District for design and dishes
Showrooms have multiplied and now chefs make beautiful things here, too
MIAMI -- The Design District is flat and hot. No cooling ocean breezes waft across its asphalt-paved streets and small trees offer little shade. Yet it's the hippest new destination in town.
You won't find it on most tourist maps. It's five miles west of the beach and three miles north of downtown in a commercial area that until recently was frequented mainly by interior designers and their clients.
A few years ago I wrote about the district's more than 125 high-end showrooms featuring antiques, rugs, fabrics, baths, kitchens, flooring, furniture, and lighting. At that time, there were only two full-service restaurants and zero retail stores in the 10-square-block area.
Today, design showrooms still anchor the district, but independent retail boutiques have joined the mix, as well as more great restaurants than one can manage in a weekend. Seemingly every month there is a new place to shop or eat with more openings planned.
The expanding scene is credited to three chefs who decamped from the beach, starting with Michael Schwartz, who in 2007 opened the acclaimed bistro Michael's Genuine Food & Drink. South Beach food pioneers Jonathan Eismann and Ken Lyon followed last year, spearheading the district's transformation from an area that attracted a weekday business crowd to a neighborhood catering to a creative and discerning clientele in the evenings and on weekends.
"I opened Pacific Time on Lincoln Road in 1993," Eismann said. "It was the beginning of the renaissance on Lincoln Road. Since then my rent went up 1,000 percent. It was difficult to leave, but the demographics changed."
Fans of Eismann's Pan-Asian and American cuisine will be happy to dine in his new location with the same name, a contemporary and elegant space with tall khaki leather banquettes, mahogany bistro tables, and an outdoor courtyard. The menu changes weekly but several of Eismann's signature dishes remain, such as hot and sour popcorn shrimp, soft-shell crab tempura, and Peking-style duck. A stylish cocktail menu includes drinks with herbs, such as the Blue Thyme Martini, a refreshing mix of fruit, vodka, and thyme.
"In the next decade, the Design District will be the destination for the best dining in Miami," Eismann said.
Lyon, who operated an upscale market and catering business on Lincoln Road in the early '90s (and helped open 29 Newbury in Boston), is equally excited about the area.
"I've been in Miami 15 years," Lyon said. "Michael, Jonathan, and myself, we all were on the beach, and now we're all here. This area isn't touristy. I see it getting busier and busier and more successful, but I don't see it getting smashed the way Lincoln Road did. The Design District is a unique place with character."
Lyon recently debuted Fratelli Lyon, his first full-fledged restaurant, in partnership with the Italian-based furniture and design store, Driade.
Fratelli Lyon's regional Italian menu is simple, flavorful, and affordable, featuring imported meats, cheeses, and locally sourced vegetables. The food is complemented by the soaring glass-enclosed industrial space that opens to the chic Driade showroom. All the restaurant furnishings, including tables, chairs, glassware, dishes, and accessories, can be purchased steps from the dining area. There is also a wall of specialty food products for sale such as small-batch Italian olive oils and vinegars, San Marzano tomatoes, dried pastas, legumes, and coffee.
At Brosia, you can eat your way across the Continent without worrying about the euro exchange rate. Chef Arthur Artiles, who knows his way around the cuisines of Italy, Spain, France, Greece, and Morocco, said he likes to "keep it simple [while] playing with fusing the five main regions." I'm still dreaming about his gazpacho caprese pureed with a touch of aged sherry, Catalan-style shrimp and clams, and the grilled New York strip steak with blue cheese and caramelized onion-stuffed Spanish piquillo peppers. Brosia's terrace provides al fresco dining under a canopy of the few giant white oaks in the tree-starved district.
The newest spot on the culinary block is Sra. Martinez, a tapas-style restaurant owned by seasoned Miami chef Michelle Bernstein and her husband, David Martinez. The restaurant opened in December during Art Basel, the sweeping international modern and contemporary art fair in Miami Beach, in a building that was formerly the Post Office and the restaurant Domo Japones.
"Business is really good so far - knock on wood - considering we don't have a sign on the door yet," said manager Chris Parsons.
Restaurants aren't the area's only additions. Along with new design venues, such as Driade's first US showroom, which also houses the first Vitra home shop outside New York, there are home accessory showrooms, clothing boutiques, jewelry stores, galleries, and a sunglass shop with an organic tea bar.
At En Avance, owner Karen Quinones sells a selection of designer clothes as well as art, perfume, makeup, and jewelry. She opened in the district in June, after operating on Lincoln Road for 15 years.
"Lincoln Road changed so much," said Quinones. "My rent tripled. I wanted to change my mix of merchandise to include more global designers. It was time to take the store to the next level."
Quinones pointed to her jewelry bar, where customers can sip champagne while perusing her selection of 18-karat-gold necklaces, earrings, and cufflinks, some set with precious and semiprecious stones.
Jewelry of a tribal sort can be found at Turchin Love and Light Jewelry. Owners Theresa Turchin and her husband, Tommy, work with a team of designers who craft semiprecious and precious stones, silver, and 22-karat gold into fanciful creations.
"Our collection is designed using artifacts made in Tibet, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, and Africa," said Turchin. "We incorporate these things into our designs to create a sort of global tribe."
They take advantage of the store's location off the courtyard of Michael's Genuine Food & Drink, hiring a model in a simple white dress to wander among the tables bedecked in jewelry from their collection.
"People love it. They can eat and shop at the same time. We get a lot of positive feedback," said model Harmony Calhoun.
Y-3 Miami is a collaboration between adidas and Yohji Yamamoto, a Japanese fashion designer. Yamamoto's line of sports clothes is paired here with a high-end adidas line. The clothing is fashioned from high-tech microfibers and the shoes are fine leather and lambskin.
"I've seen the Design District go up and down but now it's very exciting here. . . . It's reminiscent of SoHo in New York," said Juan Carlos Cuadrado, a former sales associate.
In some venues the interior design world blends with shopping, such as at NiBa, an accessories emporium with a mix of decorative objects as well as lighting, rugs, and designer furniture.
Owned by Nisi Berryman, who helped open Holly Hunt Miami in the district, NiBa was designed to fill gaps for those who might be looking for that unique object - a handblown glass vase, a crystal and feather chandelier - to complete a room.
Berryman has seen a lot of growth in the area.
"Some of the best changes have been the restaurants," said Berryman. "I've always loved the Charcuterie and it's still here. Now there's Michael's, Pacific Time, and Ken Lyon's place. The other big transformer is Art Basel. It has elevated Miami. The neighborhood is a showplace at that time."
Necee Regis can be contacted at email@example.com.