Beginning Thursday, diners at the Social Club in South Beach’s Surfcomber Hotel are going to see a lot more of Doug Sisk.
The chef is using the two-month Miami Spice dining promotion, which runs through Sept. 30, to test out potential dishes for the Social Club’s new menu.
“I really want to be out front in the dining room, talking to guests, getting feedback on the new dishes,” Sisk said, mentioning a mushroom and white cheddar tart and a crispy-skin snapper he created for Miami Spice. “Whatever is best received is what we’ll incorporate into the next menu.
“My drive is to give people a taste now, and give them a reason to come back and try more.”
Now in its 12th year, Miami Spice offers diners three-course, fixed-price lunches and dinners at a record 194 Miami-Dade restaurants, a number that has jumped more than 40 percent since organizers added a second pricing tier two years ago.
Customers at “luxury” restaurants pay $23 for lunch, $39 for dinner; “fine-dining” restaurants charge $19 and $33 respectively.
For many casual diners, shelling out $39 for an appetizer, entrée and dessert – plus extra for drinks, tax and tip – is hardly a bargain, especially in the age of deep-discount Internet sites like Groupon, LivingSocial and restaurant.com. (Even New York City’s restaurant-month dinner is a buck cheaper than a Miami Spice luxury meal this year.)
But the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, which runs the program, doesn’t claim it provides cheap eats. Rather, organizers say, it’s a chance to make expensive restaurants a bit more affordable for locals and tourists.
“From the very beginning, we’ve partnered with the highest-end restaurants, the ultra-luxe restaurants,” said Rolando Aedo, the bureau’s senior vice president of marketing and tourism. “We want to demystify the luxury restaurant experience.”
By going after a well-heeled clientele, Miami Spice can benefit restaurateurs and diners alike, according to David Talty, a former Burger King executive who’s now a lecturer at Florida International University’s Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management. Deep-discount coupons, on the other hand, could damage restaurants’ bottom lines and set up customers for bad experiences, he said.
“I’ve seen restaurants go broke through Groupon deals,” Talty said. “It’s impossible to provide adequate food and service at those prices.”
Miami Spice restaurants, he said, should put their best foot forward for the next two months in hopes of earning full-priced return visits.
Talty recalled chatting up a couple at a nearby table during a Miami Spice visit to a Coconut Grove restaurant.
“They said they had wanted to try that restaurant for some time, and the promotion allowed them to do it,” he said. “They were so happy with their meal, they said they couldn’t wait to come back. So that’s the perfect win-win: The restaurant earned new customers, and the customers enjoyed a good value experience.”
Front-of-the-house staff have been known to complain about Miami Spice’s impact on their bottom line.
“Servers may assume their tips will be lower during Miami Spice because the check averages are lower,” Talty said. “But the truth is, their volume of customers should be up, and if they play their cards right, they’ll win some repeat business.”
Conceived as a way to jump-start dining out during the post-9/11 economic downturn, particularly in the slow summer months, Miami Spice has evolved from a way to market the local culinary scene to visitors to a promotion that largely caters to residents.
“Miami Spice is part of the local lexicon,” Aedo said. “Everyone knows what that is, and thousands of people look forward to it.”
(Miami Spice is so much a part of the lexicon that it’s the name of the city’s new, undefeated Bikini Basketball Association team. “That’s flattering,” Aedo said with a laugh.)
The growing number of participating restaurants prompted an upgrade of the program’s website, ilovemiamispice.com, which now features a searchable database of restaurants as well as menus, chef biographies, food photos and links for reservations.
The restaurant promotion has spawned a number of “Miami Temptations” offshoots like spa month (July-August), golf month (April) and live-music month (November).
“Obviously we still want to focus on showcasing Miami’s restaurants to visitors, but when we can get locals excited about our food and chefs, they become the best ambassadors for our region,” said the convention bureau’s Aedo.
Like Sisk at the Social Club, Edwin Mendez is using Miami Spice as an opportunity to roll out new menu items at Spartico at Coconut Grove’s Mayfair Hotel, where he is food and beverage manager.
Mendez said he hopes locals will take advantage of Miami Spice to try out Spartico chef Dario Correa’s new pastas and other Italian plates.
“We are changing 80 percent of our menu on Aug. 15, right in the middle of Spice,” he said. “We think it’s a great chance to let our regular customers check it out, and hopefully they’ll be back for more.”
Miami Spice gripes and remedies
Portions are small. Tell that to the half-pound Maine lobster tail or the 12-ounce bone-in pork chop on the Miami Spice menu at Devon Seafood & Steak in Kendall.
Is this really a value? It depends on where you dine. The chef’s tasting menu at the Dutch at the W South Beach is $85; the three-course Miami Spice menu may leave you less stuffed, but it’s a good representation and costs less than half as much.
Spice menus are too limited. Again, it depends. Jose Andres’ Bazaar at the SLS Hotel gives Miami Spice diners about 20 small-plate entree choices and lets them pick three — plus one each from four appetizers and three desserts.
Why aren’t drinks included? At Mercadito, they are. The Midtown Mexican lets you choose a margarita, cerveza or glass of malbec to start.
If you don’t eat meat, you’re out of luck. Not everywhere. At Hakkasan in the Fontainbleau, veg heads and fish-only eaters can build an entire meal from the restaurant’s upscale takes on dim sum and Chinese cuisine.
I don’t know where to start. Check out Miami.com’s picks for 10 must-snag Miami Spice reservations.