So many people loved Pubbelly’s summer “burger series” last year that they begged chef Jose Mendin to put it on the menu the rest of the year.
No way, he said, no matter how successful it was.
“If we do, it wouldn’t be special,” Mendin said.
And special is what every restaurant is looking for to stay relevant in the summer.
Even as Miami becomes less seasonal, restaurants still fight to keep business strong from June to August. Everyone from locally grown chefs and restaurateurs like the Pubbelly Boys (who expanded out of Miami Beach with a new restaurant, PB Station, in downtown) to out-of-town big-name chefs such as Michael Mina (who is opening a pop-up in one of his Fontainebleau restaurants) are looking for innovative ways to keep people coming to their restaurants in summer.
“Restaurants are fighting hard to maintain their share of the business,” said Lee Brian Schrager, founder and director of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival and vice president of Southern Wine & Spirits.
South Florida winters are still about restaurants promoting their particular talents to tourists and out-of-towners, Schrager said. Summers are less about survival than they used to be, he said, and more about restaurants keeping things interesting for regular diners.
“It’s a different Miami from 20 years ago when we used to live and die by the tourists,” Schrager said.
If anything, the summers inspire boldness and experimentation — even hiring a Food Network chef for a couple months to run the kitchen, in the case of Coral Gables’ Swine Southern Table and Bar.
Chef Ben Vaughn, who hosted Food Network’s Health Inspectors and will star in the upcoming Travel Channel’s Buffet Bros (a cross between Man v. Food and Andrew Zimmern’s wild worldwide eating), will be the first in a “chef residency” program at Swine.
He kept a handful of favorite dishes (such as the Swine burger) but changed everything else about the pig-forward restaurant, including the cocktails. The Vaughn era begins in July and runs through the end of August.
“I wiped the slate clean,” Vaughn said. “I’m aware of what they do well. However, I’m reinventing the pig.”
It had worked at Miami Beach’s Yardbird, which, like Swine, is owned by John Kunkel’s 50 Eggs. They invited big-name chefs to cook a midnight meal, after-hours, one night a week over the summer. Kunkel thinks Coral Gables’ regulars will appreciate a chef-driven restaurant that is also a familiar neighborhood spot.
“We can experiment without losing our customer base and give people a new reason to come back in the same week — or if they haven’t been in a while,” Kunkel said.
The big, touristy, always-full restaurants are experimenting over the summers, too.
Award-winning chef/restaurateur Michael Mina is turning his Michael Mina 74 inside the Fontainebleau into Pizza and Burger-Michael’s Backyard Kitchen, a pop-up, upscale burger-and-pizza joint. It’s a chance for him to test recipes that might stay on the menu and to give locals a chance to try something new.
“Let’s do something fun with the restaurant and do something totally off-beat,” said Mina, who cooks pizzas and burgers by the pool with his sons over the summer.
Fun seems to be a theme:
▪ Pubbelly bets on burgers. They have invited local food celebrities including Schrager and bloggers “Fatgirl Hedonist” Cari Garcia and “Burger Beast” Sef Gonzalez to create a signature burger every Wednesday.
“We’ve learned over the years you’ve got to bring interesting stuff to keep people coming back,” Mendin said.
▪ The Dutch at the W South Beach hosts a barbecue every Wednesday in July in its backyard patio. To kick off the first one, they’ve invited chef Michael Pirolo of Alton Road’s Macchialina to prepare a lineup of Brazilian roasted meats. (And separately, Pirolo is doing a sandwich pop-up — Pirolo’s Panino — inside Macchialina for lunch, when the restaurant is usually closed.)
▪ Star chef Daniel Boulud isn’t immune, either. Downtown’s DB Bistro Moderne located downtown will turn into a pop-up of his Mediterranean restaurant in New York, Boulud Sud. It will feature flavors from France’s Côte d’Azur, Spain, Italy, Greece, North Africa and Turkey.
▪ Even the restaurant at the Pérez Art Museum Miami, Verde, is hosting a guest chef every first Thursday of the month, including Aaron Brooks from Edge Steak & Bar at the Four Seasons.
▪ And, of course, Miami Spice carries restaurants from Aug. 1 through September with discounted, fixed-price menus that are often a departure from regular offerings.
Anything to fight the summer dining doldrums.
“This is a little more fun,” Kunkel said.