Lunch with Star Developer Robert Wennett
by bill kearney
Robert Wennett at his go-to lunch spot, Baires Grill
As Robert Wennett strolls to Baires Grill across the cobbled esplanade of his 1111 Lincoln Road project, he passes a little green heron hunting minnows in one of the lily pools designed by Raymond Jungles. Despite his glamorous milieu, Wennett considers this moment a victory, and marvels at nature finding a niche in South Beach. “When you don’t use chlorine, you have birds, herons, everything,” he says with pride. “That’s been the success here—when you’re in an urban place, you’re just yearning for public spaces.” Slowing down to notice such things is important to a man who works at high speed—he makes sure to allow for pause and reflection, be that in a well-designed public space or over a “real” lunch.
How did you discover this restaurant?
Baires Grill was here before we started the 1111 project, and I love Argentinean food. I used to ski in Argentina when I was younger, and I just loved Buenos Aires. I look at this place as a very simple café where people sit down and have real food.
Grilled corn empanada with green mixed salad, aji molido vinaigrette, and lemon cayenne aioli
You’ve started with corn empanadas.
I love empanadas, but I like them grilled, which they do here, and they make them fresh daily. The corn is sweet, and the grilling is healthier.
Why Argentinean food for lunch?
I want a protein, simply grilled, especially at lunchtime. I don’t want a lot of sauces or spices because a lot of food makes you sleep. I was always turned on by Argentinean food because it’s very simple. They do a half boneless chicken here, and chicken is one of my favorite things. I’m not a sandwich person. I like to have a real meal at lunchtime.
You’re a busy man. Why take the time for lunch?
For me, eating is ceremonial. It’s a time I take for myself. During the day, people are crazy; everyone is shouting things at me—your phone, your e-mail… So it’s the time that you can really take for yourself.
Discussing urban development in the dining room
This western end of Lincoln Road has been reborn with your development, 1111 Lincoln Road. How did you get started in the business?
When I was 16 or 17, I got my real estate license and used to rent apartments and sell condominiums in the Back Bay of Boston. By 1998, I started my own company buying older properties, renovating them, and repositioning them.
How did you end up in Miami and have such an impact here?
In the late ’80s, I would come to Miami Beach because it was that new, cool, bohemian kind of place. I felt like Miami Beach was going to grow, and it was one of the places I wanted to invest. In 2005, I took the money I made from my private equity fund to buy 1111 Lincoln Road.
The wall of wines includes selections from Argentina
How important are restaurants in terms of urban development?
They’re critical. I don’t do commodity-type properties. Everything I do gets to people’s core values and DNA. For example, 1111 is really about the way people want to live their lives. They feel a personal connection to something that is interesting, so food is very important. Look at Juvia [atop 1111 Lincoln Road]. My feeling was that it couldn’t just be a restaurant that you would find in another city—it had to be uniquely Miami with the view and the food.
Your South Beach ACE group won the bid to redo the Miami Beach Convention Center. Though the development is in political limbo, what was the key to your winning concept?
Our vision realized the importance of the connection to Lincoln Road so that, from day one, our project was never competitive to Lincoln Road. It was making Lincoln Road part of the convention center, drawing [from one to the other]. My choice of architect, Rem Koolhaas, was based on thinking that Rem is the best person in the world to develop a master plan, because the convention center was not about architecture; it was about a master plan.
The half boneless chicken is char-grilled over an open flame to seal in the juice
What do you think of the wine today?
I usually drink only in the evening, but this is a very good Malbec—if you’re going to be in an Argentinean restaurant, you might as well drink Argentinean wine. This is a 2011, so it’s not that old. It’s traditional, basic drinking wine, which is probably what most Argentineans would have during their lunch.
Here comes the rib eye….
I love a cowboy rib eye. If you look at the cowboy steak, it’s very simple—just like my philosophy on design (and why I like this restaurant): You start with only what’s necessary, and everything you add on has to have a purpose. That’s the way I look at food. You don’t have to add an enormous amount of other things to it. The beauty is in the quality of the meat. And that’s the way I look at life. People start trying to make everything as complicated and fancy as they can instead of just starting with what’s simple. There are times where it’s worth it to embellish something, but most times you don’t need to.