May 26, 2012

Gabriela Rodriguez has lived on Brickell Key for more than a decade, but until recently a night out invariably meant trekking over the causeway to South Beach.
Now Rodriguez sticks much closer to home, enjoying the influx of restaurants and nightlife that have turned Brickell Avenue, Southeast First Avenue and the surrounding area into a hot spot of its own.

In the last year came openings of Toscana Divino, PM Miami, Mint Leaf Indian Brasserie, and Doraku Sushi. Now, even bigger names are coming, including China Grill, Meat Market, Cipriani and a South-of-France style bistro from the owner of ever-packed Zuma in the Epic Hotel.

“I love it,” said Rodriguez, 44, who works in sales and marketing for the beauty industry. “I don’t have to go to Miami Beach anymore. The Brickell crowd is much more urban and cosmopolitan. ”

One of Rodriguez’s new favorites is PM, the first U.S. location for a Mexican steak and seafood restaurant chain. It cost millions to build the ornate restaurant designed to look like an Argentine warehouse in Buenos Aires’ Puerto Madero district. Catering to a heavily Latin crowd, PM was doing a bustling business at 11 p.m. on a recent Thursday night. At the bar was former NBA superstar Michael Jordan., who started with his favorite Milagros tequila, then moved with his large group to a quiet corner of the dining room.

The owners of PM opted for Brickell and its urban environment with a regular customer base versus the more transient Miami Beach with its high volume of tourists.

“We think this city is becoming an international city,” said Ignacio Leonardi, general manager of PM Miami. “We want to be here for the next 20 years.”

The Brickell dining boom correlates with the growth in the residential population in Downtown Miami and Brickell Avenue. Over the last decade, the Downtown population has nearly doubled, reaching 71,600 in 2011 as residents filled up new condominiums. Add in a work-day population of about 200,000, and the combination becomes extremely attractive for both restaurants and retailers.

About a dozen new restaurants and bars opened in the Brickell area last year and another 18 in downtown, according to Miami’s Downtown Development Authority.

“Downtown is red hot,” said Alyce Robertson, executive director of the DDA.. “It has its own personality now, different from the beach. It’s a destination in its own right for dining.”

No one would have said that five years ago. For years, Miami Beach was the center of the foodie universe. Brickell had Capital Grille, Morton’s and local favorites like Perricone’s Marketplace & Café, but that’s where the choices ended.

The boom in Brickell dining started with the 2006 opening of Mary Brickell Village and casual restaurants including burger joints and Irish pubs. But recent options are more upscale. Some industry experts say it’s a natural extension of the fine dining scene — with restaurants including Zuma, Il Gabbiano and db Bistro Moderne — that have been so successful on the Downtown side of the bridge.

It also helps that sales volumes of $8 million to $10 million have become more common at top restaurants both in Downtown Miami and on Miami Beach.

“The good news is that we’ve grown enough in population density and tourism that dining in all of these areas is growing,” said Lyle Stern, a Miami Beach broker who represents a number of high-end restaurants. “There’s more than enough to go around. ”

When it came time to relaunch the iconic China Grill brand for its 25th anniversary, owner Jeffrey Chodorow looked everywhere from Midtown Miami to Miami Beach before deciding on 801 Brickell Avenue. The new China Grill, expected to open in December, will feature a complete remake of menu and design; the space will be about 50 percent larger than its previous South Beach location.

For Chodorow, the decision came down to Brickell’s unmatched attractions: a large office population that could bring in a lunch and happy hour crowd, an abundance of parking and a central location with easy access from points north and south.

Based on the success of China Grill in New York City, Chodorow expects his Brickell Avenue sales to beat the former South Beach location by as much as $4 million to $5 million a year.

“If you’re going to build an $8 million to $10 million restaurant, it can’t be just about the scene,” Chodorow said. “There have to be solid business fundamentals. Brickell was sort of a no-brainer.”

The best recipe for success in today’s South Beach scene calls for a restaurant located in a luxury hotel with a steady built-in clientele, Chodorow said.

“The beach was the hub of dining, but it got very built up,’’ he said. “People today don’t want to deal with the beach traffic or the time it takes to get there,” he said. They don’t like knowing that before they even start, they have to pay $15, $18 or even $25 to park their car.”

The most heralded new addition to Brickell Avenue could be the arrival of famed California chef Thomas Keller. Multiple industry sources say Keller has been actively looking for a space in the Downtown Miami Brickell area.

But nothing is set, according to a Keller Restaurant Group spokesman. “While there have been discussions of possible opportunities in Miami, nothing has been finalized,” wrote Gerald San Jose in an email last week.

Many of the new Brickell restaurants are taking advantage of the spaces being developed in new office buildings and condominiums. Du Cap, owned by one of the investors in Zuma Miami, will open early next year at the new office tower 600 Brickell with a French Provencal menu of small plates designed by Chef Philippe Ruiz, formerly of the Biltmore Hotel. Meat Market steakhouse plans to open in the ground floor of BrickellHouse, a 374-unit luxury condo expected to break ground this summer and be ready in 2014.

The 1450 Brickell office tower and adjoining 1 Broadway rental building is already home to five different kinds of restaurants; another two are on the way. Developer Alan Ojeda’s strategy: options at a variety of price points and service levels.

In late June, Claudio Giordano, the owner of Altamare on Miami Beach, will open TIKL at 1450 Brickell, featuring tapas style small plates. While he still plans to keep his Beach restaurant, he sees Brickell as the up-and-coming place to be.

“I foresee Brickell becoming like a little Manhattan,” Giordano said. “Before people used to come from all over the city to go eat at the Beach. But now they’re stopping in other areas of the city before they get to the Beach.”

That doesn’t mean opening on Brickell is a slam dunk. Mare Nostrum, which opened in December, shut down this month temporarily as the owners revamp the concept. The restaurant is expected to reopen in four to six weeks, but what it will look like and whether that will include a new name is still to be decided, said Peter Lopez, director of operations for Mare Nostrum and Lucky Clover, an Irish sports bar by the same owners that is also retooling its menu.

“We’ve learned how different this market is and we wanted to readjust,” Lopez said.

The changes means local business people like banker Eddy Arriola can step outside his office and walk to dozens different places for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

“It’s so much easier to connect with people,” said Arriola, chairman of Apollo Bank. “At lunch or just walking down the street you can bump into 10 people. It’s bringing people together.”

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