It’s been a radical couple of years on the Miami dining scene—a time when internationally acclaimed chefs have transformed
once-quiet neighborhoods into culinary meccas, suddenly making the Magic City one of the most exciting food frontiers in the country.
It helps that during the pandemic, Miami proved to be more nimble than most other major cities in America. The result? In the past two years, Miami-Dade County has seen its share of high-profile openings. New York–based Major Food Group embarked on an impressive run of new eateries—from ZZ’s Club in the Miami Design District to Carbone and HaSalon on Miami Beach to Dirty French Steakhouse in Brickell and Sadelle’s in Coconut Grove. Upscale Korean steakhouse Cote opened a Miami sibling to its Michelin-starred New York flagship—and earned its own Michelin star when the Miami guide debuted last summer. Or consider Miami’s Mediterranean wave, launched with the opening of restaurants such as Chicago’s Aba in the Bal Harbour Shops, New York’s legendary Avra at the posh Acqualina in Sunny Isles, Toronto’s Amal in Coconut Grove, and winner of MasterChef Israel Tom Aviv’s Israeli omakase-like experience in Upper Buena Vista.
Miami’s ability to keep restaurants open (and booked) when other cities were on lockdown accelerated local restaurant growth, says Rolando Aedo, chief operating officer of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Throughout the pandemic, we focused a lot on recovery programs for the restaurant industry,” Aedo explains. “I think that helped other entrepreneurs and restaurateurs look to Miami to plant their flagpole. We see the restaurant scene as a way to showcase our community, to showcase our neighborhoods as a destination.”
Lee Brian Schrager, founder and director of the Food Network South Beach and New York City wine and food festivals, agrees. “Miami was a hot culinary destination before COVID, but I think COVID supersized it quicker,” he says. “Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Fabio Trabocchi—they were all here before COVID. They saw that Miami is no longer a seasonal destination, but a year-round destination with access to New York and South America.”
Another factor in Miami’s new-found fine dining fanfare? The first-ever iteration of a Floridian Michelin Guide debuted in 2022. With it came a slew of new stars; Miami lead the state with 11 one-star restaurants and Florida’s only two-star restaurant, L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon. The guide brought clout to the scene for sure, but whether it helped create the local foodie boom or the foodie boom caught Michelin’s attention is a point of contention. Call it a chicken-and-egg argument: For Aedo, the introduction of the Florida Michelin Guide bolstered Miami’s dining landscape. “Both the Michelin Guide and the influx of new restaurants further support this world-class dining ecosystem,” he says.
Schrager begs to differ on the idea that the Michelin Guide was the catalyst for this growth. “I don’t think anyone opened up because of the guide. I think just the opposite: I think Michelin is here now because of those places. Michelin wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have the right mix and diversity of great chefs and great restaurants.”
Regardless, success seems like it’s here to stay. Case in point? Even more upscale openings are in the works: New York’s famed Pastis is coming to Wynwood sometime in 2023, Thomas Keller is planning to plant his second Miami restaurant in Coral Gables, Gordon Ramsay will open an outpost in downtown later this year, and Massimo Bottura (whose Osteria Francescana in Italy boasts three Michelin stars) is making plans to bring his restaurant Torno Subito to the scene soon.
So, what is the “it” factor that’s attracting this level of major mojo to the Magic City? Restaurateur Simon Kim says that for his brand, it’s more than a simple financial consideration. Kim started looking into expanding Cote to Miami in 2019, originally considering a space in Miami Beach’s South of Fifth neighborhood. “Opening a restaurant for me is a romantic event,” he explains. “There are a lot of emotions; you get involved, invested, you have to give your all. The first thing I need is to fall in love. And I fell in love with Miami.”
Eventually, Kim found the ideal spot in the Design District. “Miami was becoming a global city—rich in art, culture, fashion, commerce,” says Kim. “Naturally, the restaurant scene was starting to brew. And in nowhere else in America is Latin cuisine as vibrant as it is here, and I wanted to be part of that. I felt like the Design District epitomized the future of Miami—with individual flagship stores and Wynwood nearby with street art, but also how Madison Avenue–like it is—I thought it had a nice juxtaposition. We wanted to be part of this new future of Miami.”
Construction for Cote began in May 2020, when Miami was still deep in lockdown and the future of the dining scene was uncertain. “I could have easily backed out,” Kim recalls. “I made that bold bet, and I’m so humbled and grateful that Miami showed us so much love and welcomed us.”
Indeed, from the moment Cote opened—with its signature high-energy atmosphere, purple-hued entrance hall, and noir-ish glass-enclosed dry-aging room—it was a hit with diners. Skilled servers work in unison to grill premium meats on state-of-the-art charcoal grills inlaid in each table, as an array of Korean pickled vegetables, stews, and rich-but-not-heavy sides round out the feast. It’s a beef-centric union of Korean barbecue with a classic American steakhouse. The result is a dinner theater–esque experience unlike anything in Miami. The restaurant attracts everyone from four-tops of serious epicureans slurping up Korean banchan to tables of high rollers ordering seafood platters before feasting on caviar and steak omakase.
