Owning and operating a restaurant is a tough feat and not for the faint of heart. Miami in particular is known for pushing the edge of culinary boundaries, and sometimes that means failures, as well as successes. In a region of this size, it shouldn’t be surprising to hear of closings, but this slow season has seen some major shifts and closings, including the end of some stellar runs that have left nostalgic diners looking for the next restaurant that will live on in Miami’s collective memory.
Historic restaurant trends
Looking at food via the lens of history, you will note that in Miami it is wholly dependent on migratory patterns. The constant influx of new cultures has created waves of trends in the region’s food scene. It all started with the Bahamians of pre-pioneer South Florida, then continued though the days of development between the 1900s and 1930s, followed by an influx of new residents after World War II, who were looking for Americanized versions of international foods like Chinese and Italian. The 1960s brought an influx of Cuban immigrants, and the 1970s and 1980s brought in more Latin Americans, as well immigrants from Haiti and other Caribbean nations.
The late 1980s and 1990s proved a crucial point in our food scene, when the Mango Gang (Allen Susser, Norman Van Aken, and Mark Militello, among others) put Miami cuisine on the international map, launching restaurants that made it a point to incorporate local flavors and ingredients. All but one of these influential restaurants closed, with Chef Allen’s, the last bastion, closing in 2011. In 2006, the opening of Michy’s in the MiMo District started a movement that, along with Michael Schwartz of Michael’s Genuine in 2007 and Kris Wessel of Red Light Little River in 2008, would again catapult Miami into the food spotlight.
Between the old and the new
Miami’s food scene continues to grow in prestige and influence, and it’s pushing the limits for better quality food, better quality palates and better expectations from local consumers. However, that growth coupled with a new real estate boom also has led to historic places closing, making way for newer and edgier concepts. Over the past few years, beloved establishments like Tobacco Road, Wolfie’s Rascal House, David’s Café, Jumbo’s, and Escopazzo have all closed.
Increased quality also means increased competition, between both old and new players. Since the year began, we have seen the closing of newer spots like Porfirio’s, Pi Pizzeria, Campania (sister restaurant to veteran Sardiania), Ted’s at YoungArts, and Gastropod in Aventura Mall, as well as well-known locations like Khong River House, Oolite, Ticety Tea, and Serendipity 3. Nostalgic favorites that have been around for decades have also closed their doors, including Van Dyke Café, which had a 20-year run, and 23-year-old Maiko Sushi.
Whether an establishment has a long run or a brief spark of culinary fame, it takes something special to inspire devotion from Miami’s fickle diners, who are always keen on trying new things. And although they couldn’t be more different, both 69-year-old Fox’s Sherron Inn and 5-year-old De Rodriguez inspired a legion of devoted fans who mourned their closing this year.
Nearly seven decades of history
Fox’s officially opened in 1946 as a sandwich shop and liquor store, though over the years it evolved into a full-service restaurant with a venerable bar. Founder Betty Fox named the iconic establishment for her daughter, Sharon, but a mess-up at the printers led to the Fox’s Sherron Inn. Which, ironically, has never been a hotel. George Andrews, a pilot for Pan Am Airways at the time, bought the restaurant in 1967 and owned it until 2010, when Rene Dahdah took over.
Firmly established in an unassuming corner of South Miami, it is off the traditional tourist route, yet it became an institution for both tourists and local alike. “It is one of the few places around here that existed in the fifties, and it was known to be a clandestine spot for its underground ambiance, providing a one-stop shop for wheelings and dealings,” says former general manager Ricardo Gutierrez.
After the closing of Tobacco Road, Fox’s became the oldest restaurant on the mainland, as well as the oldest with a dual liquor license, capable of operating a liquor store and bar at the same time. For locals, the clandestine nature, the grit and grime of the place, was part of its charm, a go-to spot for underage liquor purchases and fuzzy memories of many fun nights. Even more famous than its clandestine dealings was its prime rib night on Tuesdays and Thursdays. But above all, it held a dear spot in the heart of generations upon generations of Miamians.
In the end, Fox’s fell prey to one of the scourges faced by everyone in Miami — skyrocketing property values. Ultimately, Dahdah decided keeping the venerable restaurant open made less financial sense than razing the property and turning the space into a mixed-use commercial/residential property.
Making a bright, bold splash on the culinary scene
Of course, property values aren’t the only reason why seemingly popular restaurants close. Sometimes it’s simply time to move on. Such is the case with Douglas Rodriguez, part of the aforementioned Mango Gang. He may have grown up in New York, but the “Godfather of Nuevo Latino Cuisine” has a spirit that is all Cuban. His parents came from Cuba in 1955, before the Revolution, and moved to Miami when he was 14. That’s when the cooking magic began.
To non-Miamians, he is best known for Philadelphia’s Alma de Cuba and formerly New York’s Patria. To us, he is the chef behind places like the Wet Paint Café with Bernie Matz on Lincoln Road, where got his big break in the ’80s, and YUCA, an acronym for Young Urban Cuban Americans, where he highlighted a different side of Cuban cuisine. He also helped launch OLA, first on Biscayne Boulevard, then in the Savoy Hotel, before making its last stop at the Sanctuary Hotel.
He’s launched various incarnations of D. Rodriguez and De Rodriguez, first at the Astor Hotel and then the Bentley.
Starting in his early days at the Wet Paint Café, he gained a love for experimenting with Latin ingredients in nontraditional ways. He honed his style and in the process became part of the Mango Gang. After that, it has been a non-stop culinary rollercoaster, including a James Beard award.
While he also dabbles in cuisines of other Latin American countries, he doesn’t stray far from his Cuban roots. His menus are Cuban-centric with some twists and turns along the way. What’s so important about Rodriguez is that he not only helped place Cuban food in the national spotlight, but he refined it so that it was no longer seen as just inexpensive quick food served in cafeterias and restaurant-front ventanitas.
De Rodriguez may be shuttered, but the chef is on his most important adventure yet. He is currently part of a culinary adventure program that takes travelers on a tour through Cuba, helping to finally merge the two worlds. It’s only a matter of time before we see where that leads. And as we return to more vintage allure, what all diehard fans are waiting for may just happen — the relaunch of his original and acclaimed OLA on Biscayne Boulevard.
The ebb and flow of Miami’s culinary scene means not just navigating a crowded marketplace, but being prepared to pivot as necessary, to stay abreast of trends and know when to move on and start something fresh. That’s one of the interesting things about Miami’s transitory nature. It’s not always certain what will become the next new place people will spark nostalgia and fond food memories for decades to come.