He nearly left town. Instead Michael’s restaurant became a Miami landmark

Miami chef Michael Schwartz in the kitchen at Michael's in the Design District. Schwartz, 52, has done what few others can dream of: Opening a successful fine-dining restaurant that remains open for 10 years. José A. Iglesias (Miami Herald)

Michael Schwartz built one of the most beloved Miami restaurants, in a part of town no one thought could work, at a time when the Design District was even more of a gamble than a young Wynwood — and became a Miami success story.

It nearly never happened.

“This was my last-ditch effort to stay in Miami, to save face,” Schwartz said on a recent Wednesday as he sat in his landmark Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink on the cusp of its 10th anniversary — a milestone for a Miami fine-dining restaurant.

 

MGFD became Schwartz’s doorway not just to a coveted James Beard Award, but to a restaurant fiefdom all Miami diners have benefited from: Harry’s Pizzerias, the nationally recognized Cypress Tavern, the brand-new Fi’lia in Brickell (with an outpost coming soon in Los Angeles).
 

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It all started with Michael’s Genuine, a restaurant that gave foodies and celebrities alike something different from South Beach. They found food, service and an atmosphere that was like the name promised: genuine. The restaurant celebrates how it all began with a throw-back menu this month of some of the dishes that put it on the map 10 years ago.

But it also gave Schwartz a chance to meditate on the life-changing — and rash — decision that led to it.

Sixteen years ago, just as his career was taking off, Schwartz split with restaurateur Myles Chefetz, after the two had made a huge splash with five different restaurants on South Beach including Nemo, Shoji Sushi and Big Pink, which still stands. They argued over cuisines and concept — and in the end, over ego. The two did not speak to one another for more than a decade.

Michael Schwartz, pictured here 10 years ago when he took a gamble on opening Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink in the Design District. The restaurant has receieved critical acclaim since then, as has Schwartz, and they have become Miami fixtures.

Chefetz went on to open South Beach’s high-end Prime 112 (a favorite of celebrities), Prime Fish and Prime Italian and become one of South Florida’s most successful restaurateurs.

But Schwartz, a Philadelphia native who has been in South Florida for 25 years, floundered. For six years he moved from one forgettable stop to another, from Boca Raton to Washington Avenue.

“I made an emotional decision to split and end our partnership. Purely emotional,” he said. “I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t make a plan.”

He was married with two children, and a third would soon be on the way.

“I started to question myself. I had that thought, yeah. I struggled with that,” he said. “We almost moved to Guatemala. We were ready for whatever. We needed a change of scenery.”

Instead, looking mostly for a new place with cheap rent, he and his wife sold their Miami Beach home, moved into a rental and used the payoff as seed money for Michael’s Genuine.

He spent 16 hour days at the restaurant. When the doors were closed, he spent his hours visiting local farms and fishermen — the crux of his menu at MGFD — helping to set up a pathway for locally sourced products to reach his menu. The restaurant was built on using whatever was local and fresh, a menu that changed with the seasons.

Inside, the restaurant remains mostly unchanged, from the rustic tables and chairs and simple, stark decor to the jazz playlist of more than 400 songs Schwartz himself has curated over the years.

“I always felt there was a need for a restaurant like that in Miami,” he said. “I like to think that’s why we made it: We were all-in 100 percent. We were cooking what we wanted to cook in an environment we wanted to be in.”

They got lucky along the way, too, he admits. The foot traffic he brought to the Buena Vista area helped open the door to the high-end Design District, which developer Craig Robins has turned into Miami’s version of Rodeo Drive. What was once MGFD’s desolate and dark parking lot is now a Rolex boutique.

And then the James Beard Foundation, Esquire magazine and The New York Times dining sections found him. Then there was that time Jennifer Aniston stopped in for an early dinner with then-beau John Mayer, and he might have been the one to let it slip to the gossip writers. (It definitely was.)

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Now he’s the one other chefs come to for business advice. Several chefs and owners who have started to expand their restaurants have sat with him to pick his brain: Richard Hales (of Midtown’s Blackbrick, Sakaya Kitchen, Bird & Bone), Zak Stern (Zak the Baker bakery and deli) and Javier Ramirez (Alter, Cake Thai Kitchen, Amelia).

And last year, months after his own father passed, he heard his former partner, Chefetz, had lost his mother. Schwartz’s wife urged him to send Chefetz a text, and the two ended up speaking for the first time since their falling out. Last month, Chefetz came to have dinner for the first time at MGFD.

“It was nice to reconnect,” Schwartz said. “I respect him and I like him, I really do. We have history.”

A lot can happen in 10 years. MGFD’s lease is up in six. And Miami has a way of pricing out restaurants with rising rents. But Schwartz has proven he can carry a lot of talent and a little luck a long way.

“We’re not the hot spot anymore,” he said, “but hopefully we’re the spot you come back to.”

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