Suddenly I seem to be in the gratis restaurant-consulting business. The only two messages on my voice mail this week were from folks who craved advice. And both centered around that evergreen puzzler: how to succeed on the Beach.
The first plea I received was from Sonia Lyn, owner of the pan-Asian restaurant Chow, on 23rd Street. I had recently attended Chow's reopening, which also unveiled a new chef, and Lyn was wondering if I had any hints that would help her out in the future. The second call was from a woman named "Samantha (Sammy) Chablis," who wanted "insight" into opening an eatery on South Beach. In honor of their requests, I offer, for starters, the following guidelines:
Don't be Italian. Okay, you can look Italian. You can smell Italian. You can even speak Italian. But you can't serve any dish that has to do with the big ol' boot or you'll wind up getting it, most likely. We've already got, in no particular order: Farfalla Trattoria, Caffe la Lupa di Roma, Caffe Sambuca, Mezzanotte, La Famiglia, Spiga, Tiramesu, Stephan's, Osteria del Teatro, da Leo Trattoria, Sport Café, Bella Napoli, Macaluso's, Master's, Escopazzo, and Joia, to name a few. A couple of more eateries, such as Carnevale and Il Sole, are due to arrive soon on Lincoln Road. That's not to mention the countless pizza joints. You'd have better luck opening a sex shop in Amsterdam's red-light district. There is a limit to the amount of pasta one diner can stomach in any given year.
Watch out for loser locations. Or at least wait until the stink of a defunct eatery has dissipated somewhat from the premises. I know, I know: The temptation of leasing a spot that has a kitchen installed and licenses in place rivals Judas's 30 pieces of spare change. But South Beachites have memories as long and unforgiving as mothers', and tend to avoid a spot that once was hot and then was not. We'll wait and see how The Strand does at 455 Ocean Blvd., where La Voile Rouge, Bice, and most recently Azura all failed to live up to expectations. In the meantime can you say Cassis? And then name the four or five restaurants that have succeeded it?
Learn how to spell, especially the name of your chef. At Chow, new executive chef Anchana "KiKi" Praropkul's name, which appeared on the invitation to the reopening, the press release, and the menu itself, was spelled three different ways. And if you're not literate or fluent enough in English to make sure your menu items are clear of boo-boos, hire a consultant. Even if you don't really know what you're doing, no need to advertise it.
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Discourage dancing on the tables. Like tea parties, this trend is passé, at least until the models come back to town. Take a look at two places that encouraged table dances: Mezzanotte and BANG, both on Washington Avenue. Although these eateries initially enjoyed the media attention and spotlight for the slinky and often topless maneuvers of its patrons, serious diners were scared away. These days Mezzanotte could use a few more customers who sit, and pay, for their supper, and BANG is now closed. A good credo to keep in mind: Clubs, and restaurants that act like them, have an even shorter shelf life than the already stunted SoBe dining establishment.
For those who just can't cut it on the capricious stretch of subtropical sand, some tips for bowing out politely:
Admit when the end has come. I'm still waiting for Café Cozzolino, a little Italian joint on Michigan Avenue just off Lincoln Road, to open again after it closed for vacation back in 1992. The sign saying it would reopen for business in fifteen days must have dangled in the metaphorical wind for six months. (The Icebox Café is currently installed there, but I'm convinced Café Cozzolino is really still taking a breather.) And Babylon 2000, on the corner of Española and Washington, which is not Iraqi but is, of course, an Italian restaurant, opened only a couple of months ago after extensive renovations in the former Java Junkies spot, only to close again for - you got it - redecorating. It reopened this past weekend as Trattoria Ciao Bella. But why should we be surprised? South Beach is the remodeling capital of the world.
Use a fake name. That's the best way to avoid creditors and tax collectors after you go belly-up. "Sammy Chablis" has it covered in that area I suspect, though she may want to change hers after I introduce her to Craig Bordeaux, manager of Rachel's, a steak house and strip joint (I'm not kidding) in West Palm Beach. Even if her restaurant -- which she's considering opening in the spot of another famously failed joint, Johnny V's Kitchen -- succeeds, Chablis could take some tips from Bordeaux: Unlike Italian, we're not yet saturated with steak strip houses.