Miami is a city of stories. Immigrants, drugs, love, death. This city has them all in spades. And this past year, those tales have been particularly powerful.
The culinary community was rocked by the untimely death of a Wynwood pioneer and an explosion that changed the life of a chef. A hurricane blew through, one restaurant burned, and the homes of the best drag brunch and late-night bites closed.
But it wasn't all bad news. Food halls sprung up like mushrooms after a spring rain. One chef opened a restaurant, won a championship, and had a child. Doughnuts are back. And vegan food has arrived.
So tuck in a napkin and pick up a fork. Here are the stories that shaped Miami's food scene in 2017.
1. Ralph Pagano. It was June 22, and Ralph Pagano was in good spirits. On the cusp of opening a satellite of his popular Naked Taco restaurant at Resorts World Bimini, he prepared to walk the world stage. Then the unthinkable happened. When he turned the gas burners on for the first time, the stove exploded. The chef acted quickly, pushing an employee out of harm's way. Pagano took the brunt of the blast. He was airlifted to Jackson Memorial Hospital's Ryder Trauma Center with second- and third-degree burns on most of his body.
Ultimately, Pagano spent 50 days at Ryder, where he endured multiple surgeries and hours of grueling physical therapy. His recovery has been steady. The chef made his first public appearance since the accident at the South Beach Seafood Festival in October, to cheers and good wishes. Naked Taco Bimini, however, didn't fare as well. It will never open.
2. Michael Shikany. Long before Brad Kilgore opened Alter, Michael Shikany made intricate plates at his eponymous restaurant, Shikany. A Wynwood pioneer, Shikany opened his 4,000-square-foot eatery in 2013, when the neighborhood was still gritty. The restaurant's food was undeniably gorgeous, but it might have been ahead of its time. The place abruptly closed in 2015. A note on the door cited plumbing issues. Afterward, the chef moved to Washington, D.C., but frequently returned to Miami.
This past March 10, Shikany died at the age of 38. His funeral was a who's who of local chefs, with Cindy Hutson of Ortanique on the Mile delivering a heartfelt eulogy. What makes this story even more tragic is that Shikany was poised to return to Miami's food scene. He had leased a space in Allapattah and posted on Facebook that it would be the "first of two concepts."
3. Hurricane Irma. September is normally a cruel month for Miami restaurateurs. Last year, it was the Zika virus. This year, Hurricane Irma ripped through town. And the aftermath was nastier than the wind. With power out for days, many restaurants lost perishable inventory. And even when some reopened to feed a bored and hungry public, mandatory curfews forced them to close. Owners and workers were also barred from returning to restaurants in evacuation zones.
The Florida Keys fared even worse. Many restaurants on Overseas Highway suffered severe water damage, and the mandatory evacuation order after the storm in the Lower Keys cut off the area's lifeblood — tourism — for weeks. Key West officially reopened for tourism October 1, but for some locals, three weeks of lost revenue meant the difference between life and death.
4. Jeremy Ford. Jeremy Ford was already on his way to a successful culinary career as executive chef at Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Matador Room at the Miami Beach Edition hotel when he won Season 13 of Top Chef in spring 2016. That victory, however, was only the beginning.
The now-32-year-old chef partnered with Grove Bay Hospitality Group to collaborate on two projects. Stubborn Seed (101 Washington Ave., Miami Beach) opened three months ago in Miami Beach's South of Fifth neighborhood to much buzz. The restaurant's $95 tasting menu is the main draw. Diners feast on a rotating selection of luxury items such as foie gras and lobster. Ford's next act is a high-end seafood house tentatively called Afishionado.
Ford's personal life is also flourishing. In 2017, he and his partner, Maria Sparacino, welcomed a child.
5. Palace Bar. For three decades, the Palace Bar was an Ocean Drive fixture, hosting weekend drag brunches and shows loved by locals and tourists alike. The city's most fabulous and iconic drag performers, including Tiffany Fantasia and Melissa Hilton, played the Palace. The bar and restaurant was the premier meeting place for Miami Beach's LGBT community and a beacon of acceptance to all. This past July 4, after losing its lease, the Palace closed its doors with a fantastic block party.
