Smell the fire-baked pita, spiced lamb, and roasted red-pepper hummus. Then move on to the fresh-baked bagels and sliced corned beef. Walk onto the large patio, where folks are nibbling on cheeseburgers and frozen custard, before you continue onto the mezzanine, where you'll find dozens of varieties of fine Peruvian ceviche.
This is dining at Aventura Mall in 2018. Chicken Kitchen and Asian Chao are gone. So are those pigeons wobbling through the rafters. In 2017, the 2.8-million-square-foot mall — which ranks among the top five in the nation for sales per square foot, according to CNBC — underwent a $214 million renovation that included transforming its humble food court into a chic food hall.
Among the new residents: celebrity chef Todd English's Figs + Mozzarella, James Beard Award winner Michael Schwartz's Genuine Pizza, and Beard-nominated chef Sam Gorenstein's Zuuk Mediterranean Kitchen.
"We canvassed the country looking for concepts," says Jackie Soffer, CEO of Turnberry Associates, which owns and manages Aventura Mall. "Part of it was partnering with award-winning chefs like Michael Mina and Todd English. But we also wanted restaurants with an established buzz in South Florida."
This isn't the first time an old-school food court has been ditched. Last October, Los Angeles' Westfield Century City unveiled a billion-dollar renovation that included a refurbished food court with artisanal ice cream and small-batch deli fare. The expansion made room for the city's first Eataly, an Italian-based multirestaurant concept offering homemade pasta and wood-oven pizza.
In Miami, Italian food halls La Centrale and Casa Tua Cucina debuted at Brickell City Centre in early 2018. Each offer food stalls that peddle everything from meat and seafood to pizza and pasta. In late February, St. Roch Market opened in the Design District with a coterie of affordably priced New Orleans-style restaurants surrounded by tony shops such as Cartier, Prada, and Givenchy.
The idea of all of them is to offer a higher-end dining experience than most food courts in order to satisfy well-heeled shoppers. One question for them all — particularly Aventura, which draws nearly 30 million shoppers per year — is whether enough customers are willing to pay more for better name-brand food. Another question: What are mall employees, who are often paid near minimum wage, supposed to eat?
"It's more expensive to eat here now," says a 55-year-old Macy's retail clerk who declined to give her name while munching on a $17 lobster roll. "Many of us are bringing our lunch most days."
Aventura Mall opened in 1983 with a modest food court. In two expansions, in 1997 and 2007, much of that section remained the same. Lots of chicken dishes, some Chinese, a few Latin places, pizza, and a bit of other ethnic fare. A meal hovered around $12, including a drink, tax, and tip.
In 2014, Soffer announced a plan to tear down the existing food court and replace it with a three-level wing of retail shops and restaurants. At the time, she was tight-lipped about the food and drink concepts that would join the mall. By 2017, word had spread about the creation of Treats Food Hall (19501 Biscayne Blvd., Aventura; 305-935-1110; aventuramall.com), offering more than a dozen big-name eateries, as well as the addition of standalone restaurants such as Pubbelly Sushi.
In December 2017, new restaurants opened one by one. First was Cvi.che 105, a popular Peruvian concept with locations in downtown Miami and South Beach. Located on the mall's new outdoor mezzanine, it offers meals of ceviche, tiraditos, and lomo saltado for $20 to $40 per person. Around the same time, Oakland, California-based Blue Bottle Coffee opened with Zak the Baker pastries and coffee drinks for about $4 apiece.
December also marked the first concept to open inside Treats Food Hall. NYC-based Luke's Lobster, housed in a freestanding stall toward the hall's posterior, debuted a small seafood-centric menu of oversize buttery lobster rolls ($17), clam chowder ($12), and lobster mac 'n' cheese ($10).
The hall, situated at the top of two escalators, offers a wide-open interior with a sizable skylight. Restaurants are concentrated on the sides, and a large opening at the center overlooks the floor below. The space is outfitted with wood furnishings, marble countertops, Moroccan tiles, and gold and copper accents. It offers a mix of communal tables, individual banquettes, and high-top tables. There's also an outdoor terrace, something not usually seen in traditional mall food courts.
The highlight of Treats is Todd English's Figs + Mozzarella. The pizza bistro, executed by the Boston-based celebrity chef, serves rectangular pies topped with fig and balsamic jam, and mozzarella and basil. Each costs $10 to $15. It's not the $5 cheese pizza the mall's former food court once sold, but English's upscale version is a replacement that was welcomed by a line of ten customers on a recent Tuesday.
Next door is Hank & Harry's Deli. It's a branch of the New York-style delicatessen in Miami Beach that was founded by local restaurateurs Buzzy Sklar and Richard Booth. Here, you can order a generously stuffed corned beef and pastrami sandwich with a black-and-white sugar cookie for about $17 sans drink. It saves customers a trip to a chaotic deli in south Aventura while serving the same grade of food.
Then comes Danny Meyer's NYC-based Shake Shack. The upscale fast-food burger joint grills meat patties and fries chicken sandwiches. This location also boasts the Pie Oh My, frozen vanilla custard finished with a slice of key lime pie from the South Florida-based Good Pie Company. A burger, fries, and soda will set you back about $12, similar to a meal at Five Guys Burger & Fries, which operated in the former food court (and recently relocated to the opposite side of the mall).
For something lighter, try Zuuk, created by James Beard-nominated Miami chef Sam Gorenstein and partner Roger Duarte. You'll find bowls, salads, and rolls filled with Mediterranean-inspired ingredients such as turmeric rice, baba ghanouj, baked falafel, and spicy harissa. Or opt for a meal at an outpost of their popular My Ceviche chain, directly across from Zuuk, offering customizable ceviche bowls. Prices for both average $10 to $15.
Treats' outdoor terrace overlooks a piazza, home to a half-dozen well-known Miami restaurants. There is a Pubbelly Sushi, where chef Jose Mendin serves shrimp ceviche taquitos stuffed with avocado mousse ($10 and up), and Michael Schwartz's Genuine Pizza, offering pies such as Parmigiana and fontina, and short rib with Gruyère and caramelized onion ($13 to $17).
Above the piazza, NYC eatery Serafina cooks elevated Italian food including pastas, pizzas, and entrées such as a filet mignon burger topped with Gorgonzola, and aslice of bass in a Pinot Grigio dressing atop a bed of zucchini and leeks.You'll easily spend around $30 to $50 for a meal with a glass of wine and dessert.
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"The food is really good, which to me excuses the fact that I'm eating a $20 bowl of pasta inside a loud mall," says Tal Harel, a 22-year-old blonde with brown eyes. "Eating in the mall is definitely not as cheap as it used to be, but neither is the shopping. There's a Tesla store next to this restaurant with $100,000 cars, so it sort of makes sense."
By the end of April, Tap 42 will open a 6,300-square-foot space with an adjoining 1,200-square-foot patio. Located on the second floor of the mall's expanded wing, the Fort Lauderdale-based restaurant will bring a vibrant bar scene and elevated comfort food. It will offer 40 beers on tap, a large socializing component, and a lineup of burgers. "We recognized a need in Aventura for a cool, affordable dining and drinking destination," partner Alex Rudolph says.
By year's end, Michael Mina and Ayesha Curry's International Smoke will open with grilled meats. Miami Beach's Rosetta Bakery, Danish juice-bar franchise Joe & the Juice, and Brickell's Poke 305 are also slated to debut soon.
"We want our visitors to experience Miami when they dine at Aventura Mall," Soffer says.