COVID forced these restaurants to change completely. Here’s why locals are loving it
A sleek Japanese cocktail lounge with caviar fondue is now baking pizza.
An upscale Miami seafood raw bar has turned to delivering saucy veal parmigiana and homemade meatballs.
And the kosher Wywood bakery known for some of Miami’s best bread is staying open late for a falafel-and-beer street food pop up.
The coronavirus pandemic, which closed restaurant dining rooms on and off throughout the last three months, has forced some of Miami’s favorite chefs, cooks and bakers to completely rethink their restaurants. In trying to save their businesses, they have created new concepts in old spaces — and become instant hits all over again with Miami’s quarantined crowd.
“It was all out of necessity and creativity. We needed more business to keep our staff and pay our bills,” said Zak Stern, owner of Zak the Baker bakery in Wynwood.
Stern said his bakery’s revenue fell by as much as 70 percent overnight after indoor spaces were first ordered closed in March to slow the spread of COVID-19 cases. In the last three months, he has been able to hire back about 60 of his 75 employees, by delivering his kosher breads and pastries, but the bakery was still struggling to break even.
So he and his staff got creative. Zak the Baker had never opened for dinner until this week when they started a falafel and pita pop up, Sunday through Thursday. They serve guests crispy falafel balls and fries, fresh-baked pitas, and chocolate babka soft-serve ice cream in the parking spaces in front of the bakery, which the city allowed them to turn into outdoor dining — which is still allowed.
“We don’t need it to do gangbusters,” he said. “We need to get to break even because we don’t know how long this will last.”
These pivots are not just a creative outlet. They are about survival. Many restaurants simply closed their doors until interior dining rooms are allowed to reopen rather than try to subsist on takeout and delivery.
Danny Serfer’s Mignonette was a temple to perfectly cooked seafood, warm, soupy bouillabaisses and icy-fresh oysters shucked to order. But Miami didn’t want any of that food delivered wilted in takeout boxes. He said sales dropped to sometimes less than $200 a day.
So overnight, when Miami-Dade County ordered dining rooms closed a second time during the first week of July, he turned Mignonette into Red Sauce, a restaurant that cooks classic Italian-American comfort food to go. Dishes like saffron arancini balls with Parmesan and fig jam, three-meat fettuccini Bolognese and veal Marsala stood up better to pickup, delivery and reheating at home, he said. The first week, his sales matched those at his established, 8-year-old MiMo District restaurant Blue Collar.
“It was a pretty easy decision because our sales could not have been worse,” Serfer said. “To think we pulled something out of the air, just turned it on without any press or PR, and to do the amount of business we are doing now is mind blowing.”
The hit downtown cocktail bar with dynamic food, Jaguar Sun, had to become something different when coronavirus closed inside spaces, co-owner Will Thompson said. So they leaned into the outdoors.
They turned the lush, kitschy outdoor event space, Lot 6 in Little River, into a weekend evening pop up with picnic tables and a DJ spinning vinyl under cozy string lights wrapped around a massive banyan tree. Meats and veggies roast on an open-fire grill for tacos, and cocktails flow — by online reservation only to maintain social distancing.
“If we wanted to proceed safely, we knew we had to get creative and get outdoors quickly,” Thompson said. “We still have a restaurant we care about very much. We just can’t be there right now. So this has to feel vibey and it has to feel safe.”
Diners at home, wary of dining outdoor for the heat, unpredictable weather and spiking coronavirus cases, were no longer looking for preciously plated meals. They wanted comfort food delivered to their doors.
That’s one reason why Brad Kilgore, the young James Beard award-nominated chef known for dishes garnished with tweezers, turned over the kitchen at his moody lounge Kaido to an upstart pizza maker.
Old Greg’s Pizza started in the middle of quarantine, with chef Greg Tetzner baking square pies out of his house when he wasn’t working at El Bagel’s new shop across the street in MiMo. Kilgore saw the pies pop up on his social media feed from mutual friends, ordered one in lieu of a birthday cake — and less than a month later partnered to give Tetzner a real space to bake.
And that gave Tetzner and his long-time partner, Jackie Richie, a restaurant PR professional thin on work during the pandemic, a way to make money — and a name for themselves. They hope one day this will lead to a restaurant. For now, it is the only thing helping them make ends meet.
“Ultimately we did this to pay the bills,” Richie said.
“This wasn’t just for fun,” Tetzner added.
These pop ups are treats for food lovers locked at home. But for the restaurants they are experiments for an industry in crisis.
“And if this doesn’t work,” Serfer added, “we’ll turn to something else.”
Here are some of our favorite concepts to pop up during quarantine:
Falafels nights at Zak the Baker
The kosher bakery toyed with hot, crispy falafel during past South Beach Wine & Festivals. Now it’s offering them nightly, , from 5-9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday. Falafel in fresh-baked pita pockets with tomato and cucumber relish cost $12. Add homemade fries for $4, chocolate babka custard for $3. Local beers range from $6-$9.
295 NW 26th St., Wynwood. Zakthebaker.com
Red Sauce at Mignonette
When Danny Serfer was thinking of comfort food that diners would like better than seafood to go, he thought back on eating at “red sauce” mom-and-pop Italian-American restaurants around the country. So he has temporarily converted Mignonette into Red Sauce, where he serves dishes like chicken Francaise, stuffed meatballs, veal marsala and fettuccine Bolognese to go. Order pickup from the restaurant’s website or search the delivery apps for Mignonette or Red Sauce.
