It may not be as elemental as the chicken-or-egg controversy, but it still ranks, in some neighborhoods, as an age-old question: Do you want to be a restaurant or a club?
Judging from opening night, Cameron Diaz's new eatery, Bambú, doesn't know the answer. The party was called for 10:00 p.m., according to the invite I received. But at 10:00 a host of partygoers was turned away from the door and asked to check back periodically because the VIP dinner wasn't over yet. Huh? What VIP dinner? (Turns out Ocean Drive dominated the guest list.)
Obviously, and literally, in the dark, I arrived at 11:00 or thereabouts with another member of the media. But when I gave my name to the bouncer (?) riding the velvet ropes, he merely pretended to check his list, then shook his head. "Sorry," he said, not the least bit apologetic. "Looks like there'll be a fifteen-minute wait." This as Rony Seikaly walked past me and straight into Bambú. "There are too many people inside already," he went on. "It's a fire hazard."
Pardon my French, but fire hazard my ass. Once inside I discovered a generous sprinkling of Eurotrash, but certainly not enough of them to cause a smoky deathtrap unless you lit a cigarette too near their ozone-damaging coiffs. I also found booming disco noise, few tables with seats, and zero food, but plenty of (not even top-shelf) alcohol floating around. So I ask you, is an opening like this more appropriate for a restaurant or a club?
Club, says Tara Gilani, who refuses even to comment on the Bambú event. "Since I wasn't there, that ought to say it all," she notes. "In my not-so-humble opinion, there's only a handful of real journalists in this town. Why is it so difficult for a publicist to determine who they are?"
Gilani, who spent eighteen years as a publicist before becoming Deco Drive's trend tracker, isn't the only journalist, real or otherwise, ticked off by the way the Bambú function was handled. Steven Raichlen, whose last few restaurant stories on Miami have made the front page of the New York Times food section, wasn't invited. "Not that he would have gone," wife and publicist Barbara Raichlen admits.
Let me be straight -- I wish I hadn't. Not because my ego was damaged irreparably, though it was a bit bruised. I don't frequent the club scene for the same reason: I don't need to base my self-esteem on whether someone else finds me acceptable enough to be let inside a velvet rope. But attending openings is part of my job, as it is Gilani's, who puts it best. "You're not inviting me because you think I'm cute and like the way I laugh." she says. "You're inviting me to work."
Despite whatever influence the food media has over the success of a culinary business, though, it's really the consumers who count. Still, our distilled experiences are what people read about, how they make their judgments about where to dine and spend some hard-earned cash. Based on our impressions, I don't know how many folks will be willing to trust they'll have a fair shake at Bambú.
The sad part is that openings like Bambú's are the norm, not the exception. "I'd estimate that two out of twenty restaurant openings have enough food, enough servers, and enough seats," says Gilani. "If you're trying to reach real people, you need to pay attention to the details."
Number one detail, naturally, is that a restaurant opening should provide food. "Food, period," Barbara Raichlen declares emphatically. "You can't be so presumptuous that you believe everyone knows you, even with a high-profile item like Petrossian." A company known all over the world for its caviar, Petrossian debuted a restaurant last year in Bal Harbour Shops, with lots of food. Raichlen points to that event as one of her best.
But Raichlen also realizes that every opening needs to be customized to the restaurant. Based on the kind of chef or proprietor who is running the eatery and the amount of room available, Raichlen explains, you need to tailor an event to reach your goal, which, in the end, is to attract a following. "A high-profile chef like Mark [Militello] doesn't need to have a blowout. Miami already knows him." Militello did have an opening for his new place on South Beach, albeit a very small one: He welcomed 30 friends in for dinner. "Mark would rather people be upset with him because they weren't invited than be upset with him because he had a thousand people in and couldn't feed all of them." How refreshingly honest. And to tell the truth, I'd rather stay home and sup on canned soup than stand pressed against 999 models who don't eat anyway.
Restaurants and their publicists around town have different ways of handling high-end openings with demanding crowds. Gilani points to Dick's Last Resort in Bayside Marketplace, where the restaurant welcomed everybody with "open bars, tons of food, and free T-shirts." Some places sponsor press-only dinners, then have another event for faithful or future clientele. A couple run a series of dinners, mixing up the guests.
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Any way you look at it, though, the reasonable thing to do is to showcase the chef, the food, and the entertainment, if any. Rob Boone, a Norman Van Aken protégé, is executive chef at Bambú, and Van Aken designed the menu. The restaurant is also owned by Karim Masri of Astor Place, and Hubert Baudoin of the Moorings and Pierre. All of these noted and talented people are being overlooked, thanks to the disastrous opening.
"An opening is like any first impression," Gilani emphasizes. "It's lasting. As both media and consumer, I feel that when a restaurant is disorganized, rude, or simply not prepared for [me] to be there, it's hard not to be offended, and it's hard not to remember being offended. When you anger and frustrate more people than you make happy, it's a waste of time and money and energy on everyone's part."