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Designers, foodies and fashionistas unite in Miami's Design District

By Necee Regis
Sunday, November 8, 2009

There's a new place to be fabulous in Miami, and it isn't South Beach.

Most people, including me, fly into town and make a beeline for the shore. On a recent trip, I decided instead to stay on "the mainland" to see what was happening in the Buena Vista neighborhood, in an area marketed as the Design District.

As it turns out, a lot is happening.

When I first visited, in 2003, the flat, tree-starved streets in this commercial district were frequented by interior designers and their clients scurrying in and out of more than 100 showrooms, looking for antiques, lighting, furniture, fabrics, kitchen designs, flooring and the like. The evenings, though, were dull. In a 10-block area, only two restaurants served dinner, and retail stores were nonexistent.

Fast forward six years. The designers and their clients are still here. But so are almost a dozen new restaurants and bars, and even more independent retail boutiques and art galleries. And those have pulled in everyone interested in high design, good food, fashion and fine art. The area is now buzzing from morning till late at night. ("Morning" hours begin at 10 or 11; this is, after all, Miami.) They've even planted some trees.

Part of the transformation can be credited to a group of chefs who journeyed across the causeway from South Beach, drawn by cheaper rents and a more creative and freewheeling environment.

Michael Schwartz began the exodus with Michael's Genuine Food & Drink. (It helped that New York Times critic Frank Bruni recommended this as one of his top 10 new restaurants outside New York in February 2008.) Schwartz was followed by Jonathan Eismann, whose restaurant, Pacific Time, was a pioneer of pan-Asian and American cuisine on South Beach's Lincoln Road for 15 years. Ken Lyon's regional Italian restaurant, Fratelli Lyon, opened in partnership with -- indeed, within the industrial-chic architectural showroom of -- the Italian-based furniture and design store Driade. "The local people know to come here," Lyon said. "It's very artsy. More and more shops are opening. It's getting busier and more successful."

Joining this trio, Michelle Bernstein opened a tapas restaurant and bar, Sra. Martinez, in the former Buena Vista post office. Last month, it was selected as one of Esquire magazine's 20 best new American restaurants of 2009. At least six other restaurants also beckon visitors, including Pasha's (eastern Mediterranean), Grass (contemporary American), Pizzavolante (Roman-style pizza) and Maitardi, (Northern Italian pizza, pasta, risotto and sandwiches).

So much tempting food, so little time. Yet even a savvy impulsive traveler like me would have benefited from a dinner reservation. I managed to snag a seat at the bar of Pacific Time, where a blue thyme martini and soft-shell crab tempura soothed my travel-weary soul. (Reservations are especially necessary during the first week of December, when the Design Miami and Art Basel Miami Beach shows come to town, and also the second Saturday of every month, when the district hosts a multi-block party called Art & Design Night.)

Luckily, I didn't need reservations to go shopping. Shall I drop names? In addition to all the design showrooms -- Holly Hunt, Poltrona Frau, E.G. Cody, Vitra, Kartell, Ann Sacks, Fendi Casa -- where fab furniture, lighting, kitchens, bathrooms and other big-ticket items are guaranteed to make you drool, the new retail shops offer items that actually fit into a suitcase.

"We have a lot of fashion here now," said Nisi Berryman, owner of NiBa, a boutique showroom with furniture and lighting as well as modern and vintage suitcase-worthy decorative objects. "All kinds of people are coming here. It's crazy."

Walking the grid of streets on a steamy Saturday afternoon (most businesses are closed on Sunday), I recognized several boutiques that have followed the restaurants' lead, abandoning South Beach for more urban Design District digs.

At En Avance, owner Karen Quinones used her new location to include more global designers in her clothing collection, such as Mirco Giovannini, the former knitwear designer for Versace and La Perla, and Michael Lewis, the London shoe designer who worked for Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton.

"A lot -- a lot -- of people are opening in the neighborhood," said Quinones. "Christian Louboutin will open in the next few weeks, and Martin Margiela should be here in January."

In the district, shopping becomes a multi-sensory experience. At the "jewelry bar" in En Avance, you can sip champagne while considering the collection of 18-karat-gold and sterling-silver earrings, necklaces, cuff links and bracelets set with precious stones and pearls. In I on the District, a boutique eyewear showroom, I sampled organic beverages at the "tea bar" while perusing sunglasses and frames from coolest-of-the-cool designers in Japan, Germany and France.

Located in a courtyard next to Michael's Genuine, the Turchin Love and Light Collection adorns models in its jewelry and sends them out to wander among the restaurant's tables. Designers Theresa and Tommy Turchin take the experiential one step further by inviting Buddhist monks to perform a blessing ceremony in their shop every two to three months.

"Our goal is to promote world peace, compassion, unity and love," Theresa said.

Art galleries are also abundant and varied, including those exhibiting traditional European and American painting, photography and sculpture, and a venue for emerging artists from the Caribbean and Latin diasporas, as well as artist-run alternative spaces exhibiting site-specific and installation work, videos and digital media.

After a day in the Design District, the lines between food and design, design and art, and art and fashion begin to blur. You want a black onyx and gold necklace with your Key lime cheesecake flan? Yes, please. To go.

Necee Regis is a travel and food writer based in Boston.

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