Swanky SoBe Restaurant Bâoli Accused of Forgery and Fraud in Landlord's Lawsuit

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A native of Mexico City, the 59-year-old Romero met a Pan Am flight attendant in the early '90s. They married, had a child, and moved to Miami in 1993. He quickly got into the real estate game in South Beach, which was just coming out of the Cocaine Cowboys era and gentrifying quickly. Romero began buying condos and pieces of hotel developments from Crescent Heights, millionaire entrepreneur Russell Galbut's development firm.

"I could have done a lot more, but I just didn't have the money," says Romero, a gravel-voiced man who wears tinted glasses and a colorful beaded bracelet. "A lot of Ocean Drive was up for sale those days."

Among the properties he did snag was a 1939 building just north of some of SoBe's most historic hotels. When Romero bought 1906 Collins Ave. for $540,000 in 1996, it was home to Gino's Restaurant, an old-school neighborhood mainstay for decades.

By the time massive construction on Collins forced Gino's out of business a few years later, South Beach was a different place. Crumbling tenements and impoverished pensioners were being pushed out by designer Italian retailers and techno-thumping nightclubs. Romero quickly went upscale, luring in a local outlet of Hamptons favorite World Pie and then hosting a venture by the owners of nearby nightclubs Mynt and Rokbar.

Around 2010, he made a connection he was sure would click. Christophe Caucino, a silver-maned Frenchman, was the brains behind a hip restaurant in Cannes called Bâoli; its mix of club standbys -- like bottle service with sparklers and an in-house DJ -- and nouveau cuisine seemed like a perfect fit for South Beach's new vibe.

"Unfortunately, Christophe didn't know anything about Miami," Romero says. "So he had a lot of problems getting started here. It eventually was just too much."

Caucino sold out to another Frenchman, a young, handsome entrepreneur named Mathieu Massa. About a year later, the place opened after a massive redesign. In the main dining room, leather banquettes with white pillows frame simple black tables, all dwarfed by the central DJ booth. And through an open wall, a back courtyard is surrounded by purple-lit fishtail palms and a long outdoor bar.

Bâoli quickly became a hit with the high-end set. It nabbed regular mentions in the Miami Herald's gossip pages as A-listers such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Joe Jonas, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Will Smith racked up huge bills at VIP tables. Arnold Schwarzenegger's son, Patrick, reportedly spent $8,000 one night. A few months later, Flo Rida made it rain $100 bills after ordering 20 Patrón shots for his table. Last year, the restaurant began touting its $65 hamburger -- made with fois gras, Kobe beef, and black truffles -- as the priciest in town. "Bâoli's burger is a status-symbol food," the head chef told New Times.

But behind the scenes, Romero and his tenant were butting heads. Until this summer, the dispute was the kind of argument that's a dime a dozen on Miami Beach's high-end restaurant scene. Romero claimed Bâoli's owners had let six-figure fines pile up and had reneged on a promise to spend $1.5 million improving the place. They claimed he wouldn't respond to their calls and had cost them significant cash by not warning them the outdoor bar wasn't permitted. By December 2013, they were duking out the claims in civil court.

That's when Romero says he asked his associate, who runs a permitting company, to look into exactly how much Bâoli's owners had actually paid the city. And that's when the fight got weird, even by South Beach standards.

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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink