Restaurateur Anthony Monticello could hardly believe the parade of maskless strangers partying on Delray Beach’s Atlantic Avenue last month, so he flew his New York chef down to South Florida to see it himself.
“My chef had the same reaction I did: ‘What the hell am I still doing in New York?’ ” Monticello recalls. “New York is cold and closed. We’ve barely seen people walking the streets in over a year.”
After a year of shutdowns and heavy restrictions forced on all four of his Manhattan wine bars and taco shops, Monticello needed zero convincing to bring his Where Hospitality restaurant group to the Sunshine State. Now he’s banking on touristy Delray Beach: The first out-of-state outpost of his Vote for Pedro cantina, dishing street tacos and tequila, will be one of 27 vendors inside the Delray Beach Market, the 150,000-square-foot food hall opening this April.
“All the restaurants are open 100 percent here,” Monticello says. “The market is wide open in South Florida.”
Monticello is not alone. In Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach and Miami, pandemic-driven Northerners are snapping up homes with cash sales – and often outbidding local homebuyers. And big-name restaurant operators are following them, lured here by warmer weather, lower taxes, fewer permitting hurdles and looser COVID-19 restrictions.
In Delray Beach, New York’s Host Restaurants opened Avalon Steak & Seafood in late February on Atlantic Avenue, with a bright, coastal-themed dining room its owners say evokes the Hamptons and Martha’s Vineyard. Ritzy storefronts in the town of Palm Beach were taken over in February with outposts of clubby New York French bistros La Goulue and Le Bilboquet. Greenwich Village’s acclaimed Italian eatery Carbone opened on Jan. 15 in Miami Beach, while iconic New York bistro Pastis will open in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood in 2022.
“Roughly 90 percent of Broward and Palm Beach transactions in the past five months involved buyers from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.,” says Tom Prakas, co-owner of Boca Raton commercial real estate broker Prakas & Co. “The phones do not stop. The exodus from New York and New Jersey is 10 times more extreme than it was before, and all the operators say the pandemic is the big motivator.”
With his New York restaurants running at 25 percent capacity, Monticello said restrictive permitting fees were killing his businesses. His 12-year-old Cello Wine Bar shuttered permanently last fall. The city recently charged him $16,000 to keep 16 patio chairs on his Manhattan sports bar’s patio – seats he struggles to fill in sub-freezing weather. City inspectors also fined him $6,000 for exceeding dine-in capacity.
“I have to pay to keep patio seats when it’s 30 degrees outside? Well, there are no permit fees for outdoor seating in South Florida,” Monticello says. “There’s no relief for small businesses in New York. Our lovely Gov. Andrew Cuomo destroyed the city and I can’t afford the fines or embarrassment. That’s why I came here.”
South Florida’s snowbirds traditionally flock here October through April, fueling the region’s high restaurant season.
”But the exodus of New Yorkers to Florida threatens to disrupt those migration patterns,” says Jaime Sturgis, co-owner of Fort Lauderdale broker Native Realty. “Many snowbirds I’ve spoken to have established permanent residency, and lots of New York restaurants have told me they have no intentions of going back.”
Joining the gold rush of New Yorkers staking their South Florida claim is restaurateur Alan Philips (Friedman’s, La Salle Dumpling Room), who in January spent $1.7 million on an auto garage at 700 N. Andrews Ave. in Fort Lauderdale’s growing Progresso Village.
Over the next six months he’ll spend another $1 million morphing the 6,000-square-foot space into one of his New York concepts, likely his neighborhood cafe Community Food and Juice, aimed at Flagler Village’s growing class of young urbanites. His flagship café near Colombia University remains closed in the pandemic, and without New York tourists, so are two of his eateries in Times Square.
“This area has a beautiful industrial look not unlike Wynwood once did,” says Philips, whose restaurant will break ground this June. “We like that Flagler Village demographic: young and upwardly mobile in mid-rise buildings, many working from home. The wave is here.”
Still, if Northeast restaurateurs are bullish about South Florida, some aren’t sure how long the wave will last.
“Many restaurant groups migrating to South Florida have been leasing storefronts, not buying them, targeting dense urban areas like Las Olas and Atlantic Avenue,” says Matthew Joseph, owner of Coral Gables-based West Avenue Realty. “Most are keen to take over pre-existing restaurant spaces instead of building from scratch. Spaces with kitchen hoods and grease traps are highly coveted because they’re cheaper and easier. You come in, slap some paint, and open your eatery. Places like that are disappearing fast. It’s accelerated to the point where there’s a shortage of prime commercial real estate. Atlantic Avenue is pretty much sewn up. There’s almost nothing left on Las Olas.”
Washington, D.C.-based restaurateur Ginger Flesher-Sonnier considered herself lucky to land on Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach: Her new 12,000-square-foot entertainment village, Throw Social, will debut this July at 29 SE Second Ave. in the space formerly occupied by clubby Italian grill Il Bacio. Along with an outdoor stage pumping out live music, Throw Social will feature ax throwing, darts, shuffleboard tables and a gastropub menu.
She began eyeing Delray Beach last summer, frustrated with extended COVID lockdowns in Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia, where her chain of ax-throwing bars, Kick Axe Throwing, remain closed or open with limited menus. In Washington her Throw Social flagship has been closed since February because the district labels it not a restaurant-bar but rather live entertainment, in the same category as a concert hall. In Brooklyn her ax-throwing bar is open but Flesher-Sonnier cannot serve food and drink.
“It was ridiculous,” Flesher-Sonnier says. “We were so floored by the draconian rules up North. We had to furlough all our employees at Throw Social. We tanked our future projects up there and came to Florida.”
Later this October, Matt Gullace’s Asbury Ale House will become the signature ground-floor tenant inside the Society Las Olas residential tower on Fort Lauderdale’s riverfront. His Asbury Park, N.J., flagship features coal-fired pizza, 50 beers on tap, Instagram-worthy cocktails and parlor games such as cornhole. His gastropub, now running at 35 percent capacity, avoided closing during the pandemic because he installed 18 heated, igloo-shaped greenhouses on his rooftop for customers dining out at wintertime.
The most enticing part about opening in Fort Lauderdale?
“A liquor license is $1 million in Asbury Park right now, and you can get it for much, much less in South Florida,” Gullace says.
Patrizia’s of New York, an upscale Italian eatery with 11 restaurants spread across five boroughs as well as in Red Bank, N.J., managed to keep all locations open, says managing partner Gennaro Frezza. Last December, sales cratered at all locations, and loyal New York customers had told him they’d moved to South Florida instead.
“We’d get calls from customers saying, ‘Why don’t you open Patrizia’s in South Florida?’ ” Frezza says. “So we thought, why not?”
Frezza will debut South Florida’s first Patrizia’s during the first half of April at 3300 NE 32nd St., inside the North Beach Plaza, taking over the former Jackson’s Prime Steakhouse space that closed in the pandemic.
“It’s a perfect fit for us,” Frezza says. “We could have picked Las Olas but this has more space. We know our customers will travel for good food no matter where we drop the pin in South Florida.”