Local Miamians are known to avoid South Beach most of the tourist season. That means missing out on some restaurants, however excellent they may be.
Unless they're participating in certain shows and festivals, locals avoid the beach during the crowds of Art Basel, the Miami International Boat Show, the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, and Spring Break. And every weekend when the sky is that particular blue color and the sun burns bright, well, those days don't bode well for crossing any of the causeways and parking once you get there.
Despite all of this, fans of the Drexel at Esmé Miami Beach Hotel are willing to risk crowds, misbehaving tourists, and overwhelmed parking garages and valets. Why?
For starters, the restaurant is owned by Anastasia Koutsioukis and Ahmet Erkaya, proprietors of longtime Design District fave Mandolin Aegean Bistro, design store pop-up Mrs. Mandolin next door, and the more casual iteration Mr. Mandolin in the Upper Eastside.
For another thing, the Drexel is located on a quiet block of historic Española Way. It's a region reminiscent of a time before mass development overtook the beach.
The restaurant is reminiscent of the '90s when Miami Beach was just beginning to gain a reputation as the American Riviera. Those were exciting days when we knew that Miami would be on the culinary map one day. Okay, so it took 30 years. Bon Appétit may have finally taken notice, granting Miami the title "2023 Food City of the Year." The Michelin Guide came around last year, as have other media outlets like the Robb Report and Bloomberg, who labeled the city "America's Hottest Dining Scene" and "the most exciting food city in the country" in 2021.
But for those of us who have been dining and writing about this place for decades, it's a pleasure not only to hear the accolades but to acknowledge those who have been striving for perfection all along. Restaurateurs like Koutsioukis and Erkaya are neither sitting on their laurels nor speed-giving us place after place with zillion-dollar pomp and circumstance. Instead, they're slow-fooding it — and getting it just right.
Indeed, while the Drexel technically is in the heart of the Art Deco District, you'd never really know it. This block is special, exuding the same vibe that it did decades ago. Koutsioukis and Erkaya, who had long been thinking about expanding to South Beach, felt it as well. This west-end location, which bleeds into the residential area, and the site itself drew them to build out the Drexel there.
"It was important to find a space with a sense of history. We are nostalgic for the charm of 'old Miami.' Española Way had that built-in charm," Koutsioukis notes. "The building was being restored by the Esme Hotel group, and we jumped on the opportunity to create an anchor restaurant in the neighborhood for local Miami Beach residents and travelers alike."
I recommend sitting inside in the light, welcoming interior, with doors and windows often open to the outdoors (in cooler weather) or outside on the terrace. Either way, you can view the rowdier restaurants from a distance, making you feel like you're on a Greek island where you can choose to be at the party or away from it while indulging in much better cuisine.
Speaking of Greece, if you don't see Koutsioukis and Erkaya at any of the Mandolins or the Drexel, that's because they're also building a six-room hotel on the island of Paros, where they have a summer home. Paros inspired the Mandolins, so as they say, "It's all come full circle." As have we.
The Drexel. 1436 Drexel Ave., Miami Beach; 305-692-0992; drexelmiami.com. Dinner is served Monday through Friday 6 to 11 p.m., Saturday 5 to 11 p.m., and Sunday 5 to 10 p.m. Sundowner happy hour is offered daily at the bar 5:30 to 7 p.m.