Giorgio Rapicavoli stood at one end of the block that his new Italian restaurant calls home and counted all the other restaurants.
The choices for anyone walking down the revamped Giralda Plaza — formerly Giralda Avenue — sate every possible appetite: Thai, Vietnamese, Mexican (both sit-down and street food), burgers, pizza, two coffee shops and a sports bar, along with his new Italian restaurant, Luca Osteria.
The total: 22 restaurants, bars and coffee shops in one short Coral Gables block.
“The street has everything. It’s amazing,” said Rapicavoli, the chef who also owns the inventive Eating House in north Coral Gables. “It’s what the Gables was missing.”
Giralda Avenue for years had been called Coral Gables’ Restaurant Row. But after a lengthy $24 million streetscape project that closed the road and turned it into a pedestrian plaza, the block struggled to find its identity and, more important, to bring back diners and make it a destination.
Then the coronavirus hit.
With the virus spreading person-to-person easier inside indoor dining rooms, outdoor dining suddenly became all important to restaurants. Diners comfortable enough to go out wanted to be served outdoors.
Enter Giralda Plaza.
An outdoor food hall
Restaurants beneath its palm tree canopy moved dining tables outside into the plaza. Umbrellas went up to form their own canopy across the center of the plaza. Restaurants that opened only at night shared tables with the cafes that opened only during the day and vice versa.
Art installations, like the overhead Umbrella Sky, turned the airspace into a rotating gallery of artwork.
“It’s really nice. Everyone’s working together to help one another,” said Nick Sharp, owner of the daytime Threefolds Café, which lends its tables to other businesses in the evenings.
The plaza has become a sort of outdoor food hall, where visitors walk and bounce between venues, from coffee shops or cafes like Pasion del Cielo or Threefolds to full on restaurants like The Local or Miss Saigon.
They might end with a drink at The Bar or, soon, a new rooftop lounge by Kendall restaurateur Jorgie Ramos of Barley and Abi Maria bar. His new spot, Cebada (which means Barley in Spanish), is set to open atop the old Scientology building, which has been renovated into several spaces for restaurants and retail.
“I love the vibe of Giralda. It reminds me of the old Lincoln Road,” said Rapicavoli, a Westchester native. “The street is alive.”
‘New Blood’ for Coral Gables
If there is such a thing as a COVID success story for a flagging restaurant industry, Giralda Plaza has been it.
“Coral Gables maybe needed a little new blood,” said Pepe Ortega, who bought and redeveloped the historic former Scientology building with his partner and brother-in-law, Marc Schwarzberg. “It was everybody committing to a shared vision.”
Many had predicted the streetscape project, which ended in 2017, would instantly make Giralda a dining destination. That didn’t happen, Sharp said. He saw his business plummet during the construction, and diners stopped thinking about Giralda as a destination, he said.
Restaurants opened and closed in six-month increments, Sharp recalled. And the nearby La Dorada restaurant, a staple on this block for years, eventually closed in 2020.
“The street was a dust bowl for a year,” Sharp said.
Ortega and Schwarzberg bought the old Scientology building, originally the Coral Gables post office, in May 2017 for $3.9 million, four months before the end of the Giralda renovation. They decided the old office building could instead be as many as seven different spaces — turning a single-use building into the heart of a new Restaurant Row.
Their first tenant, open in late 2019, was Coyo Taco, an outpost of one of the first hit independent restaurants in a resurgent Wynwood. Next came the fast-casual national brand Sweetgreen. Then an outpost of South Beach favorite La Sandwicherie.
And soon Ramos will take over the covered rooftop lounge. Plus Ortega has already signed a lease with a “successful longtime restaurateur” who he said is relocating to Giralda. The building also will house Prana Yoga.
The developers have since bought the buildings that house the longtime favorite Vietnamese spot Miss Saigon, The Local, Clutch Burger for about $5.1 million according to property records.
A new restaurant row
Whereas others might see competition, Ortega said he and his partner see an opportunity for restaurants that do not overlap, bringing in a wider dining audience. More restaurants helps the appeal of Giralda, he said.
“It’s a 1+1=3 situation,” Ortega said.
Such was their commitment that they turned down a safe bet: The Cheesecake Factory wanted to take over the entire main building. The chain eventually took over a spot three blocks south.
“It wasn’t right for Giralda,” Ortega said. “Nothing against the Cheesecake Factory. But Giralda deserves better, and this was better for us.”
Even other businesses are making room for more Giralda restaurants. Architect Jorge Kuperman, who has owed his studio on Giralda since 2009, has been fielding offers from restaurants that want to take over his space.
“All the callers ask, ‘Do you have outside space?’ ” he said. “It’s not just a beautiful design. It’s what people need right now.”
Diners agree. On a recent Friday, Giralda Plaza’s tables were full of outdoor guests. It was hard to tell which restaurants were being patronized, since all tables were busy, buzzing, diners strolling in the courtyard between restaurants.
Music flowed from the many spots, and a twinkle of lights from the Illuminate Coral Gables exhibit overhead lit up the palm tree covered courtyard.
The business has spilled out into other parts of the Gables. