It's getting late at the South Beach restaurant Bâoli when ripped, shirtless waiters start pouring liquor directly into women's mouths. Bass lines thunder from the DJ booth built right in the middle of the Collins Avenue dining room. Soon dancers in sequined thongs leap onto the bar and gyrate to the beat.
Then comes the coup de grace: As crowds cheer and writhe amid candlelit tables, bartenders pour flammable liquid into the spill guards running along the bar, whip out lighters, and set the whole thing ablaze.
It's just another Wednesday night inside one of the most quintessentially South Beach restaurants, a place where Pelé and Britto recently popped Dom Pérignon together, Jamie Foxx brought his crew to drop a few Gs on bottle service, and the kitchen made headlines by offering the most expensive burger in Miami.
But behind the luxury sheen and pulsating EDM is another quintessentially Miami Beach story: allegations of forged documents, fraud, and reckless deceit in SoBe's broken permitting system. In a town where a half-dozen officials have recently been arrested for taking payouts from clubs and restaurants and millions in fees have suspiciously gone uncollected, the allegations suggest the Beach's big-money tourism scene is still a lawless Wild West.
At the center of the Bâoli mess are four documents with fake signatures used by the restaurant's owners to obtain permits for thousands of dollars' worth of construction and to extend hours at its outdoor bar. The building's owner has filed a civil suit and a complaint with the city over the bogus John Hancocks, all in the head-scratching hope of evicting his highly profitable tenant.
"It's the most frustrating thing I've ever been through," the landlord, Miguel Chibras Romero, says. "The dishonesty here is amazing."
Bâoli's owners, who have a lease and pay $29,632 monthly rent on the property, though, say the signatures were a simple misunderstanding. They contend Romero is seizing on them as a convenient excuse to paper over his own failures as a landlord.
"[The lawsuit] can only be deemed a deliberate attempt to destroy the restaurant," the owners recently argued in court. "Closing a successful restaurant at peak season is a devastating blow, not just in terms of lost profit, but in loss of face."
Their dispute has now become a major headache for Miami Beach officials. City attorneys met again with an incensed Romero last week but have so far elected to avoid taking sides.
It's not how Romero envisioned his relationship with Bâoli playing out -- especially considering the restaurant is the most successful tenant in his building in years.
A native of Mexico City, the 59-year-old Romero met a Pan Am flight attendant in the early '90s. They married, had a child, and moved to Miami in 1993. He quickly got into the real estate game in South Beach, which was just coming out of the Cocaine Cowboys era and gentrifying quickly. Romero began buying condos and pieces of hotel developments from Crescent Heights, millionaire entrepreneur Russell Galbut's development firm.
"I could have done a lot more, but I just didn't have the money," says Romero, a gravel-voiced man who wears tinted glasses and a colorful beaded bracelet. "A lot of Ocean Drive was up for sale those days."
Among the properties he did snag was a 1939 building just north of some of SoBe's most historic hotels. When Romero bought 1906 Collins Ave. for $540,000 in 1996, it was home to Gino's Restaurant, an old-school neighborhood mainstay for decades.
By the time massive construction on Collins forced Gino's out of business a few years later, South Beach was a different place. Crumbling tenements and impoverished pensioners were being pushed out by designer Italian retailers and techno-thumping nightclubs. Romero quickly went upscale, luring in a local outlet of Hamptons favorite World Pie and then hosting a venture by the owners of nearby nightclubs Mynt and Rokbar.
Around 2010, he made a connection he was sure would click. Christophe Caucino, a silver-maned Frenchman, was the brains behind a hip restaurant in Cannes called Bâoli; its mix of club standbys -- like bottle service with sparklers and an in-house DJ -- and nouveau cuisine seemed like a perfect fit for South Beach's new vibe.
"Unfortunately, Christophe didn't know anything about Miami," Romero says. "So he had a lot of problems getting started here. It eventually was just too much."
Caucino sold out to another Frenchman, a young, handsome entrepreneur named Mathieu Massa. About a year later, the place opened after a massive redesign. In the main dining room, leather banquettes with white pillows frame simple black tables, all dwarfed by the central DJ booth. And through an open wall, a back courtyard is surrounded by purple-lit fishtail palms and a long outdoor bar.
Bâoli quickly became a hit with the high-end set. It nabbed regular mentions in the Miami Herald's gossip pages as A-listers such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Joe Jonas, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Will Smith racked up huge bills at VIP tables. Arnold Schwarzenegger's son, Patrick, reportedly spent $8,000 one night. A few months later, Flo Rida made it rain $100 bills after ordering 20 Patrón shots for his table. Last year, the restaurant began touting its $65 hamburger -- made with fois gras, Kobe beef, and black truffles -- as the priciest in town. "Bâoli's burger is a status-symbol food," the head chef told New Times.
But behind the scenes, Romero and his tenant were butting heads. Until this summer, the dispute was the kind of argument that's a dime a dozen on Miami Beach's high-end restaurant scene. Romero claimed Bâoli's owners had let six-figure fines pile up and had reneged on a promise to spend $1.5 million improving the place. They claimed he wouldn't respond to their calls and had cost them significant cash by not warning them the outdoor bar wasn't permitted. By December 2013, they were duking out the claims in civil court.
That's when Romero says he asked his associate, who runs a permitting company, to look into exactly how much Bâoli's owners had actually paid the city. And that's when the fight got weird, even by South Beach standards.
Romero's associate returned with a document dated September 14, 2011. It outlined $183,174 worth of construction planned at the restaurant. And it was signed by Miguel Chibras Romero. The landlord's eyes bugged as he stared at a signature he'd never seen before. "I couldn't believe it," he says.
Romero claims he soon found three other documents with similarly questionable signatures. They'd been used to obtain the city's approval on a master construction plan -- which Romero contends he never saw -- and to extend bar hours.
Even worse, Romero discovered, those same documents had all been notarized by a woman named Ketty Mora. Mora later admitted in a deposition that she'd never met Romero or Massa, but she declined to speculate about how her notary stamp had ended up on the forms. ("I have never reported my commission stolen," she offered.)
In July, Romero filed a new complaint. This time, the claims were more serious than accusing a tenant of failing to live up to his contract. "This was a conspiracy between [individuals] and Ms. Mora to commit forgery and acts of false notarization," Romero's attorneys claimed in the suit.
In September, Romero took those claims to the city. In an eight-page letter to Mariano Fernandez, the director of the Miami Beach Building Department, Romero lays out his claims against Bâoli. "No city should tolerate blatant forgery and fraud as means to receive... benefits," his attorney argues.
Yet it's no stretch to believe that the City of Miami Beach has tolerated worse for years. In 2007, developer Michael Stern wore a wire for the feds to catch three Miami Beach building officials taking bribes -- sometimes in cash stuffed into toilet paper rolls -- to grease the wheels on his projects.
Two years ago -- a few months after Bâoli opened after its renovation -- the FBI busted five city code compliance officials, including the city's lead officer, Jose Alberto, as well as a pair of firefighters. They were accused of taking thousands in cash and free drinks from clubs, restaurants, and hotels in exchange for ignoring violations.
Mayor Philip Levine, elected in November 2013, promised to clean up the city government, but this past September the Miami Herald reported that millions in fees owed by top hotels like the Loews have gone unpaid for almost a decade.
The response to Romero suggests there are still problems at city hall; after hearing nothing from Fernandez, the landlord arranged a meeting with three city lawyers last week. They told the incensed building owner that until the courts ruled on his case with Massa, there wasn't much they could do -- even though no one disputed they'd issued permits based on faked signatures.
Of course, Massa tells a very different story than Romero. In his version, it's Romero who started the trouble by repeatedly failing to answer his calls and letters about construction plans. The restaurant owner's lawyers point to a provision in his lease that gives him power of attorney if his landlord isn't responsive. The only mistake, they say, was not understanding that imitating Romero's signature on official documents was a no-no.
"Being foreign-born lay persons with limited proficiency in English, [they] understood this provision of the lease to mean that the documents had to be submitted to the city literally in the name of the landlord on the signature line," his attorney argued in court.
A local judge hasn't weighed in on who's telling the truth. Massa asked last week for an emergency order to dismiss the case before it could hurt his business, but circuit court Judge Stanford Blake denied that move and instead asked both sides to present more evidence.
For Romero, resolving the fight isn't academic. He says he's never reviewed the plans that his bogus signature endorsed and doesn't know whether structural changes to his building -- such as a walk-in cooler he says was installed on the second story -- could fail and injure customers.
"I could be open to a huge liability, and people could be hurt," he says. "I can't have this happening."
Massa, meanwhile, frets about the suit's effects on his A-list clientele at the height of Art Basel season. "This is Miami, and this is a club-oriented restaurant in Miami Beach," his attorneys argued in court. "People will talk, and people will walk."
There was no hint of that conflict, of course, inside Bâoli last Wednesday night. Clusters of 40-something businessmen pounded mojitos around the outdoor bar and puffed fat cigars. Gaggles of sculpted women in low-cut dresses surrounded them. A vaguely famous-looking couple strolled in, following a manager who parted the way to a VIP table under a tree draped in white lights.
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At the main bar inside, a bartender in a slinky black dress slid two $10.50 bottles of Stella Artois across the bar. Then she yelled over the pounding bass: "You should stick around until 11:30, or midnight maybe!
"We actually light this bar on fire," she said with a grin. "It's really something."