Praying for Better Brickell Restaurants

It's enticing to bring out-of-town friends to Brickell and show them Miami's progress as an action-packed metropolis. They can walk to one of three Publix stores or buy cigarettes, Red Bull, or whatever stimulant tickles their fancy at the shiny new 7-Eleven. Yet when the time comes to grab a meal, someone quickly realizes what's most prevalent: PF Chang'sRosa Mexicano, chain sushi restaurants, and enough Irish pubs to earn the neighborhood the tongue-in-cheek nickname "Little Dublin."

As the walkability and convenience of living in Brickell improves, we often find ourselves getting in the car and heading into greater Miami for something to eat.

Last year brought a handful of new restaurants to the area, including Taverna Opa, Doraku -- owned by the family that gave us Benihana and Steve Aoki -- and Brother Jimmy's, a New York City barbecue joint with celebrity backers. The flow of these corporate-backed restaurants into the neighborhood is unlikely to stop, but won't deter new residents from moving in.

Large-scale construction in Brickell came back to life in 2012. Work at Brickell CityCentre, a $1.05 billion project by Hong Kong-based Swire Properties, should bring millions of square feet of mixed-use space to the area in the coming years. Construction is also underway on the 46-story Brickell House, the 42-story 1100 Millicento Residences, and the 28-story MyBrickell condominium. These projects will draw thousands of new residents to the area in next five years and will include first-floor retail space for which landlords will seek top dollar.

The hub of action, for the moment, is Mary Brickell Village. The 195,000-square-foot mall sat partially empty in the years following the city's real estate bust but today is 100 percent occupied. The mall is owned by Quebec-based Ivanhoe Cambridge and claims a fair amount of foot traffic throughout the week. Yet it has an uninspiring mix of eateries. Toscana Divino is a highlight, yet the Italian eatery was years in the making as a partnership between the Beacon Council -- the county's economic development agency -- and Wine & Fashion Florence, a luxury lifestyle group that promotes Tuscany.

Fernando Perez, the general manager of the mall, did not return calls for comment about strategy and position on bringing in smaller businesses. Eddie Dominguez, owner of cupcake shop LA Sweets, said management "made it very easy" to lease out the 700-square-foot shop at "$30 to $35" per square foot in 2011. 

The most reliable tenants are those with plenty of cash and proven business models. For example, PF Chang's China Bistro Inc., the corporation that also owns Pei Wei Asian Diner, reported a net income of $30.1 million in fiscal 2011. Tables are always full at the PF Chang's on the corner of South Miami Avenue and Ninth Street.

Given the risk and turnover intrinsic to the restaurant business, it's clear why property managers opt for a tenant with the financial and business prowess to ensure the venture will be a success. Compare that to your start-up restaurateur, running the kitchen and books while training and overseeing mostly on their own. A 2007 study by an Ohio State University hospitality management professor showed that the long-claimed 90 percent failure rate for restaurants was actually closer to 60 percent over a three-year period. Yet it's easy to see that guaranteed moneymakers can secure themselves the best space while the rest are relegated to side streets.

Nonetheless, a handful of impressive, independently owned restaurants are making good in Brickell. The ramen restaurant Momi, located on a side street perpetually clogged with construction, is quickly developing a cult following. Naoe on nearby Brickell Key is often mentioned in hushed whispers as one of Miami's best restaurants. David Bracha's River Seafood & Oyster Bar remains a strong operation, despite being in the midst of CitiCentre construction and possibly doomed after the property was sold last year to a Colombian investor.

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While the neighborhood is destined for more growth and density, it seems unlikely it will also become a hub for the kind of restaurants that are bolstering Miami's prominence as a culinary destination.

For more, follow Zach on Twitter @ZachIsWeird.

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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