I remember the low point well. Just a few months ago now, it was a slow summer in a notoriously seasonal dining town. But almost every restaurant seemed to be operating in a dimension entirely separate from one crucial element: customers. After tucking in alone to so many plates of frites and short ribs and wild-caught salmon, I began to feel like those thumb-twiddling restaurateurs must have: At first, there was a deep sadness, which gave way to the sting of red-hot betrayal before finally settling into a throbbing, dull numbness.
What a difference six months makes.
We've hit the bottom and come back again, folks. Through rough times and a poor economy, Florida's restaurant scene did some extended spring cleaning. And, yes, along with the dregs that have been washed away went some pretty great restaurants. But now we've got a rare opportunity for a mulligan. And here they come to make good: promising ethnic eateries; inexpensive, trendy dining spots; the shiny, lusty draw of big names. English. Militello. Susser. Bernstein. If you don't think the restaurant industry is aiming bigger for 2010, then I've got a friend who does private investments I'd like you to meet.
Now, with this yo-yo year that was 2009 nearly in the books, we can look forward to the next as a chance to break free, to capitalize on this convergence of great weather, obscene wealth, inspiring promise, and honest integrity we call South Florida.
But first, a look back at the year that was, lest it all bear repeating. (Also, visit CleanPlateCharlie.com for even more year-end wrap-up.)
Out With the Old
In 2009, we lost some truly bright spots in South Florida's dining scene, but among the most painful was Christine's in Fort Lauderdale. Daniel MacMillan and Gregory Rhatagen's New Age jazz lounge was the kind of satiny, wood-floored dining hall you could melt away in, preferably while supping on Creole crab cakes with tasso gravy and Niman Ranch pork chops with Swiss chard. But as New Times dining critic Gail Shepherd mentioned in her 2008 review of the place, "Being very good, even great, of course, isn't enough in the restaurant business; sometimes it's no asset at all." Sadly, that proved true. After scrambling all summer to bring in the punters, Christine's breathed its last in July. Its shell now houses a sports bar called Mugs.
Gone too are the whimsical flavors of Fort Lauderdale's beloved Four Rivers. Miami-based Origins has moved in (and subsequently closed down), but I still have the memory of one visually striking dish at Four Rivers, a whole yellowtail snapper fried and plated as if suspended in midair, like it was leaping off the pearly white plate.
Things got sadder still when Tony and Laurie Bova's flagship, Bova Ristorante, went down suddenly on one languid October weekend; Fort Lauderdale attorney-cum-ponzi-schemer Scott Rothstein's involvement in the dustup is yet unclear.
Also in the loss column, eccentric bar owner "Kilmo" Pacillo made good on his promise to shutter Alligator Alley, and Dania Beach's boutique Armadillo Beach Café curled into its shell for good.
More notable closures: Elwood's, Café Joley, Bar Louie, Cottonwood Grill, Dogma Grill, Opus 5, the River House, Jackson's Steakhouse, Rosa Mexicana, the Grape, City Grill, and Spoto's Oyster Bar.
In With the New
With so many vacant squares of real estate piling up, at least some of them have been filled by promising new venues. Late 2008 was a boon for hip, midscale eateries that continued to thrive in 2009: Sage Bistro and Oyster Bar in Hollywood, Todd English's da Campo Osteria, and Fort Lauderdale's clubby YOLO all blossomed in downward times.
Clematis Street in West Palm Beach continued its vibrant turnaround with cheap eateries like Grease and Reef Rd. Rum Bar drawing the crowds back from CityPlace. The budget formula didn't work for everyone, however: Burt Rapoport's proletarian gin joint, Clematis Social, opened and shuttered faster than you can say "$10 sliders."
Even in stark times, diners are still willing to pay gobs for premier ingredients, and places like Michelle Bernstein's at the Omphoy and City Fish Market proved as much. At Steak 954, Stephen Starr's gorgeous digs in the new W Hotel, folks are lining up to devour steaks that top the $50 mark and tacos mounted with big-eye tuna and foie gras. And at City Fish Market Boca, $40 for Dover sole proved to be a steal. Conspicuous consumption, it seems, thrived in '09.
More notable arrivals: the Restaurant at 251, LOLA Ultra Lounge, Surf Sliders, Wild Ginger Asian Bistro, Brooklyn Bagels, Pizzeria Oceano, Green Gourmet, Wild Olives, Perfect Maine Lobster Roll, Johnny Brown's, Gratify, Rock 'N' Roll Ribs, and Satoro Restaurant and Lounge.
Barkeep, Another Round
When times get tough, people turn to drink. And this year saw a boon in all things hoochtastic. Happy hours, booze specials, and wine pairings became standard. Upscale digs such as 32 East in Delray Beach and Trina in Fort Lauderdale offered cheap wine pairings. Johnny V, Himmarshee Bar and Grill, and YOLO each served wallet-friendly tapas menus and wine bin bargains that could loop the staunchest of spendthrifts.