More info: MignonetteMiami.com
Michael’s Genuine Provisions
Chef Michael Schwartz thought diners might enjoy taking home some the top quality meats, vegetables and ingredients he uses at his restaurants, including Michael’s Genuine in the Design District. At Michael’s Genuine Provisions, he sells housemade ingredients: fresh pasta, pastrami and thick-cut bacon, Bolognese, puttanesca sauce and pesto, pickled onions and hot sauces, just to start. All of them are available for delivery or pick up. He even does Instagram demos on the best way to use the products.
La Pollita chicken sandwich at Boia De
One of South Florida’s best new restaurants, Boia De has reopened outdoor dining, but the restaurant’s newest move involves ordering from the walk-up ventanita window. Go on Sundays to order the crispy chicken sandwich, a throwback to the restaurant’s origins as La Pollita taco cart in Design District, where the chicken was perhaps the most famous dish. For a twist, try the toasted muffuletta sandwich to go. And don’t forget to snag a bottle of natural wine.
Sandwiches are available weekends 11:30 am. to 2 p.m.
Old Greg’s pizza at Kaido
Square pizza filled the Instagram feeds of Miami food lovers over the last three months when Greg Tetzner — a baker at top restaurants like Ghee and Michael’s Genuine — started selling his Old Greg’s naturally leavened sourdough pizza online. It was love at first swipe for crispy-edged “zzza” topped with spicy pepperoni or veggie supreme with hand-pulled mozzarella, Florida mushrooms, pickled banana peppers, oil-cured olives and red pearl onions.
A part-time baker at bagel shop El Bagel, Tetzner was quickly overwhelmed, baking out of a converted electric oven in his house. Chef Brad Kilgore offered Old Greg’s the kitchen at one of his four restaurants, Kaido, to bake and sell his pies. But pies are limited to 75 a day. Old Greg’s opens for orders Wednesdays at 1 p.m. online, and customers can order pies as far as six weeks out. Be ready to click at exactly 12:59.59 p.m.
Order online: OldGregsPizza.com
Miami food boxes from Burger Beast
Events are canceled. That was bad news for comfort food tastemaker Sef Gonzalez, who sets up only-in-Miami events like summer’s Croquetapalooza as the food blogger Burger Beast. But he has used his Miami connections to create Beast Boxes. Think of them as care packages you send to yourself. A recent one, created in honor of the Fourth of July, includes everything you need for a cookout. It features eight quarter-pound hamburger patties made from his custom blend of Sunshine Provisions chuck, brisket and short rib and potato rolls, Pompano Beach’s Murvest Craft Meats hot dogs with buns, Chifles plantain chips, maple-malta mustard by Palmetto Bay butcher shop Babe’s Meat Counter and his own guava-sriracha ketchup he calls Beast Sauce.
More info: BurgerBeast.com/store
Hedy At Home
Hedy Goldsmith’s desserts were legendary at Michael’s Genuine, and Miami was eager to see her handle the entire restaurant at the Perez Art Museum’s Verde restaurant. But with the spot closed during coronavirus, Goldsmith — a James Beard award finalist as a pastry chef — has been baking at home. She sells and ships decadent yet comforting sweets, like candied bacon Junk in Da Trunk chocolate chip cookies, blueberry-peach crostata, olive oil lemon cake and biscotti, and sour cream coffee cake with chocolate and cinnamon. Her menu of sweets is available on Instagram, along with daily specials.
Mr. Mandolin Greek street food
The minds behind Mandolin Aegean Bistro — a Miami favorite for more than 10 years — opened a new spot, Gregory’s Diner, inside the Vagabond Hotel just four months before the pandemic hit. That forced them to change things up. From that restaurant, they started Mr. Mandolin, Greek street food for takeout and delivery. Think spit-roasted Berkshire heritage pork, grass-fed lamb and beef and Florida free-range chicken in kebabs, pitas, wraps or platters. Grilled pita bread with hummus, roasted eggplant and tzatziki and desserts that range from baklava to sweet, crispy fried loukoumades dough balls round out the options.
More info: MisterMandolin.com
Southern-style crispy chicken and waffles inside a hotel
Chef Akino West and his partner Jamila Ross quickly pivoted when they had to close their Copper Door Bed & Breakfast in Overtown. West, who studied under several top Miami chefs, started cooking crispy fried chicken and waffles, buttery biscuits, crispy fish and more out of the hotel’s kitchen for a pop up they’re calling Rosie’s that they hope to one day expand into a full-service restaurant. To-go orders have kept them afloat, and they plan to turn an outside canopy area into socially distanced outdoor dining.
Jaguar Sun at Lot 6
Picnic tables under string lights against an open sky is the new outdoor setting for the downtown cocktail bar Jaguar Sun. At Little River’s Lot 6, they roast meats and veggies over an open-fire grill and create the outstanding cocktails that made Jaguar Sun one of Miami’s most popular spots for cocktail lovers who demand great food. Music plays on vinyl and tacos, oysters and hearty salads are served in a casual setting. Hours: Friday-Saturday 4-10 p.m.
7357 NW Miami Ct., Little River. Reservations: JaguarSunMIA.com