Miami-Dade County

South Beach Wine & Food Festival spurs plenty of spillover parties

Like Art Basel, the Miami Marathon and the Winter Music Conference, the South Beach Wine & Food Festival brings tens of thousands of visitors and millions of dollars into South Florida.

And much like Basel’s off-site pop-ups and WMC’s after-parties, the food festival, which opens its four-day run on Thursday, also has spurred a spillover of unsanctioned, unofficial events. From new restaurant openings to guest-chef dinners to master-mixology sessions, no fewer than two dozen rival soirees will compete with the festival’s 70-some events for attendees.

Chef Ralph Pagano will launch Naked Taco, his new Mexican restaurant at South Beach’s Dream Hotel, on Friday with a party that is billed to include “sexy taco dancers.”

“Why wouldn’t I open up this week?” Pagano said. “The culinary sensibility and awareness for this weekend has no comparison by Miami standards. “The town is littered with big-name chefs, TV stars and restaurant royalty. To me, it was a no-brainer.”

While Pagano is hoping to benefit from the festival’s popularity, others say they are filling a void for affordable food parties with breathing room.

“When I participated in the Burger Bash, it got to the point where I stopped asking my friends to come,” said Buzzy Sklar, founding owner of South Beach’s Burger & Beer Joint. “I couldn’t in good conscience ask them to spend so much money on a ticket only to be jam-packed under a tent, competing for little bites of food that most places run out of anyway.”

So Sklar helped organize Eats & Beats, a Saturday night event in the Design District’s Moore Building that will feature food from Red, the Rusty Pelican, City Hall, Brother Jimmy’s and other local restaurants along with live DJ sets. He said he expects about 1,500 people to attend; tickets cost $100, and proceeds will benefit DJ Irie’s nonprofit Irie Foundation.

Sklar said he has received no pushback from festival organizers about his event, and he’s already set on making Eats & Beats an annual party.

“We had to ask ourselves at first if we were crazy, going head to head with the Wine and Food Festival on Saturday night,” Sklar said. “But restaurants jumped on board right away, and ticket sales have been almost entirely to locals. It’s overwhelming how well Eats & Beats has been received.”

Lee Schrager, the festival’s founder and director, said he’s proud of the butterfly effect the festival has had. He said it highlights just how successful the event has become.

“I’ve always said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and in this case that really is true,” Schrager said. “Similar to what we’ve seen happen with Art Basel over the years, we’ve seen an influx of pop-ups, dinners and other events leading up to and during the festival weekend as well. I think it’s great that everyone is embracing the festival spirit and offering additional ways to celebrate.”

Now in its 13th year, the Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival has raised more than $18 million for Florida International University’s Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management. A big part of that went into building the school’s new $7.5 million Wine Spectator Restaurant Management Lab, which hosted an inaugural dinner Wednesday emceed by Martha Stewart.

The festival got its start as the Florida Extravaganza, a one-day food and wine tasting on FIU’s Biscayne Bay campus that ran from 1997 to 2001 and drew a few hundred people. The next year, Schrager and Southern Wine and Spirits brought the festival to Miami Beach, expanding and rebranding it as the South Beach Wine & Food Festival.

Organizers extended the length of the fest as attendance continued to grow at tasting tents, wine auctions, chef demonstrations, book signings, beach parties and more. Last year, ticket sales exceeded $5.1 million for some 65,000 guests; the festival sold more than $4.1 million in sponsorships and handed over a check to FIU for $2.1 million.

Several of the star chefs who pour into Miami this week for festival duties also will carve out time and sell tickets for nonfest events.

Robert Irvine of Food Network’s Restaurant: Impossible helped create a $75 lunch menu for Tongue & Cheek on Friday. Über chef Daniel Boulud will get behind the stove of his db Bistro Moderne for a $93 lunch on Saturday. James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Anthony of New York’s Gramercy Tavern will cook a $300 dinner at the Cypress Room on Sunday.

For Boulud, the festival’s 2010 tribute dinner honoree, this week gives him the opportunity to interact with his fans and other food enthusiasts as well as to check in on his two South Florida restaurants.

“It’s the perfect timing to fulfill the needs of the festival but also do what we need to do to promote our restaurants, without stepping on the festival,” Boulud said. “Doing a lunch gives me a chance to see our regular customers in Miami and spend some time with our team there.”

Miami restaurateur Michael Schwartz is not personally participating in any official festival events this year, but his Genuine Hospitality Group is bringing in out-of-town chefs to host pop-up dinners at Harry’s Pizzeria and Michael’s Genuine Food and Drink, in addition to the Gramercy Tavern dinner at Cypress Room.

Other events you won’t find on the festival’s website: Pubbelly Steak had a $125-a-person wine dinner Wednesday, and its flagship sibling Pubbelly will be passing out free bites of pork after midnight. New York bar The Dead Rabbit is taking over the stick at Patpong Road on Friday and Saturday, and master mixologist Jacques Bezuidenhout will shake up free tequila cocktails at the Social Club on Friday.

Riding the festival’s coattails makes good business sense, said Pagano of Naked Taco.

“For chefs, hospitality and service-industry pros, this week is our Super Bowl,” he said.