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David Bracha on The First Year at Oak Tavern

With over two decades of experience and what's become a very successful, iconic Miami restaurant (River Oyster Bar) to his name, chef/owner David Bracha opened up Oak Tavern in the Design District. The quaint indoor/outdoor restaurant that's come to be known for its contemporary American dishes and super affordable oyster happy hour has now been open for one year. Eater spoke with Bracha about this past year, changes, challenges and what's to come in the future.

How did Oak Tavern come to be?
I've been in the restaurant business for quite a few years in Miami. I have a restaurant in Brickell called The River Oyster Bar and I always was kind of searching out for another restaurant, but it had to be the right situation. I got a call that the space that Oak is in right now is available and when I went there it just had a great feel. It has an outdoor courtyard and it was something else prior to that so I could kind of get the vibe of what it would be like for a restaurant and it had a really good kitchen. And I live two blocks away from the Design District so I was pretty familiar with the area and it just came together and I thought that it would be a great project.

Overall, how's the first year been?
Every first year in a restaurant is really difficult because if you're doing a new venture it evolves, you have the work out the kinks, you have to get into a rhythm unique to Miami I think. Unique to Miami, it's hard to find the right people, people are very transient. They go from one place to another. So you kind of have to find your core staff, so it can be challenging. I knew that going in and it definitely was challenging. We opened up right before season, right before Art Basel, so we got really busy really fast and that's not the perfect situation. You want to kind of start of slow and kind of get your feet planted in and get into a rhythm and then get busy. Otherwise it's been good and we've been making progress every day and every week and getting better and we'll continue to do so.

How did the opening go? What surprised you about it?
Well, if I were to change one thing … we invited people and friends and family, I would have limited that to a lot less people. You have to be careful because if you've been around and you have any type of name at all, people want to come out and see what you're doing right away, so my recommendation would be to try and keep that under control and as small as possible and then build up to it.

What are some of the challenges you faced over the year?
Well, to give you an example, we hired probably 25-30 people when we opened and I think one is still with us or two possibly. So that just gives you an idea of how difficult that is. That's one thing. The menu's changed a lot. You kind of open with a certain idea and … it's not a concept restaurant – when I say concept I mean it's not like I'm trying to replicate something from Italy or France – It's a tavern, it's about my cooking – I like to approach it ingredient first, locally source as many possible ingredients and then very strong technique. We try to do the best we can on all fronts. So, until we got that staff solidified it was hard. The area itself is a great area, there's a lot going on and there's great plans for the area, but it is in a transition right now so there's construction and I think at one point like half the neighborhood got leveled so that was a little funky. But we stuck to it and we're going fine, things are getting better.

What's changed over the year at Oak Tavern?
We brought the half-priced oysters that we do at The River as part of our happy hour. I think it's kind of nice because better quality oysters can be expensive, so it's kind of an opportunity for people who are into oysters to have that two hour window where they can go in and not break the bank. So, I brought that over to Oak, although it's not as popular at Oak because we're not really known for being an oyster bar, but quite a few people appreciate it. People always complain they couldn't get into The River, so now you can come to the Oak you know? The brunch we did was really successful and went fairly smoothly, it's been very good and hasn't been that difficult and people really enjoy it, so that's been really positive. When we first started it was more small plate driven and there weren't a lot of entrée options and in my mind I was thinking we'll you know, tavern, people can come in, people like to share and it's funny but your clientele kind of, not completely dictates to you but, a lot of my clientele came in and kind of voiced there opinions. They wanted to see more fish and more entrées, so it's evolved. You're still able to eat that way but there's definitely more options as far as entrées go. We still make our own charcuterie, which we're really into. A lot of the things that were working early on are still there, but we added some other options and the menu has evolved. It's different than when we started.

What's been your biggest success at Oak Tavern so far?
My biggest success, that's a tough one. Well, behind the scenes, to make it through the first year in the restaurant business is a very positive thing because its such a speculative and volatile business so that's a huge accomplishment in my opinion. Our other success is that we have people coming back. We're starting to get a loyal following and we have people leaving very happy and we have people coming back once, twice a week, which is nice. I think regulars and people that are loyal to what you do is such an important aspect of the business and I have a lot of that at The River. I try not to get caught up in the hype of the city, it's all about the new place, so I try to kind of put my blinders on and focus on what we're doing and try to do the best we can so people enjoy it and come back.

What's your focus at the restaurant right now?
I've been in the kitchen a lot and I've been really working on the menu and trying to get it to where I feel really comfortable with it. And I'm one of these type of operators that I like to eat in my establishments and really be subjective. Do I like it or do I not like it and if I don't like it I change it. If it's something that I'm not enjoying then I try to either improve on it or change it. So, I'm really getting into the food and the menu and the way it's produced and what we're offering to people.

When you're not eating at Oak Tavern where do you like to eat out in Miami?
Let's see. There's little ethnic places that I enjoy. There's a place called Pho 78 if you're into pho. My chef de cuisine likes Asian food a lot and we've done some road trips up to Pho 78, we think it's probably the best Pho in Miami. Matsuri in the Gables on Bird Road, very fresh, excellent sashimi and sushi. I like Mandolin, very nice clean food really done well. I'm good friends with Timon, I like to stop by Sugarcane. I like to try the new places and then there's a handful of tried and trues than I go back to.

Do you have any plans for the future?
You know I try not to look too far ahead. Maybe it's my age (he laughs). I turned 50 this year so I try to live in the moment and try to do as best as I can every day. If things present themselves… Right now we're working on moving The River possibly in a year's time. Brickell is changing unbelievably at a rapid pace. There's a huge development in front of The River and our lease is up in about a year and we can extend it to two years but we're aggressively looking to move it and we are discussing some locations with some people. Nothing's for sure yet. I'm putting my energy into that and also into Oak and we'll see what happens.
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[Photo Credit: Andres Aravena]

Oak Tavern

35 NE 40th St, Miami, FL 33137