And then there's beer: The working man's brew went stratospheric in an effort to capitalize on the ever-expanding base of craft beer fanatics. The Lodge in Boca Raton, Charm City Burgers in Delray Beach, and the aforementioned Grease Burger Bar each debuted beer menus so nuanced that they would make Norm Peterson give up his Boston barstool and move to Palm Beach.
The best thing about this sudsy boom? Restaurateurs finally realized beer isn't just for peanuts. Tryst in Delray Beach, with its hip atmosphere and gorgeous outdoor patio, put beer at the center of its smart menu of upscale small plates and succeeded. Notable chefs like Lola's on Harrison's Michael Wagner aren't just serving quality brew — they're cooking with it too. (Who doesn't want to eat his chocolate stout cake?) But, in truth, the credit for South Florida's beer revolution has to go to the ground team: Adam Fine and the folks at Fresh Beer Inc., Sally Parsons and John Hatadis at BX Beer Depot, and local brewers like Fran Andrewlevich and Matt Cox, who each continue to make sure South Floridians are hearing about and drinking more beer.
Florida continues to be the Promised Land for celebrity names and chain eateries. At price points both high and low, they've appeared — Truluck's, Uncle Julio's, Five Guys, Primanti Brothers, Morton's, Brio, III Forks, Copper Canyon Grill — each shooting a lusty gaze this year at SoFla's coffers.
If New York is where chefs go to make their name, Florida is where they come to collect. Stephen Starr, Masaharu Morimoto, Todd English — the playbill reads like A Food Network Christmas. English in particular has gone gonzo for the potential of the Sunshine State. After debuting his rustic, Italian eatery da Campo Osteria in the lux Il Lugano Hotel late last year, Boston's top toque stuck around to have his chiseled face snapped for gossip columns and gazed over by Florida foodies with a burning in both loins and stomach. With his debut of Figs in West Palm Beach and Wild Olives in the old Opus 5 spot in recent months, we may as well gift English with a complimentary pair of flip-flops and Bermuda shorts. He's ours now.
Speaking of our own, 2009 was a great year to be one of South Florida's homegrown talents. Lirim Jacobi cut his teeth at Taverna Opa, but his partnership with English is sending the restaurateur to the next level. And nothing, apparently, evokes hunger quite like a bald, buff dude in the kitchen — at least if local boys Steve Martorano and Rocco Mangel have anything to say about it. Mangel in particular, who had Kelly Ripa dishing about his tacos on her blog, just debuted his second Rocco's Tacos in Boca's Town Center Commons (he's also a partner in Big Time Restaurant Group's new Reef Rd.).
Ultimately, a big name doesn't mean squadoosh if the experience isn't there. Luckily, South Florida's finest are delivering expertly. Zach Bell of Café Boulud began his turn at the southern branch of Daniel Boulud's vast empire in 2003, and this year he was nominated for his second James Beard award. His seasonal menu of peekytoe crab and steamed snapper en cocotte, of Casco Bay cod and duo of lamb à la grecque is as much a showcase of his exceptional talent as his hosting of diners for Slow Food Glades to Coast exhibits his commitment to local foodways.
Also in Palm Beach, Miami's Michelle Bernstein landed in the exclusive Omphoy Hotel and produced one of South Florida's finest restaurants in both service and cuisine. Through her daily-caught seafood, adherence to tradition, and respect for ingredients, Bernstein has proven that fine dining here can stand up to anywhere in the country.
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Onward and Upward
Every food news outlet will tell you what the newest trends for 2010 are, but I know what I'd like to see: simple, ingredient-driven menus. Restaurant openings that are less about hip atmosphere than they are about honest food. A renewed emphasis on ethnic dining. My favorite new eateries of the year almost unanimously met those criteria. Taurus Steakhouse, with its ability to transform inexpensive cuts of meat into superlative steaks, is a fine example of a proud family business facing the economy head-on. In Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Basilic Vietnamese Grill brought a fresh take to DIY Asian cuisine. First-time restaurateurs like Beverly and Donald Jacobs of Bamboo Fire in Delray Beach took an unaffected love for food and let it bloom, while Bravo Peruvian Sandwich Shop in Fort Lauderdale put the flavors of Peru on a sublimely crusty roll and made you fall in love.
And still, there are plenty of interesting restaurants on the way in early 2010. Delray Beach is booming with big returns from Mark Militello (the Office) and Allen Susser (Taste). There's the French Quarter Bar & Grill in Pompano Beach, Andrew Garavuso's second helping of the Sicilian Oven in Coral Springs, and a huge boom of restaurants in Gulfstream Park on the way. It seems like we've emerged from the worst recession in recent memory and come out stronger on the other side. And for that reason, whatever 2010 holds, you've got to agree: The future looks pretty damned bright in the Sunshine State.