Food & Drink

Lunch with Lydia: Nicola Siervo and Karim Masri

If there’s something we know about the local culinary and nightlife scene, it’s that patrons are fickle and venues blow hot for one glorious moment — and then they plain blow.

One day you have to be somebody, or know somebody, to get through a certain door. The next, that door is bolted for good. Or for a few months, anyway, until the next investor spends millions for yet another dazzling build-out worthy of yet another brilliant concept that may or may not survive through a second season.

Nicola Siervo and Karim Masri, nightlife impresarios and restaurateurs who have presided over some of the sexiest, most celeb-choked South Beach locales since the early 1990s, joining forces in 2005, have won some and lost some and learned plenty of hard lessons along the way.

Now they’re looking to the other side of the causeway. The duo that owns Quattro Gastronomia on Lincoln Road and operates the glam Wall Lounge at the Beach’s W Hotel (they are also partners in the W’s restaurant, The Dutch Miami, by New York chef Andrew Carmellini, and they run the hotel’s broader food and beverage program), say they are close to inking deals on not one, but two spots in the Design District.

They’re also considering possibilities in the Brickell area, in downtown Miami and in Wynwood, where they recently moved the offices of their KNR Hospitality Group.

“Something would have to go wrong for us not to sign,” Masri says of the Design District projects. “One would be a restaurant and the other a rooftop lounge with 360-degree views. Miami and Miami Beach have grown so much. Yes, traffic is crazy these days. But now we live in a very cosmopolitan city with several exploding new neighborhoods, each with its own personality.”

“Look at everything that’s happening in the Design District now, all of those new luxury brands opening beautiful stores, and everything else that’s coming. There’s going to be such great foot traffic there,” says Siervo, who hails from a small village in Salerno, Italy.

He moved from New York to South Beach in 1992 to open Bang, a bohemian resto-lounge where Claudia Schiffer, Sly Stallone, Gianni Versace and everybody else unself-consciously danced on the tables.

There was no paparrazi on South Beach yet, no Facebook, no Twitter. Who even had a cell phone then, much less a cell phone that could capture images of all those celebs getting their party on?

“In the old days, the celebrities came to South Beach to feel free and to be left alone. But it’s a very different world now,” says Masri, born in Lebanon and raised in Paris.

In 1995, he bought the boarded-up Hotel Astor on Washington Avenue, restoring it to its Art Deco glory. It went from crack hideout to hipster central, but in 2008, with the focus shifting to shinier, newer, places, Masri sold it and moved on to fresher ventures himself.

Over lunch at Seagrape at the Thompson Hotel in Mid-Beach, Siervo and Masri, who consult for the hotel and set up its food and beverage programs (they brought in Miami star chef Michelle Bernstein), discussed what it takes to stay in the game these days.

“First of all, you have to have a level head,” says Masri, 44. “People come here to invest, and they get caught up in the party. I didn’t even do that in my 20s. They forget that they’re not on vacation. We all have egos. But too many people come and fall for all the glamour and the beautiful people and then they get sidetracked and Miami eats them up.”

“The first mistake they make is not getting to understand the rhythm here before they throw a lot of money into a project,” says Siervo, 49, whose earlier projects, with various partners, included the star-studded Bar None, Joia and Mynt Lounge. “This is a very particular market. You have to be here a while to understand how the seasons work, for example. Karim and I have paid a lot of dues.’’

Take Quattro. The upscale restaurant specializing in Northern Italian cuisine is still going strong almost a decade after it opened, the guys say. Which makes it almost a landmark by South Beach standards. But it has required careful fiscal planning to keep it going through regular dips in tourism.

“You can lose your nerve here very easily. All of a sudden the town will feel dead because it’s the worst part of the summer or you have to get through something like Urban Week, when the kids come and all the higher-end tourism stays away. Even the locals leave,” Masri says. “We have learned when to give marching orders to our CFO to double up on reserves to get us through a slow period.”

“You also have to think about the U.S. dollar and the economies of other countries,” Siervo says. “South Beach is a resort town, after all. For a while there was all this money coming from Brazil, and then they had a major devaluation. The Russians were spending endless money. But their economy changed, too. Then again, when the U.S. had its last big financial crisis in 2008-2009, it was the Europeans who saved us because the dollar was weaker and South Beach become a great place for them to spend their money.”

It used to be that the town was lively from around Thanksgiving to Mother’s Day — then came the mean season, which brought suffocating heat and humidity, hurricanes and the vanishing of tourist dollars.

“By October, everybody would be running on fumes,” Masri says.

“But now we are more of a year-round destination,” Siervo says. “July can be quite good. A lot Argentines and Brazilians come in July. In August we’ve been getting a lot of Europeans. Though now with the Euro being weaker, we’ll have to see. And you can’t even speak in terms of good months and bad months on the Miami side anymore. Miami is not seasonal any more.’’

Which makes doing business on the mainland all the more attractive for the duo. They have been in negotiations with Design District developer Craig Robins for the two spots they want to open there. And Robins, who has lured Harry Winston, Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Cartier and more, applauds the projects Mazri and Siervo want to bring to the neighborhood.

"Karim and Nicola are among the most dynamic operators in Miami,” Robins wrote from Europe, where he’s traveling. “They understand quality food and service as well as the theatrical component, the combination of which makes a great restaurant. We would be lucky to have them in the Design District.’’

The duo says their plans for the Design District, even though the area is already shaping up to be Conspicuous Consumption Central, do not involve over-the-top prices for food or beverage.

“What people are looking for these days is to spend a fair amount of money. You can’t really charge $250 a head for dinner and expect to have customers on a Tuesday night,” Siervo says. “Or to survive at all over time. And that whole thing about showing off at the nightclubs, buying $1,000 bottles of vodka, that’s pretty much out.’’

Masri agrees. “People are not throwing away $30,000 at a club like it’s $300 these days. We had a guy spend $120,000 on champagne at Wall once. And we still have people who will spend $20,000 on a table. But that kind of spending has been tamed. We love being on the receiving end of that spending, of course. But today’s reality is different.”

What’s also different these days is that the guys are just a tad partied out.

“I still go out three nights a week,” Siervo says. “But now I’m home by 2:30 or 3 a.m. Before, I was out every night until 5 or 6 in the morning. The difference is that now we have a lot more projects going simultaneously. We have to get up early to get the work done.”

“Plus, in terms of nightlife, the younger kids who go out don’t want to hang out with us older guys all the time,” Masri says. “But we’ve been good at grooming the next generation of nightclub promoters and operators. We give them shares in the business and we help build them up. You can’t be greedy and shortsighted and stay successful in a business that spits most people out.”