It was nearly 10 o'clock on a Friday evening when Amir Ben-Zion strolled past the double doors of his new Design District eatery, South Street. Head cleanly shaven and dressed in distressed jeans, the 50-year-old sauntered by an expansive leather booth where Dwyane Wade and Gabrielle Union were tweeting about their meal, past busy waiters wearing plaid trilby hats and suspenders, and stopped at a DJ stand nestled at the far corner of the bumping upstairs lounge.
He signaled, and Rufus and Chaka Khan's "Tell Me Something Good" blared through the speakers. As decibel levels increased, the crowd took notice; it was a trademark Ben-Zion moment: good sound, good food, and good-looking people.
In the past three years, Ben-Zion has become one of Florida's hottest restaurateurs. His empire stretches from Midtown's Gigi — named best late-night dining restaurant by Miami New Times in 2011 — to its funky next-door lounge, Bardot, to South Beach's cool BondSt at the Townhouse Hotel alongside Jonathan Morr.
But now, Ben-Zion has embarked upon one of the most ambitious experiments ever seen in South Florida dining. In October, he opened two major dining establishments simultaneously: South Street inhabits one of the highest-profile spots in Miami's hottest dining area, the Design District. And Cooper Avenue, which occupies an entire block of 7,500 square feet near Lincoln Road in South Beach, is a multifaceted deli, bakery, lounge, restaurant, market, and boutique, located on the ground floor of the parking garage for the Frank Gehry-designed New World Art Center.
Ben-Zion was born in Israel, a place, he says, that sits culturally somewhere between Iran and Paris. He moved to New York City at age 16 in 1979 and, while in high school, began an exercise studio in Riverdale called Shape Up and Dance. Ben-Zion says he sold the business within a year after opening at a price more than 15 times what he had paid.
He then promoted parties at Studio 54, managed a Fred Segal-style lifestyle boutique, and eventually earned his real estate license. At a young age, he had already begun garnering a reputation as an ingenious entrepreneur.
But occasionally, he would overpay for things or buy goods that were too expensive. "Back then, so young and with that kind of cash, you make every mistake in the book," he explains.
Soon he bought a New York eatery known as the Cooper Avenue Deli, which he operated for 13 months. "I was 19 years old at the time; I didn't initially want to look for a deli," he says. But he reworked the locale's concept and made it fit with his modern style.
He began selling sneakers, Ray Ban sunglasses, and $4 kaiser roll sandwiches with thin-sliced salami, Israeli pickles, and mayo. The refrigerator was stocked with Coca-Cola and beer. Piled next to it were Levi's blue jeans. He created a cool neighborhood eatery fused with contemporary fashion.
"My goal was traffic. It wasn't strictly business," Ben-Zion says. "At 4 p.m., you wanted to sit on the steps of Cooper Avenue Deli."
His empire in South Florida began with vacations in South Beach. "Miami Beach is very Tel Aviv; it's informal, cool, girls are half-naked," he says, revealing a mischievous sense of humor. "It was a natural move for me."
He arrived in the Magic City in 1998, hoping to try his luck in a variety of things: real estate, restaurants, and clubs.
After launching eateries like Miss Yip Chinese Café and BondSt, in 2010, Ben-Zion exploded onto the Miami dining and nightlife scene. That was the year he opened neighboring Midtown ventures Bardot and Gigi.
There aren't any signs at the entrance of Bardot, just a modest red awning and bursts of music that explode onto the sidewalk every time someone opens the doors. "It's as close to my living room as you can design something," he says. The semi-erotic art is by his second wife, Eurydice. The books all belong to his personal collection. The Tom Dixon lamps are all originals, and the decorative glassware once belonged to his grandparents. The lounge, which just celebrated its third anniversary, is one of the hippest in town.
Part of the reason for its success is its proximity to Gigi, which is also conveniently open late — till 5 a.m. on weekends. The modern eatery is energetic and youthful and serves a fresh menu that is as much about playful Asian-inspired fare as it is moderate prices. On weekends, the music is loud.
"I'm a producer trying to produce a moment or a business or a concept," Ben-Zion explains. "It's also all about sound."
News then broke in 2011 that Ben-Zion was opening an outpost of Gigi in South Beach to also include a bakery, burger joint, and even a bar. But months later, the plan was scrapped.
In its place, Cooper Avenue — the reincarnation of Ben-Zion's New York deli — was born. "Cooper Avenue represents a segment of two or three blocks where you can get everything you need, from sunglasses to foods from anywhere in the world," he explains. "It's part of where Miami is going. The city is very eclectic."
At the restaurant, the menu lists a lobster salad, with citrus, tomato, and fava beans. There's also smoked pork pizza with Brussels sprouts, caramelized shallots, and smoked mozzarella. Cocktails are designed by Bar Lab, the hip duo behind the Broken Shaker. The boutique displays Pharrell Williams' book Pharrell: Places and Spaces I've Been next to neat rows of Sun Bum sunblock. The place has a license to open 24 hours a day, though it isn't quite there yet.
Its sister restaurant, South Street, is set in the same location where Domo Japones and Sra. Martinez previously reigned. Ben-Zion has leased the whitewashed building, which was once the Buena Vista postal office, from Design District developer Craig Robins for ten years.
In July 2012, when James Beard Award-winning chef Michelle Bernstein closed her acclaimed eatery, Sra. Martinez, Ben-Zion planned to replace it with a steak house and burger joint known as Mandy's Drugstore. But then Amaris Jones, the pixie-cut lifestyle manager for celebrities like P. Diddy (and Ben-Zion's old friend), approached him with a different idea. She wanted to open a soul-food eatery and name it after a street in her native Philadelphia. "We had originally planned to say no to Amaris," he explains.
But she insisted that if he tried her food, he too would be convinced. Soon she arrived at his home with containers of fried chicken, short ribs, and shrimp and grits. "Soul food, blues, and R&B," he says. "Amaris pressed on all those buttons, and it just worked.
"Amaris is a macher," Ben-Zion explains, seamlessly intertwining Yiddish into his English speech. A macher is someone who makes things happen.
Clad in a floral apron and snug navy-blue Tom's, Jones greets guests like a feminine version of Sirio Maccioni. The restaurant's fare is based on her personal recipes: flaky sweet-potato biscuits, lobster mac and cheese, and crispy skin wild salmon, served alongside a grapefruit-dill sauce and mixed greens. The menu combines soul food with lighter eats like quinoa and kale salads. The new 65-seat eatery boasts a sophisticated setting and targets a mature crowd, aged 30 to 50. On weekends, wait times already exceed an hour.
Both South Street and Cooper Avenue seek permanence. "Our growth was always different than other places, because we are trying to avoid becoming trendy," Ben-Zion says. "Look at BondSt and Bardot. They both graduated the trendy phase and survived."
Part of that involves maintaining a quiet approach when it comes to media. Ben-Zion prefers for his places to speak for themselves.
When questioned about the opening of these two major endeavors at once, he responds coolly. "Coincidence," he says. "No problem."
He remains vague about his next projects but hints at the possibility of developing something new near downtown, Wynwood, or the Biscayne corridor.
Till then, Amir Ben-Zion can be spotted on the corner of Cooper Avenue and South Street, the abstract intersection of a colossal, ambitious brand. It's there that he listens with a fine-tuned ear and waits to discover whether any of his eateries require that he crank up the sound.