“Asian cuisine was under-represented here,” Kim says. “I think we brought that element to create a more diverse ecosystem. Miami is about having fun and so is Cote. We spoke the language of fun and gastronomy. We got each other very fast, with our mutual love of beef and love of celebration.”
For Israeli chef Tom Aviv, entering the U.S. market for the first time with his restaurant, Branja, was a personal decision. His mother, Michal, had relocated to Miami years ago and had encouraged him to open an outpost of his own in the Upper Buena Vista complex (which she co-founded). Wanting to be closer to family—and noting Miami’s restaurant growth in spite of the pandemic—Aviv decided to heed his mother’s advice and bring his style of Israeli cuisine to town.
“I think what happened in Miami during COVID was amazing,” says Aviv. “I saw an opportunity. I saw a place that was getting stronger, and I felt it. And I see a bit of similarity between Miami and Tel Aviv. I am here; I’ll be spending 80 percent of my time here. And when I’m here you’ll see me behind the stove. This is my American debut, and this is my most precious project right now.”
Born and raised in Tel Aviv, Israel (and possessing zero formal culinary training), Aviv broke onto the international food scene after he won MasterChef Israel in 2016. He went on to open restaurants in Tel Aviv and Casablanca, Morocco. He’s widely considered the “bad boy” of Israeli cuisine with a large social media presence.
But Aviv’s new Miami venture seems modest and low-key for the gregarious chef who trains in mixed martial arts when he’s not behind the stove. The cozy space features 1970s retro-inspired decor that focuses mostly on a chef’s counter format—the 12-seat bar being the focal point and having been sourced from the Lenny Kravitz–designed Florida Room nightclub that formerly inhabited the basement of the Delano Hotel. “The bar [is] such a Miami icon, and to have it in Branja, it’s very emotional for me,” says Aviv.
In the semi-open outdoor dining room, guests sit at handcrafted terrazzo-top tables and upon reclaimed synagogue benches. A stained-glass atrium hangs overhead, while servers clad in ’70s-era jumpsuits serve dishes of “fishwarma” with mango amba syrup, Kurdish-style risotto with Swiss chard, and a slow-cooked cabbage that Aviv says embodies what the restaurant is all about. “That cabbage dish? We do so many things to it, but eventually what you get is a quarter of a cabbage [that] feels like a short rib. And this is the essence of Branja: less is more. We don’t need belly dancers to give you a vibe and smoke machines to give you nice cocktails. It’s tasty and it’s simple.”
While it appears that some hospitality groups materialized post-pandemic to capitalize on Miami’s momentum, others have been playing the long game for a while. In the case of Klaw, entrepreneur Sasha Krilov and restaurateur Misha Zelman restored the 96-year-old Miami Woman’s Club (located in downtown’s Edgewater neighborhood), retrofitting the historic Spanish renaissance building to house a massive dining room and rooftop bar.
“The project itself was a seven-year build-out starting in 2015 when Miami was a very different city,” explains Caity Apperson, Operations Alchemist at Klaw. “It came down to two rather simple factors, the main one being the sheer awe that the Women’s Club gave our owner. He was obsessed with the architecture and the history behind the building and was determined to spend whatever it took to revive it to its current state. The second was a location in an upcoming area, at the time that was Edgewater, which has grown exponentially in the past couple of years.”
Meanwhile, at the Bal Harbour Shops, Chicago-based group Lettuce Entertain You Restaurants opened its first Miami outpost with Aba. “Bal Harbour has been a regular getaway location for my wife and I, and the energy of Bal Harbour Shops is contagious,” says Marc Jacobs, executive partner and divisional president of Lettuce Entertain You. “There’s no question that Miami’s dining scene continues to grow, evolve, and attract more chef and restaurateur talent. We’re excited to be a part of that growth.”
And for Austin-based Sushi Bar Hospitality, bringing their popular omakase-style, speakeasy concept to the Esmé Miami Beach Hotel on Española Way was a no-brainer. “When we found a location in South Beach, steps away from the beach inside of a gorgeous hotel, there was no other option but to put our energy into building a beautiful space and working on a menu that would bring attention to our new location,” explains executive chef Ambrely Ouimette, one of the country’s only female omakase chefs. “Miami has such vibrancy and life and is one of the top vacation spots in the U.S. The food scene is very attractive as well, with so many options for different types of cuisine. However, I do believe the food scene is still growing and specifically the sushi scene is maturing.”
Miami has always had a vital dining scene dotted with influential restaurants. It has had its time before, but the current moment feels different and more reflective of the city’s global aspirations and unique position post-pandemic. Miami is a breeding ground for ambitious, original cooking—a place where cuisines from around the world can be experienced in so many ways. And that makes it one of the most exciting dining cities in the world.