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.