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Coconut Grove going gourmet with new eateries by established names

Apr. 14, 2016

Passing “Grovites” walking their dogs wave to Matt Kuscher through the window of his newest restaurant-in-waiting as he talks on the phone.

“Coconut Grove is the only neighborhood in Miami where people wave to you — actually wave hello,” Kuscher said.

Thanks to the still-mild weather, he can ride his orange bicycle with the basket up front the two blocks from his house to Lokal, the Coconut Grove restaurant everyone except his father told him would never succeed when he opened in 2010. Six years later, he can ride from Lokal, which has been a huge local hit, to his latest restaurant in the Grove, the seafood-specialized Spillover, in yet another dead area next to the Mayfair Hotel that everyone warned him against.

He’s ready to prove them wrong about the Grove again — and this time he’s got big-time back up.

Chef-driven restaurants catering to foodies are supplanting the chains and bars aimed at tourists and college kids.

Eating House chef Giorgio Rapicavoli signed on to run the kitchen at Glass & Vine, a restaurant that reclaimed the old “Glass House” chamber of commerce, overlooking Peacock Park. International/local chef and restaurateur Michael Schwartz opened a branch of his successful Harry’s Pizzeria one street over. And he signed a deal to open a sprawling indoor-outdoor restaurant in the spirit of Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink in late 2017, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner at the base of an upcoming highrise at Tigertail Avenue and Mary Street.

They followed Panther Coffee, drawing skinny-jean youths in Elvis Costello glasses when they opened in the Grove in May of last year. And everyone locally is buzzing about a pair of new restaurants: Ariete, headed by Michael Beltran — who studied under chef royalty Norman Van Aken and Schwartz — recently received a three-star review by the Miami Herald; 33 Kitchen earned a 3 1/2-star nod a month ago.

“Michael and Giorgio are renowned throughout the country and the world, so the fact they’re coming here means something’s happening in the Grove,” Kuscher said.

The Grove is having more than a moment. It is capturing Miamians who once drove by the neighborhood on their way to chef-driven restaurants popping up in Wynwood, Brickell and South Beach.

“We’re capturing the people down there, and now we’re giving people from South Beach and downtown a reason to come down,” Schwartz said.

Thank the hipsters for that.

Kuscher came to the Grove only because rents were cheap when he was looking to open his first restaurant after a career with the Houston’s chain. A Washington, D.C., transplant, he fell in love with the Miami subculture of artists, not the touristy glitz, after graduating from Florida International University’s school of hospitality. He and his wife wanted to open a restaurant in a part of town that would be open to his farm-to-table concept, relying on organic, local ingredients whenever possible.

“I knew the Grove was the one place in Miami where people were more ‘hippie-ish’ and grass-roots enough to be open to the idea of paying a little bit more to get quality food,” said Kuscher, who went on to open Kush in Wynwood, again chasing low rents and a quirky-artsy community. “People are always outdoors, doing yoga, riding their bicycles.”

Lokal’s success was a beacon to other local chefs that the time was right to bring chef-driven restaurants back to the Grove.

“He deserves some credit for that, definitely,” Schwartz said.

The art-loving, laid-back, bike-friendly vibe is what caught the attention of Panther Coffee co-owners Joel Pollock and Leticia Ramos when they first moved from Portland, Oregon, to Miami. They nearly signed their first lease in the Grove before settling on Wynwood, where their coffee shop and roaster created arguably the first outdoor hangout in the once-crime-ridden neighborhood.

After expanding to South Beach and the Miami Modern district, they turned to the Grove. Once their sign went up, Grovites stopped into the Wynwood shop just to tell them how excited they were about getting their gourmet coffee outpost.

“That’s when we knew we were onto something,” Pollock said. “People came just to tell us how excited they were. That’s when I told Michael [Schwartz], ‘There’s something happening in the Grove, man. I think you really belong there.’”

Months later, Harry’s Pizzeria signed a lease.

“Blame Joel. It’s really his fault,” Schwartz said, laughing. “People saw an affluent community that went through a little downturn and people there just wanted good food, man.”

Schwartz has been in Miami for 22 years and his daughter attended Ransom Everglades in the heart of the Grove, yet he said he rarely spent much time there.

“But it has a vibe, an architecture, a feeling I get when I go there,” he said. “Grovites are very protective of their community, and it’s served them well.”

Nothing typified Grovites’ ardor like the fight to save Scotty’s Landing, the bayside casual restaurant where locals often went in shorts and T-shirts to sit by the water with a $4.50 Corona. Only after a legal fight did Grove Bay Hospitality Group win the right to a 50-year lease to redevelop the 7-acre waterfront tract north of the historic City Hall, which houses the chain restaurant Chart House and neighboring Scotty’s.

Grovites OK’d the 11,000-square-foot Chart House becoming two 5,500-square-foot restaurants with second-story overlooks, like the Rusty Pelican, and a casual dining restaurant that the Grove Bay group insists will be affordable and open to the Hawaiian-shirt-and-flip-flops crowd. There will also be 20-25 boat slips in a neighborhood with its own sailing club.

“I grew up going to the Grove in the ’90s when the Grove was the place to be, and we felt this was an opportunity to bring it back,” said Grove Bay co-founder Ignacio Garcia-Menocal. “What was missing was giving people in Miami a reason to go back there.”

Glass & Vine, which his group owns, could be a model. They hired a chef with that mix of local appeal and national acclaim, Rapicavoli, a Food Network Chopped champion with Miami roots.

“To have a restaurant in that setting, it’s just so beautiful. It’s an opportunity I couldn’t pass up,” Rapicavoli said. “The Grove got to be commercial, with Café Tu Tu Tango and Johnny Rockets. But now there are some real-deal restaurants. The Grove is going back to what it started off as: A way to experience a different aspect of Miami.”

The Grove is less interested in becoming Miami’s next hot spot. It’s more important to locals to retain their Big Lebowski-like air.

To that end, Kuscher, who sits on the Grove’s business-improvement district, embraces the Grove’s dog-loving ethos (the neighborhood has two dog parks) and bakes dog biscuits daily at Lokal. He wants to see the influx of restaurants respect the Grove’s roots as it remakes itself the way Miami often does.

“I want it to have an identity again,” Kuscher said. “I want it to be a place where locals who want to be real can live and work and play.”

And eat well any night of the week.

By Carlos Frías

Read more at miamiherald.com.