Miami Gastropubs Risk Steering the Trend the Wrong Way

Miami today is replete with truffle oil fries, Brussels sprouts studded with pork bits, and fried-egg-crowned burgers. From the beach to the suburbs, from north to south, scores of restaurants all serve the same predictably heavy fare under the gastropub banner.

The concept was borne of England's pub culture. Chefs with haute cuisine pedigrees made food as much a priority as drink, and started serving upmarket fare in unpretentious settings. A slow collection of gastropubs began shaping up in America starting in the 1990s and the trend seemed to mushroom when April Bloomfield opened the Spotted Pig in New York City in 2004. It rooted in Miami, one could argue, in 2010 when three guys opened a pork-heavy place called Pubbelly in Miami Beach's then-forgettable Sunset Harbour neighborhood.

In the years that followed, the gastropub concept crawled across town like an endless traffic jam. The term was even added to Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary in August 2012. While many of these places have the requisite exposed brick, chalkboards and small plates, they miss what puts a gastropub above a glorified greasy spoon. "It's becoming an excuse to have a casual setting, but forgetting that the work's done in the kitchen," says Pubbelly Group partner and executive chef Jose Mendin.

Indeed, too many Miami restaurants that label themselves gastropubs fail to live up to the high expectations they should surpass. They often don't do the difficult, time-consuming prep work that's commonplace in fine-dining kitchens.

Of course, some places are doing it right. The Mighty on Coral Way offers ever-changing charcuterie offerings that include house-cured filet mignon and pork loin, bresaola, and duck pate. Pubbelly has long been favored for its wacky array of homemade dumplings filled with pastrami and sauerkraut, or duck and pumpkin. Buns & Buns bakes a wide array of breads -- ranging from naan to brioche -- daily. The South Miami restaurant is making a commendable effort that few similarly themed spots match. Finka Table and Tap is also trying novel ideas -- if mostly by locating in an underserved area.

See also: Finka Table & Tap Takes Bold Flavors to Miami's Hinterland

For those riding the trend's coattails, here are a few things you can do to make yourselves stand out: Grind your own meat from a variety of top quality cuts. Tell diners about it and encourage them to order a burger medium rare or rare. Nothing is better than a bleeding, juicy burger. Wagyu meatloaf anyone? Gigi's now gone version -- made of braised short rib that was shredded and molded into small bricks to be crisped and reheated was a fantastic interpretation.

Make your own pickles and condiments like tomato jam and whole-grain mustard. Pickles are so easy to make it's stupid. Vegetables plus vinegar, salt and sugar equals pickles. Pop orange or lemon rinds into the jar for variety. Chili flakes along with fennel and caraway seed add a welcome spice and complexity.

You can stop serving lone hunks of pork belly and other over-offered dishes. Crispy hand-cut french fries are far superior to the now ubiquitous truffle or duck fat fry. Macaroni and cheese with an orgiastic array of toppings may sell, but make you look like an uncreative copycat. Make one kind of pasta in house -- pappardelle seems to be the easiest -- and rotate simple, fresh sauces and additions.

Lastly, stop calling yourselves gastropubs. Many have already begun dropping the label. And perhaps those of us who write about them should let it go, too. You can also nix cliché totems like exposed brick walls and butcher paper menus without having to slap down white tablecloths and squeeze waiters into dinner jackets. Perhaps, without all the superfluous stuff, money can be invested on kitchen staff and equipment that will truly set you apart from the pack.

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Zachary Fagenson became the New Times Broward-Palm Beach restaurant critic in 2012 before taking up the post for Miami in 2014. He also works as a correspondent for Reuters.
Contact: Zachary Fagenson

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