Miami's Gastrobar Scene Expands, a Threat to Casual Chains?

By Kerri Adams, Foodable Contributor

Inside Pisco y Nazca | Photo Courtesy of Centurion Restaurant Group

Inside Pisco y Nazca | Photo Courtesy of Centurion Restaurant Group

Today’s diner is more sophisticated and educated than ever, and even though they have higher expectations for fancier fare, they don’t necessarily want the typical fine-dining experience. Foodies still want fine foods, minus the stuffy venue.

Enter gastropubs or gastrobars, restaurants that continue to pop up all over the country that offer a casual yet refined atmosphere, with upscale food and bar menus.

The Centurion Restaurant Group (CRG) in Miami recognized the business potential for these types of restaurants and is building a small kingdom around them. Currently, the group manages Bulla Gastrobar in Coral Gables and Pisco y Nazca in Kendall. CRG plans to open two new stores of each concept in 2016.

Pub Grub Gets an Upgrade

The first-ever restaurant to coin the term gastropub was The Eagle in London in 1991. The concept combined the local pub culture with dining. These pubs mimic the look of the traditional pub, but offer more elevated “pub grub.”

While the gastropub movement was establishing in the U.K., there was a similar movement occurring in Spain. “In Spain, these types of concepts were taken over there, but instead of being called gastropubs they started calling them gastrobars, the term in Spanish,” says Juan Carlos Marchan, vice president and partner at CRG.

So with the gastrobar trend escalating in Spain in the last 20 years, it’s not surprising that these concepts would start popping up in Miami.

Quinoa Tabbouleh: tuna tataki, fresh herbs, quinoa, bell peppers, cucumber, red onions, ginger vinaigrette | Photo Courtesy of the Centurion Restaurant Group

Quinoa Tabbouleh: tuna tataki, fresh herbs, quinoa, bell peppers, cucumber, red onions, ginger vinaigrette | Photo Courtesy of the Centurion Restaurant Group

A More Approachable Format

Carlos Centurion, founder and owner of the Centurion Restaurant Group, is no rookie to the restaurant industry. The restaurateur originally ran a traditional fine-dining Spanish restaurant in Miami by the name of Por Fin.

“Carlos saw a huge opportunity to really elevate the [Por Fin] concept and what he did is he brought in the gastrobar element. He traveled all over the world and saw huge potential in gastrobars. So he fused the gastrobar concept with Spanish cuisine. And that’s how Bulla Gastrobar was born,” says Marchan.

Once Centurion transformed Por Fin into the more approachable Bulla Gastrobar, the concept was an instant success and has continued to be crowded for three years.

For the last 10 years, Marchan was working on a restaurant as well. “When I met Carlos, we definitely clicked and decided to join forces and create another concept, which was a Peruvian concept,” says Marchan.

Although Bulla and Pisco y Nazca were born from the same restaurant group and are both gastrobars, they each have their own distinctive personalities.

“What I really loved about his concept was that whole gastrobar element and that whole social element, and the passion and design that was put into that restaurant,” Marchan says. “So, we took a lot of those elements from Bulla and blended them with Peruvian cuisine.”

Pisco y Nasca officially opened about a month ago.

A dish off of Bulla's Market Menu: Fiocchi con Salsa Aurora (stuffed pasta, Aurora sauce, bellota ham and marcona almonds) | Instagram @bullagastrobar

A dish off of Bulla's Market Menu: Fiocchi con Salsa Aurora (stuffed pasta, Aurora sauce, bellota ham and marcona almonds) | Instagram @bullagastrobar

Foodies Flock to Social Dining

Today’s dining experience is more social than ever. At Gastrobars, which straddle between the line of bar and restaurant, diners can spend hours munching on tapas while sipping handcrafted cocktails, which is often encouraged by the staff. It’s a social experience married with elevated fare that is meant to also be shared.

“It’s becoming a social trend that you are going to a restaurant and you want to try several things and you want to talk about the food, you want to critique it,” says Marchan.

Pisco y Nazca’s dinner menu is simple and features a few categories, including uniquely flavored ceviches like passion fruit (flounder, passion fruit leche de tigre, cancha, choclo) and Nikkei (ahi tuna, mirin, soy sauce, wasabi peas, cucumbers, chancaca leche de tigre, wonton-sesame crisp). The menu also offers small plates, including empanadas and Anticucho Corazón (grilled beef heart), and large plates like Pargo Crocante, a deep fried whole snapper with spicy Asian sauce and arroz chaufa blanco.

Fifteen to 20 percent of the menu at both concepts change each year. But for the diner looking for something different than what can be found on the regular menu, Bulla has a special market menu of six items that changes weekly. It is tested before launch by the owners, staff, and regular guests. Pisco y Nazca will be offering a menu like this in the near future.

Gastrobars like these are often found in lively neighborhoods. Diners are attracted to them because the atmosphere is inviting; the open indoor and outdoor design calls to them.

“If you sit at the bar for just a half an hour, you will see so many people walking by and they are going somewhere else, but they stop and look and go ‘you know what, let’s try this.’ This happens all the time,” says Marchan.

The Challenges of Opening Pisco y Nazca

With every new business endeavor, unexpected conflicts always seem to arise. When opening Pisco y Nazca, CRG did not anticipate the handcrafted cocktails to be so popular, so the bar staff had to quickly acclimate to the constant influx of cocktail orders.

Not to mention, the group did not expect the restaurant itself to be as busy as it has been since it opened. It’s a great problem to have, but dealing with the growing pains with a new staff isn’t always easy. This is why the restaurant is waiting to release the market menu. Marchan wants to make sure there is a smooth rhythm in the restaurant before throwing that evolving menu into the mix. Luckily, CRG hired an experienced staff that has been able to adapt well to the organized chaos.

Death of Traditional Casual Chains?

With the growth of successful independent restaurants, competition is more intense than ever.

“We are starting to see that a lot of these chain restaurants are struggling, especially in metropolitan areas like Miami,” says Marchan. “Why? Because there are a lot of new restaurateurs coming up with really cool concepts, doing fresh cuisine and are doing something at a more comfortable price that is accessible.”

These “really cool” concepts are changing the game for chains. Applebee’s, for example, is doing a remodel in their stores to incorporate an open kitchen design. This begs the question: Are gastropubs and gastrobars becoming a real threat to chains? The industry continues to get more competitive with the influx of these “trendy” concepts, but will they be successful in the long run? No matter, concepts like these are influencing restaurants to either adapt or close their doors.