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“It’s not all tuna tartare and fishbowl cocktails anymore,” said a good friend after sensing my wince at the idea of visiting Miami for a food weekend. “Miami will surprise you,” and he was right, it did surprise me, because aside from the stereotypical Spring break cocktails as big as babies - and there are still many places that offer this - there is a diverse, dedicated and delicious food scene brimming across the city.
Miami is young and still developing and its food culture reflects this. Traditionally driven by large hotel chains, tourist eateries and the odd celebrity name above the door, food in Miami lacked identify for many years - especially the idea of local, independent restaurants. But this has been slowly transforming and the city is quickly becoming a place that caters well across the dining spectrum. However, ask most foodies about the idea of putting Miami on the menu and they’ll almost certainly wince at the idea.
A quick cruise down the Ocean Drive and it’s obvious why, the place is plastered with deep bass, deep cocktail bowls, and deep pockets. Dining on any serious note doesn’t get a look in, but divert from this spine, away from the crowds, and the city will surprise you. While the beach front strip shows Miami in all its drunk, teenage glory, the Design District, Wynwood, Brickell, show a Miami maturing, a city finally confident enough to dress down a little, put the teenage angst to bed, stop worrying about all the wax in its hair, and show a little individuality. And the restaurant scene tastes all the better for it.
Brad Kilgore is one of the young chefs helping to push this change, his Alter restaurant cooks with Florida products when it can and has become one of the go-to creative spots for dining in the city. “I’ve been here for six years and I think in them six years it’s really doubled, even tripled in quality, in terms of food itself in the city. The city has grown beyond South Beach, this brings a lot more opportunity and a lot more independent restauranteurs. Generally there are a lot more businesses popping up that are not revolving around the tourists.”
Tourists are great, they provide income and demand for many places in the city, but many of the most exciting new restaurants in Miami in recent years have opened to feed a growing local demand. Miami’s local population has been growing fast, faster than most other cities in the US with Census reports showing that Miami has been receiving around 5,000 new people a month for the past 12 months. This means many chefs are stepping away from the bustle of South Beach to open in other parts of the city. One of these is Justin Flit who opened the Proof restaurant in a neighbourhood he said was too dangerous to walk in when he was younger. “I think that people that really changed it locally were chefs Michael Schwartz and Michelle Bernstein - those are the two, without them the Design District may not be what it is now - Schwartz took a chance to go into that neighbourhood. Ten years ago we would’t want to be sitting where we are at now.”
Many chefs talk about the rapid change in Miami, the city itself has seen massive development with apartments being built across the skyline. This new, local demand is helping independent restauranteurs make their mark. Antonio Bachour is the pastry chef at Bachour Bakery in Brickell, he sells 700 croissants a day and thinks it’s only possible because of a big changes that have happened across Miami. “Now there are lot of people living here, rather than tourists who bring a high season and low season, there are more locals around. I couldn’t have opened this place when I first arrived. If I opened this in 2002 I would have closed, when I moved to Miami this area had only a few buildings, now it’s packed. When I moved here there really were only a few restaurants, the most popular restaurant was an Italian that had been here for 30 years.”
Big chefs with a serious focus on food are also stepping into the City. Thomas Keller is expected to open a place, Joel Robuchon is investing heavily in the trendy Design District and Gaston Acurio already has a successful restaurant there. It’s called La Mar and it’s run by chef Diego Oka who kicks out distinct Peruvian cuisine that blends Nikkei and even European flavours with a world of delicious technique.
For Oka, Miami is a place he feels personally invested in, but he thinks it's missing something pretty vital. “What we really need is a China Town, independent places, hidden places, when I want to eat dirty Chinese in the middle of the night. We need a China Town - I think that’s one of the main things every big foodie city has. I heard it’s happening, near Wynwood, but who knows. I see a lot of potential in Miami, it’s growing."
If a farmer's market is any sign of changing local food focus, Miami has two good ones, one in Pinecrest and one in Brickell - the latter only opened at the end of 2016 and is still quite small but it's great to see a market towered over by fresh skyscrapers and designer shopping malls. The two markets are run by Susan Muci and Natalia Gimenez who both agree that Miami locals are starting to pay more attention to sourcing good quality ingredients.
“We started operating the market in September.. we are getting new vendors every week,” explained Muci during a Saturday market. “We are adding two to three every week… The number of patrons has greatly increased since the start, 50 percent definitely, maybe more.” The Brickell market is new for them and the residents, but their Pinecrest site is packed. “It has a waiting list of 900 vendors trying to get in, there are about 70 there now and when we started it was about 50 vendors in the high season and 30 in the low - now it’s full, even in the rain. On a Sunday, footfall can reach up to three thousand people. I think by next summer the new market will also be full.”
The food scene is even extending to parts of the city that were once seen as no-go areas, not because they were or are dangerous, but because after dark no one actually goes there. Downtown, still described as dead on a Sunday, is also starting to see chefs open decent restaurants. Deme Lomas is one of these people with two Downtown spots: Niu Kitchen and Arson. “I was scared to open downtown," he said while explaining his reasoning, “In Downtown we just have three or four restaurants that all close early, so we decided to open something because we live in the neighbourhood and we felt that there were no places to go.”
The gamble has paid off for Lomas whose Niu restaurant is packed, "This street used to be dead, especially at night - 6pm it was dead, but that’s changing now. People are travelling down here to eat, we are getting people from everywhere. I would say about three years ago nobody would be walking around here, still if you come on a Sunday night it can be creepy. 90 percent of our clients are now local - not tourists. When I first moved here, about five years ago, I have seen a total change in the food industry. People are changing, I’m not sure I could cook classic real Catalan cuisine five years ago in Miami.”
The buzz around the city in terms of food is evident, the chefs feel it and you can quite literally taste it on the plates. The design district is cool, packed with street art, slick bakeries, colourful diners, coffee shops and shared workspaces. The weather is great and great local produce, though tough to secure and hard to grow because of the blistering heat, can be found. There’s an energy around Miami that’s attracting chefs and making them want to stay. As Diego Oka said, “I feel like Miami is going to be my last stop. I will say yes I would like to stay here in Miami, I like it here. I see a lot of potential in Miami, it’s growing, it’s getting better and for cooks, the culinary world, Miami is becoming a hot spot.”