Restaurateur Mark Soyka shocked just about everybody in the restaurant industry when he announced this past June that News Café, his inaugural eatery that helped revitalize Ocean Drive, would be moving from its location on Eighth Street and Ocean Drive. This fall the 400-seat News Café will be reinvented on Thirteenth Street and Ocean Drive, in the lobby and on the porch of the Cardozo Hotel. Although the Cardozo has always been complimented for its chic look, the restaurants in the hotel (which is owned by Gloria and Emilio Estefan) have failed to live up to expectations. Plus, at the moment that stretch of Ocean Drive is considered small change in the world of tourist dollars. After thirteen years and untold success, only something catastrophic could make Soyka give up his spot, insiders whispered, and take on a jinx.
Actually there's nothing unusual about Soyka's rationale. As an entrepreneur he's always gone for that “unknown” quality in a location; he's thrived on helping to turn around small, slummy sections of the city by virtue of adding a busy and popular eatery. In addition his recent endeavors -- Soyka on Biscayne Boulevard in Miami, a forthcoming Soyka on Harrison Street in Hollywood, and a restaurant to be named later at the Dancing Bear location on Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale -- evidence a turn toward upscale locales. So if the Estefans are willing to get into bed with him, Soyka has got nothing to lose, at least reputation-wise, by breathing new life into a beautiful but suffering site.
Of course most of us doubt Soyka would be moving the News were it not for the back story: landlord troubles. Seems that he and Tony Goldman, who owns the current News Café location, can't agree on a new lease. It's also pretty clear to the casual observer that the restaurant, once established as a tourist destination, outgrew its home as fast as a teenager discards blue jeans. Rather than dicker over terms, Soyka simply is saying sayonara; he'll retain part of the original site and rename it something like The Corner.
Problems with the landlord prompt many restaurants to make precipitous departures. Soyka appears to be taking his anticipated move in stride, as did Christine Lee, who took her namesake Chinese steak house out of the Thunderbird Hotel in North Miami Beach in the early Nineties. Lee had already endured one move from the Golden Strand to the Thunderbird in the Eighties, and had spent 21 years under the latter's roof. Still, disputes with the landlord and the threat of a sale pushed her into the RK Plaza across the street, where her daughter, Mary Lee Carothers, now runs the place.
Vito Mariano, owner of Rex, an Italian restaurant formerly in Coconut Grove, is satisfied with his new quarters in South Miami. He moved into the old Chilango's spot after only nine months of business in his former location, the ex-Bocca di Rosa site. He says the parking is better where he is now, plus he has a full bar and patio, which he didn't have before. But the real reason for his move was prompted by the sale of the building in which he had been leasing; the new owner didn't want a restaurant on the premises. Mariano was not only lucky to find a tastier location quickly; he also was blessed with food purveyors who lent him trucks to help him make a smooth transition. In the end Rex was only closed for three days in between locations.
But other proprietors haven't been as fortunate. In Fort Lauderdale respected South African café zanZbar was forced to vacate when the building was scheduled for demolition. Thus far zanZbar looks to be a goner. Darrel Broek and Oliver Saucy, who owned the contemporary bistro East City Grill on Fort Lauderdale Beach Boulevard, found themselves in a similar situation when their landlord decided to build luxury condominiums on the plot where East City held forth. “We were a victim of expansion,” Saucy waxes philosophically. “Every restaurant has a life span.” Nevertheless the pair plans to relocate and reopen the eatery, which was credited with pushing the former Fort Lauderdale strip upscale. Problem is they can't find a decent spot, so for the moment, East City Grill is in limbo.
It's not unusual for restaurants to flounder in an indeterminate state during a move. Although the building in which they were leasing wasn't scheduled to be torn down (in fact it's now a restaurant called Café Ponte Vecchio), Esther Flores and Jan Sitko, proprietors of Biscayne Wine Merchants & Bistro, decided to move when confronted with endless road construction back in 1992. “They'd begun work on the street and blocked our entrance,” Flores explains. “Plus they were stacking the bricks in our teeny-weeny parking lot, when there was a much bigger one connected to the Sizzler.” So the pair searched for and found a new home for the then-nine-year-old bistro on nearby 125th Street in North Miami. But despite careful planning, Biscayne Wine Merchants still had to close down for a month while the move was completed.
