. "From Coral Gables to Miami Beach, from North Miami to Little Havana, a colorful new wave of cooking is washing over the landscape." It's a "gastronomic revolution," Miller declared.
Others took up the cry, including correspondents from Time, Bon Appetit, Gourmet, and Esquire, and soon glassy-eyed food writers across the U.S. were filling Miami-bound planes, their notebooks and American Express cards in hand. "A generation of young chefs has made Florida cuisines a New World marvel worth a detour," trumpeted Time in August 1991. "Food lovers from all over are unfolding napkins in Southern Florida." Waxed Esquire this past fall, "In America, there's no better place to eat."
Most of the attention was lavished on four chefs -- Mark Militello of Mark's Place and Allen Susser of Chef Allen's, both of which are located in North Miami; Douglas Rodriguez of Yuca in Coral Gables; and Norman Van Aken of a Mano in Miami Beach. Their accomplishment: an inventive style of cooking varyingly dubbed "New World cooking," "nuevo mundo," "nuevo Cubano," "fusion cooking," and, by the Timesman, "Miamiamerican." The cuisine draws on regionally relevant ingredients: tropical fruits including papayas, mangoes, plantains, key limes, malangas, guavas and coconuts; vegetables like yuca, chayote, boniato, hot chilies, and black beans; and seafood such as pompano, snapper, grouper, and Indian River soft-shell crabs. The four chefs's names, repeated again and again, became a mantra. Susser, Van Aken, Militello, Rodriguez. Susser, Van Aken, Militello, Rodriguez.
In the process of heralding the arrival of this hybrid wizardry, the national food writers took notice of the changing restaurant landscape in Miami Beach. And even though Van Aken was the only South Beach denizen of the four young toques, one Time writer was so taken by the proliferation of restaurants there that she inaccurately declared the area the center of the "new gourmet."
The call was so seductive, in fact, that local promoters of the food scene began to experience a somewhat misguided self-actualization: We eat, therefore we are deserving of international press scrutiny. "For those who love to eat, the good news is that SoBe's restaurants have begun to match the architecture in appeal and style," wrote Miami Herald restaurant critic Geoffrey Tomb in a December 1992 article for Food & Wine.
"The action is here, the market is here," affirms Tony Goldman, South Beach's veteran cheerleader. "We have the press, the interest, the excitement, the sex appeal, the inspiration, and the energy. The rest of the country is doom and gloom."
"I think that South Beach is still on its way up," says Geoffrey Murray, co-owner/executive chef of BANG, the district's newest trend magnet and an outpost of BOOM in Manhattan's SoHo district. "I think you'll see more serious, real restaurateurs coming down here, not little bistro-type places." I Tre Merli, another SoHo success story, already had cloned itself down the block from BANG on Washington Avenue; the two new restaurants now share dual residency status with Barocco Manhattan's southern outpost, Barocco Beach, located in the erstwhile Lucky's site at the Park Central Hotel. This past month the Raleigh Hotel on Collins Avenue imported chef Kerry Simon, formerly of the Edwardian Room at the Plaza Hotel; and rumors abound that Wolfgang Puck, the legendary chef of Spago in West Hollywood, California, is also looking for a place to ply his knives in South Beach.
Adds François Latapie, owner of the year-old Cassis Bistro and former maitre d' at Le Cirque: "It's going to be one of the best restaurant rows in the southern United States, if not the best."
While the streets of South Beach are unarguably becoming chock full of restaurants, good isn't necessarily a byproduct of plenty.
As the multi-courses of reviews are collectively digested by the nation's readers, some food critics are clearing their palates and reassessing the Miami dining experience, as well as their own gluttony. "There was nothing else to write about," confesses GQ's Richman. "Food writers have become food-trend junkies." In the Eighties, he points out, there seemed to be a food trend every six months. Californian cuisine, tapas, Italian, comfort food, Southwestern cuisine, and the mini-trends of Thai and sushi -- at some point each captured the souls of food aficionados everywhere. "I can't tell you how many people would come up to me and say, 'So what's the next food trend?' People have been dying for another food trend," Richman says.
Although they acknowledge that the new Miami cuisine is generally very good, Richman and others say they may have overblown the phenomenon at first blush. "It's like, 'Look at how many snappy ingredients we can put on this plate,'" says Merrill Shindler, a restaurant critic for L.A.'s top-rated talk-radio station KABC. "So you tend to have a cuisine that reads great but you can't figure out what the heck it's about." Shindler says he hopes that as attention shifts away from Miami -- as it inevitably must -- the cuisine will improve. "People have jumped all over it and praised it beyond reason. Meanwhile, no one has had time to develop. All these heads are swollen. They think they can walk on water, wave their hand and part the Red Sea, and all that."
"Like all artistic movements in their infancy, a lot of what they do is overeager and adolescent," comments Richard Sax, a New York-based columnist for Bon Appetit and the author of several cookbooks. "I think they're being too creative. At one restaurant I had a fish drowned in salsa and sauce and garlic mayonnaise and tropical-fish chutney. I think there's too much going on. The problem is what one local chef down there called 'bringing too much to the party.' I think a lot of these things wouldn't fly in a city that had many more good restaurants."
While the pundits anticipate a maturation of Miami's new cooking style (and indeed last year the James Beard Award Committee in New York named Mark Militello the best chef in the Southeast), they don't hold out as much optimism for South Beach's evolution beyond its current status as a dining carnival with mediocre food and service. "They all seem to be purely concept restaurants, thought up to appeal to a certain crowd," says John Mariani, food and travel correspondent for Esquire and restaurant columnist for Travel & Leisure. "If that crowd is Gianni Versaces and Madonnas and models, good food or fine food is not really something you need to have. If you don't expect good food, it's not going to be very good."
Bon Appetit's Richard Sax expects that the Beach's sybaritic ethos may continue to govern its restaurant scene, even as standards of service and food rise in other parts of the region. "Food in South Beach is more trendy attitude than real sustenance," he says. "Trashiness: that's part of the scene; you don't come to South Beach for transcendental dining. Frankly, I don't think the clientele really cares."
Says Norman Van Aken: "I think it's going to have to move a little bit away from this -- its cheap charm being its up-to-the-moment hipness. It's going to need a little bit more longevity. Especially on the Beach, restaurants set themselves up to be here for two years, and that's the length of time they're looking at. There's never going to be real depth to the food or to the service, because you'll never develop the staff with the ability to turn it out.
"It will be a circus show, and that's going to be fine for a lot of people. But for Miami Beach to matter five or ten years from now, there's got to be people that make the type of commitment that transcends those get-rich-quick facades."
"The Beach to me is not about dining," adds Steven Raichlen, a Miami-based syndicated food columnist and cookbook writer. "I find that all the food could come from the same commissary. There's the obligatory tuna with sesame seed, the obligatory salmon with braised leeks. What the Beach is about is making money.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.