You’ll have to go to Overtown soon — that’s if you want to eat at Miami’s next big restaurant, a yet-unnamed concept by Food Network personality and chef Marcus Samuelsson.
The restaurant could land in Miami’s historic black neighborhood by 2019.
A city agency, tasked with Overtown’s revival, hopes the restaurant will pull off a tough feat: enticing people and their dollars to an area largely ignored by tourists (and other Miami locals), while remaining socially conscious to Overtown’s history and its residents. Samuelsson will be highlighting what he has in mind during a jazz brunch at Overtown’s Black Archives Historic Lyric Theater Saturday during the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, which begins Wednesday.
Nearby business owners are on the fence, however. They express either excitement at the possibility of economic opportunity, or despair at the threat of gentrification.
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But Samuelsson is undeterred. A successful restaurateur, he could’ve chosen any of South Florida’s buzzy neighborhoods — Brickell, South Beach and Wynwood — to debut his next culinary adventure. But he chose a historic building in Overtown.
“I've been cooking in Miami for many years,” he said. “I’ve been asked many, many times to do something on the beach and other areas but [Overtown] spoke to my sensibilities.”
Approbation not appropriation
A New York Times review described him as a master of navigating the “fine line between gentrification, appropriation and approbation.” Samuelsson’s approach to multicultural food at his wildly popular Red Rooster Harlem was likened to the electric slide: It crosses color lines.
Besides attracting a diverse crowd, the restaurant is also an extension of Samuelsson’s involvement in Harlem, where he hires local employees, rewards scholarships and hosts food festivals. That’s what sold Cornelius Shiver, the executive director of the Overtown/Park West Community Redevelopment Agency.
After several visits to Harlem, Shiver developed a similar vision for Overtown, which was once regarded as “The Harlem of the South.”
“One of the things we found attractive about Samuelsson’s restaurant in Harlem is that it generated a lot of economic and social activity. Harlem has a very rich history and so does Overtown,” Shiver said. “We thought it would be a great project to duplicate, if not exceed, some of the accomplishments seen in Harlem.”
Shiver contacted Samuelsson. It wasn’t an easy decision, especially considering the effect development has had on Harlem’s predominantly black residents.
“It was good and bad to some degree. When we spoke to people from Harlem they felt like his entity accelerated gentrification,” he said.
Shiver offered a building once central to Overtown’s lively late-night entertainment district, the former Clyde Killens Pool Hall at 920 NW 2nd Ave. The country’s biggest black artists would stay in Overtown and perform for black audiences at Clyde Killens after playing in Miami Beach, where they could not stay because of segregation laws. Samuelsson’s plans for the two-story, 7,000-square-foot building were announced in March 2016.
But Shiver’s job at the Overtown/Park West CRA wasn’t done. One of his biggest challenges is to find a balance between lifting the local economy by attracting developers and remaining sensitive to the needs of an underserved and impoverished population.
It’s the reason Shiver has labored over negotiations. As part of an agreement signed this month, Samuelsson’s restaurant will be required to hire from Overtown and create training and internship programs. His restaurant will have Caribbean, Latin and African influences.
Will ‘rich folks... take over Overtown’?
One block over from the future location of Samuelsson’s restaurant is the Overtown Plaza. It’s home to Top Value, the area’s only grocery store which opened in 2016, and Two Guys Restaurant, where owner and longtime Overtown resident Shirley Meadows spoke with an ominous tone. While proud of the success of her business, she’s concerned about the looming possibility of further displacement.
Meadows has served Overtown’s hungry residents for 25 years with heaping plates of dishes such as fried snapper and turkey wings, and traditional sides like macaroni and cheese and hush puppies. She’s uncertain about whether a newcomer could satisfy their tastes.
“I have no problem — people eat my food. So for someone else to come, I don’t know how they’d react to it,” Meadows said.
She’s afraid if Samuelsson’s restaurant succeeds, it will mean gentrification that will drive out locals like her, the way it has in next-door Wynwood.
“As far as I’m seeing, the rich folks just will come and take over Overtown,” she said. “Overtown’s not what it used to be.... It’s gone. Very soon none of us won’t be here.”
A short walk up Northwest 3rd Avenue, Nicole Gates of Lil Greenhouse Grill is excited about what she predicts will be Overtown’s economic turnaround. She thinks it could start in as little as a year — even if it ultimately leads to gentrification.
“Somebody’s going to do it. It’s going to happen,” she said. “But I am confident that our commissioners and city officials will make sure that we are not robbed of the community that we live in.”
An agent for change
Gates said Samuelsson’s restaurant will motivate the city to address the area’s blight. But more than that, she believes he will expose more people to Overtown’s appeal.
“People want to come back to Overtown,” Gates said. “They want to have a reason because of the strong and rich history. Very few places in South Florida give you that black cultural history — that African-American history.”
Samuelsson put it another way after seeing the response to his South Beach Wine & Food Festival event, a Saturday brunch costing $135 a person, and the first time any festival event has been held in Overtown.
“We sold out right away. I think there’s a thirst for culture,” he said.
The brunch will open with a preview of Samuelsson’s restaurant building, which he is purchasing for $1.5 million. Saturday’s menu will feature African-American cookout staples such as ribs, fried chicken and collard greens. That will make diners happy.
And if Samuelsson is successful in bringing new interest in Overtown, diners won’t be the only ones pleased.
“I’ll know we’re heading in the right direction,” Shiver said, “when you have very rich people from New York eating fried chicken in Overtown.”
South Beach Wine & Food Festival
When: Feb. 21-25
More info: The annual festival has tickets remaining for many events at sobewff.org.