Miami's famously over-the-top empire builder Barton G. Weiss isn't slowing down anytime soon. What started as a catering company in 1993 has now evolved into an ever-growing realm of endless possibilities. The restaurateur and events creator opened Barton G. The Restaurant ten years ago, with Prelude by Barton G. at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts opening in 2009, and The Villa by Barton G. opening the following year at the iconic Versace Mansion on Ocean Drive. Eater sat down to talk with Barton G. himself about the 10 year anniversary of his first restaurant, what inspires him and Executive Chef Jeff O'Neill, and the upcoming LA location.
Barton G. The Restaurant just underwent some changes. What's new and different at the restaurant?
I'm my own worst critic- I come to the restaurant as if I were a guest. It needed a redo, and we did this in less than a week. We converted the entire restaurant and created a brand new menu. Our concept is still "culinary theater," which chefs now are taking seriously, whereas before they thought it was too "gimicky." The vehicles that the food comes out in are changing constantly. We don't have a set menu for a season or anything like that, we revamp based on what's working and what's not. It's American cuisine with a twist. It's still whimsical, fun, and I make people smile. At the end of the day- that's it. There's no greater success, I feel, than making everyone happy.
Executive Chef Jeff O'Neill, can you talk about some of these menu changes?
90 percent of the menu is completely new; the ones that haven't changed are the ones that are classic signatures we've tried to change but can't because of such a loyal following. It's a big overhaul. A big menu. The tasting proposal for this menu had 60 dishes. For me it's an invaluable experience because I'm used to the formal fine dining atmosphere. At The Villa, we do 100 covers, here 650. So to produce consistent, quality food is a challenge. Here we push boundaries with flavors and spices, but it's very familiar Americana items prepared in extravagant, over-the-top ways. Definitely not the norm.
The Restaurant also just celebrated its 10 year anniversary in November. Did you guys have any celebrations?
BW: We opened the upstairs, called UpTop at Barton G. It's like the back door of Barton G.- 'Baby G.' It's for private dining, large parties, and lounging. Probably one of the biggest private dining rooms in South Beach. We're the third oldest restaurant in Miami Beach. The building was built in 1923 and has a long history. I always envisioned something that became iconic, and I think we're getting there. Anyone I speak to remembers one or two elements of being here.
JO: Upstairs you get the same experience as downstairs, but for a large group and no set menus or restricted choices on items. You can get whatever you want. We can tailor the menu to what the guest wants. It's the same vehicles, and food.
You're opening a second Barton G. The Restaurant in LA, the first of your empire to open outside of Miami. What's the status with that?
All focus is on LA right now. I know what the market is, I've been out there and been researching. Barton G is not coming in with a bang, but understated rather than overstated and word of mouth will be the best approach. The look and feel is customized to LA- there will be onyx and a flower wall, which are my signature touches. But it's a whole different ball game out there, so it'll be customized to their palette: fun, elegant, not complete craziness but a little. It wouldn't be me if it wasn't a little crazy. The hard part is that I compete with myself. There's nobody else I can get inspired by. I go around the world- Germany, Milan- and pick up all these influences. My uniforms for LA were designed in Spain. It'll be a blush-colored full length apron. The front is elegant, and the back is industrial. Our portions will be not as large as here, but desserts are always something that I can't control myself with, so I can't promise small. The cocktails will take a completely different direction than here. There will be more herbs and interesting mixes. The executive chef will be under Jeff's direction. We're still looking for the right person. I think mixologists are great, but I think chefs are better. I look at cocktails as a course. It's a look, a feeling, a style. So I want a chef doing the cocktails. It should be much more chef-driven. I'm going in to LA as the 'new kid on the block' and to augment what's already fabulous. I'm bringing a different style of dining to open your mind.
When is LA going to be ready to open?
March. LA will be a little more subdued than South Beach. I'm having a ball designing it. I think it's the first pink onyx bar. There's etched mirror. It's going to be fun. I'll be seating people on sofas and chairs at table heights, and there will be sheers giving a feeling of intimacy. I'm excited; the challenge will be great. I love taking a challenge on. Nobody knows it all, but I try to know as much as I can, and if not, I make up the rest. (laughs) I'll be moving to LA for a period of time, making it another home for me. I never 'birth' something without taking he time to gauge people's reactions. After that, we hope to open up 20 more because it's so unique and fun.
Where do you get your inspiration?
I try to go places I haven't been to get inspired. It's about the way you think and about opening peoples minds to think out of the box. It's about service- they way you present, the timing, everything. It becomes entertainment. Who doesn't want to have fun? People don't want to leave. The whole thing is... "why not?" I have no boundaries, no limits. You can never have too much fun. I think that over time, we keep changing and that's the beauty of it. What I did yesterday, I don't really care about. I want to know what I'm doing tomorrow, and how I can better it. We keep moving forward. Some people just don't get it. I'm not sure what's not to get but... I'm a do-er. There's no reason why I can't defy all laws of gravity, and there's no reason why you have to eat on a white plate.
The Villa by Barton G. is the epitome of top-notch luxury dining. Besides its iconic location at the former Versace Mansion, what sets it apart from the rest? What does an average night for two cost?
It's continental cuisine done to perfection. The model I took for it was in the 40s and 50s. Very elegant and not rushed. We use all different kinds of plates, so the experience plays into the visual. And it's beautiful food- amazing service and amazing food. The bill averages about $100 per person with wine. It's quality, not quantity. We're not trying to turn those tables ten times. It's surreal and quiet. It's special and treated differently, very celebratory.
Who have been some of your favorite clients, or what have been some of the most memorable occasions?
I have a lot of celebrities come in here but I don't like to advertise it. They bring their families, and I don't want to exploit that. Lil Wayne proposed here, but he denied it. He's been back ever since. I've created millions of marriages here. People propose here all the time, I don't know if it's in the air or the water I serve.
Other than LA, any other future plans in the works for the Barton G. empire?
I'm coming out with a book. It's a surprise, but it's food.
When you're not at any of your restaurants, where do you like to dine out in Miami?
I can't remember the last time I ate out. At the end of the day I don't want to see food or an event. I want to go home.