The Gourmet Diner, located in North Miami Beach since 1983, was sentenced to an even longer purgatory. A victim of eminent domain -- the state needed three extra feet of land to widen Biscayne Boulevard, and the diner was in the way -- the restaurant was leveled in 1993. The Department of Transportation (DOT) initially offered proprietor Jean-Pierre Lejeune $117,000 for what he says was a million-dollar business; he bargained with DOT and got it to purchase for him a lot across the street instead. He then ordered a prefab steel-and-chrome diner to replace his old establishment, simply because it would be assembled rapidly and he could quickly get back to the business at hand: serving his signature custard tart. At the time Lejeune thought he got the better end of the deal. But instead, he says he was stuck with “rocks and sand. I had to develop the property, build a parking lot, and develop a sewage system. Just hooking the sewer up to the city was $45,000. If I hadn't been successful on the other side [of Biscayne Boulevard], I would have had to declare bankruptcy.” His forced march also cost him six months of dishing out his tarts and French-roots cuisine -- yet another significant loss.
Even when a move is voluntary, the results can be costly. Daily Bread Marketplace in Miami went from shabby to fabulous digs back in 1998. But to do so, the proprietors, the Mazzawi family, had to build from the ground up, drawing plans for an 8000-square-foot complex only about a mile south of the former location on Seventeenth Avenue and South Dixie Highway. Even paving the parking lot was an expensive endeavor, Monem Mazzawi told me just after the buildings had finally been completed. The Mazzawis were smart, though; they kept their original location open until after the move was accomplished. That way their customers received no interruption of service.
Fortunately for Lejeune and the Mazzawi family, both the Gourmet Diner and Daily Bread have not only endured but flourished, largely thanks to solid and loyal customer bases. Other restaurants that have moved haven't been so lucky. Sarah Moos, proprietor of By Sarah Café & Catering, relocated from South Beach to North Miami, and then watched her new site on 125th Street and NW Seventh Avenue burn down. She relocated again to a shopping center in North Miami, but closed up after almost a two-year run.
The North Miami and North Miami Beach areas have often been the misguided destination for other eateries. The Palm Grill, an award-winning eatery in Key West for nine years, moved in next to Paquito's (another place that has a move under its belt, thanks to demolition of its first quarters) in 1998. But a scant year later, its prize chef, Willis Loughhead, had been lured to Tantra, and about six months after that, the Palm Grill closed. At the time proprietors Wayne King and Michael Gallagher said they would move the Palm Grill to Coral Gables in the fall, which probably is a better market for their upwardly mobile cuisine. Only season will tell if we'll see a Grill in the Gables.
Meanwhile Andre's Diner has taken over the Palm Grill spot, a move that chef-proprietor Andre Filosa couldn't possibly have completed in less than a month. “[Moving a restaurant] is nothing like moving a house. It is more complicated,” he notes. “We worked every second of the day. We didn't stop.” Good thing Filosa is a seasoned mover. He first relocated his restaurant, which had been firmly entrenched for five years on 123rd Street in North Miami (and is now Il Piccolo Diner), when he split from his partners in 1996. After four years at Biscayne Boulevard and 144th Street in North Miami Beach, he was ready and eager to grow again. “My business was beginning to be too small,” he says simply. “We always had people waiting outside.” Now Andre's Diner, which opens for lunch and dinner this week, not only has 110 seats -- 70 more than previously -- and a full bar, “it is so beautiful you could sleep here,” Filosa boasts.
Aesthetics may be the single best reason for a restaurant to move and risk losing its clientele. And despite the landlord problems that may have necessitated the switch, News Café could very well survive its five-block sojourn into a more luxurious setting. At least it's staying on Ocean Drive, giving tourists a chance to find it by accident -- unlike another famed Ocean Drive eatery, I Paparazzi, which moved to Collins Avenue last winter and whose phone number is now “temporarily disconnected.”
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Miami dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.