Chef and restauranteur David Bracha is no stranger to the South Florida restaurant scene. He has owned and operated successful restaurants for the better part of two decades. But recently there have been a lot of questions and rumors surrounding his restaurant The River Oyster Bar and his recently-closed-but-might-resurface, Oak Tavern. Eater Miami sat down with Bracha to find out what's exactly going on with both.
So everyone was a bit surprised when Oak Tavern closed earlier this year. What exactly happened?
David Bracha: It was going well, we were there two-and-a-half years. A company from New York City showed some interest in buying the building, and I knew about five months before the sale actually happening, but I didn't focus too much on it because there is so much speculation going on in the Design District. But as time went on, it became a reality and it was basically a real estate play. The negotiations went on for about 45-60 days, but I didn't want to say anything until I was absolutely sure that it was going to happen — and I didn't know if it was going to happen or not. It was bittersweet, it took some time but we built Oak Tavern up and it was doing well.
When Oak Tavern closed, we were told that it might opening up elsewhere down the line. Is that still the plan?
I very much want to re-open, but it's not that easy in Miami anymore. And by easy I mean, it's hard to find a good lease. I've been in this business for a long time and I know what it takes and the lease is so important. It's up in the air right now. I have people reach out to me, even in the Design Disrtict I had some developers reach out to me, but it has to make sense. We were negotiating with the Mutiny Hotel in the Grove, but I decided not to do it because there wasn't enough indoor seating. It's a very small restaurant in the hotel and I was trying to somehow create something there, but in the end it ended up being a 35-seat restaurant and that presents a lot of problems.
But in the interim, some of the Oak Tavern dishes have ended up on the menu at your other restaurant, River Oyster Bar.
While I was doing Oak, Oak took a lot of my attention. Now that we're back, and so is the chef de cuisine from Oak, Curtis Rhodes, is here. So we're just playing around and having fun. Trying to freshen up the River menu. It's been a couple of years.
And what exactly is going on at River Oyster? Are you still planning to move its location?
A lot has been going on the past couple of years. In July of 2013 we signed a lease on the River's new location at 340 W. Flagler St. It was a pretty decent lease, 20 years, with all intentions to go into that space. We also at that time thought we had to be out of here by April of 2014. I have two partners that I've been in business with since the River started. One of them passed away in January, and that created some problems and delayed the new project. While it was delayed, the landlord at our current location came back and said, "there's an option for you to stay here three more years if you'd like." I didn't have that option when I signed the other space's lease. I thought I had to be out. But because of the delay and everything that occurred, I decided to stay here (River Oyster's current space at 650 South Miami Avenue) for three years — it can be longer than three years, but definitely at least three years — starting this September and running through September 2018, and possibly even longer than that. Right now there's no plans for this building and from my understanding they can't do with anything with it until the constrution is complete across the street.
Since River Oyster is sticking around in its current space then, are you guys planning any sort of renovations?
Absolutely. It's a bit tired. It's been 13 years so I am going to do a bunch of renovations. New floor. I'm thinking of extending the bar a little bit. People love the bar and there is such a huge demand for the bar and I often hear, "I come at 5:30 and I can't get a seat." So I think naturally to extend the bar towards the kitchen, gain eight seats and put the oysters on that part of the bar so you can sit there and actually watch the guy shuck the oysters. Open up the glass by the kitchen so it'll be more of an open kitchen. Re-do the back room and make it more a la carte and more comfortable. New furniture. A communal table that we had made for the new space in the bar. Getting rid of the tablecloths.
The renovations might happen in September. I'm trying to get a week where we might close, maybe July 4th since that's a slow week, so we can do the floor.
There's a lot happening in Brickell, and you guys are right across the street from the Brickell City Center construction. How has that affected business?
It's affected us to the tune of 18 percent drop. It's been in different amounts. It's been going on for three years now and initially it wasn't so bad. I think a year ago they closed the street between 7th and 8th and that was horrible, right around the time Tobacco Road closed and I think people thought this building was gone to. We field 2-3 calls a day, "are you in your new location? Have you re-opened yet?" There's a big confusion out there and I think people thought it was one building and when they knocked Tobacco Road down this was gone too.
I think we've made it through the worst. Summer will be slow but Fall it will pick up. The commute here seems a lot worse than it is, because I commute here every day and it doesn't take that long, it's just intimidating with the construction, but it's really not that much longer.