Then, just a few days after the shuttering, owner Thomas Donall vowed to bring the bar back to Ocean Drive at "a bigger location that has a hotel and make it an LGBT center." The Palace, indeed, recently reopened as promised, in the former Amarillo restaurant space (1052 Ocean Dr., Miami Beach), with even more glitter and glitz than ever.
6. Food halls. Though food halls are an established way of eating in cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Seattle, Miami seems behind the times. That's about to change: More than a half-dozen food halls are poised to open. Le Centrale, a 40,000-square-foot project inside Brickell City Centre (701 S. Miami Ave., Miami), is expected to begin operation by the end of 2017. Fourteen dining areas and marketplaces will include an espresso bar, a cocktail bar, a wine cave, and several experiential restaurants — all Italian-themed. Other projects set to open the first half of 2018 are Time Out Market in South Beach, St. Roch Market in the Design District, the Citadel in Little River, and Treats at Aventura Mall (19501 Biscayne Blvd., Aventura).
Amid all of this planning, 1-800-Lucky (143 NW 23rd St., Unit 312, Miami) began service without much advance press. The Wynwood-based Asian marketplace hosts seven concepts, two bars, and a patio area. The venue opened not long ago with guests happily chowing down on dim sum and poke bowls.
Whether all of these food halls open remains to be seen, but Miamians seem eager about the concept of eating chef-driven fare at prices that don't break the bank.
7. Gigi. For seven years, Gigi had everything going for it. The midtown restaurant, which opened with Top Chef alum Jeff McInnis as its chef, had a great vibe, steady business, and late-night noodles. This past July, rumors started swirling about employees not getting paid. The situation came to a head when staff walked out after the eatery's new ownership wouldn't take responsibility for the back pay. The incident forced the restaurant to close.
According to then-executive chef Ricky Sauri, owners refused to make good on back pay. "We kept working in good faith, and we haven't gotten paid for a month," he said at the time. New management quietly removed the Gigi sign, and the restaurant never reopened.
8. Oasis Café. For nearly five decades, Oasis Café (19 Harbor Dr., Key Biscayne) was Key Biscayne's favorite place to grab a cup of coffee. Saturday mornings, everyone from abuelas to cycling enthusiasts flocked to the unpretentious café to refresh. In January, Key Biscayne and City of Miami Fire-Rescue units responded to a call that the iconic restaurant was ablaze. The fire was deemed electrical in nature and there were no injuries, but it caused an estimated $100,000 in damage.
As luck would have it, Oasis was being remodeled, and the new, adjacent space wasn't damaged by the flames. The restaurant resumed operation nearly immediately, because nothing can come between Miamians and their cortaditos.
9. Velvet Creme. Decades before the Salty Donut dazzled millennials with rose-glazed doughnuts, there was Velvet Creme. Established in Little Havana in 1947, the shop served doughnuts until a family illness in 2000 caused it to shutter.
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In 2015, Robert Taylor, cofounder of the renewed Velvet Creme, decided to revive the brand owned by his brother-in-law, Gary Hadler. The team started with a food truck and then announced plans to open a store in Little River. When that location didn't work, they looked in Miami Shores. Alas, no doughnuts. Finally, it was announced the shop would return to its roots. This past October, Velvet Creme opened in Little Havana (1555 SW Eighth St., Miami), bringing the doughnut story full circle.
10. Vegan movement. In a city that leads with a Cuban flavor, you'd expect to find pork in every pot. For a long time, vegans had a lousy time finding something to eat beyond a mixed green salad sans the buttermilk dressing. Though plant-based restaurants thrived in other cities, Miami hosted a mere smattering of vegan spots — until recently.
According to Seed Food & Wine Week cofounder Alison Burgos, "Miami has gone from 15 vegan spots to over 30 in just three years. It's a really exciting time for our community." Favorite plant-based restaurants include Soul Tavern (1801 West Ave., Miami Beach), Glam Vegan (3301 NE First Ave., Miami), and Bunnie Cakes (2322 NE Second Ave., Miami). This past April, VegNews named Miami one of the top ten vegan cities in the nation — sharing the spotlight with tree-hugging destinations such as Los Angeles, Portland, Oakland, and, um, Detroit. Apparently, eating a plant-based diet has gone mainstream.