How a girl from Australia and a boy from the Florida Panhandle met over meatloaf, fell for each other in the kitchen and opened a crazy-good restaurant in Miami’s best dining neighborhood.
Sunset Harbour’s Stiltsville Fish Bar is an homage to the love story of chef-partners Janine Booth and Jeff McInnis. The culinary power couple met when McInnis was executive chef at Gigi in Midtown Miami, and Booth paid a visit twice in the same day, lured by his meatloaf special.
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“I’d never even heard of meatloaf,” recalled Booth, a native of Australia, who was in culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu at the time. “But of course, it wasn’t just any meatloaf. It was made with short rib and caramelized onions and smoked plantains and barbecue sauce. It was amazing. I wanted to know how to make it.”
The chance encounter led to an internship with McInnis at Gigi and moving with him to Yardbird Southern Table & Bar when he opened it in Miami Beach in 2011.
Since then, Booth and McInnis went north to open the wildly popular Root & Bone in New York as chef partners, and they returned to Miami in 2016 to open The Sarsaparilla Club inside the Shelborne Hotel. That restaurant converted into a Root & Bone offshoot around the time Stiltsville was gearing up for its launch late last year. Booth and McInnis, both Bravo Top Chef alums (her, Season 11; him, Season 5) also are the proud parents of a baby girl, Sunny.
Jeff McInnis and Janine Booth Make a Striking Couple
On the sun-drenched patio of Stiltsville during a lull before a recent brunch service, the couple reminisced about how their attraction simmered in the kitchen before either of them acted on it.
“I think Jeff was a little more interested at first,” Booth said innocently.
“Whatever, you liked me,” he rebuffed, unfazed.
“Well, maybe I thought you were cute,” she conceded.
They have an easy chemistry, and their love is apparent in the way they interact with each other and the way he looked at her during our photo shoot that morning. Both are blessed with beautiful bone structure and beachy blonde hair, making for a striking couple.
Their first date actually started across the street from the restaurant, at the boat ramp in Sunset Harbour next to Maurice Gibb Memorial Park. McInnis took Booth out on his boat, cruising across the Venetian Islands through Biscayne Bay to the original Stiltsville homes, first erected on the bay in the 1930s.
“We put a couple of lines in the water,” Booth said. “I don’t think we caught much of anything.”
McInnis is a native of the Florida Panhandle who grew up fishing the Gulf and working on his grandparents’ farms in Alabama. In many ways, Stiltsville unites his longtime passions for locally caught fish, farm-fresh produce and Southern hospitality.
“We have the Atlantic, the Gulf and the Caribbean right here in our backyard with this abundance of fish, and there really wasn’t a chef-driven fish house,” he said. “For a long time, seafood in Miami meant sushi flown in from other parts of the world.”
Stiltsville Fish Bar’s Catch of the Day
Two clawfoot tubs filled with ice showcase the day’s fresh catch at the front of Stiltsville Fish Bar: yellow jack, black grouper, wahoo and triple tail, all sourced from local fishermen from the Keys to Stuart. The daily catch figures prominently onto the menu, served with choices of sauces (everything from cilantro salsa verde to aji amarillo) and sides (stoneground grits to sweet plantain mofongo).
Other creative menu highlights include smoked scallops with crispy ham chips, corn spoon bread with butter-poached lobster tail, and an elevated take on coconut shrimp: sweet local Royal Red shrimp wrapped in shredded phyllo dough, flash-fried in coconut oil and topped with toasted coconut bits.
The restaurant’s design plays up the seaside fish house concept with a convertible open-air dining room and a chic-ramshackle aesthetic with exposed wooden rafters, support columns resembling pilings, beer taps made of dramatic swordfish bills, translucent-shell chandeliers clusters of purple barnacles as objets d’art. There also are plans for a forthcoming rooftop deck to savor prime sunset views alongside their rum-forward cocktail menu.
So what brought Booth and McInnis back to Miami after their success in New York?
“It was really this neighborhood,” McInnis said, polishing off a pre-shift salad of butter lettuce topped with Florida avocado and heirloom tomatoes. He gestured at the unobstructed views of Biscayne Bay from his sidewalk table in Sunset Harbour. “I mean, look around. There’s no other place in Miami like this. The city’s best chefs are here. We wanted to be a part of it and bring something new to the neighborhood.”
Stiltsville Fish Bar, 1787 Purdy Avenue, Miami Beach; 786-353-0477; stiltsvillefishbar.com.
WORDS BY SHAYNE BENOWITZ / PHOTOGRAPHY BY FELIPE CUEVAS / PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANCE BY FEDERICO VELEZ / HAIR AND MAKEUP BY VICKY MEJIA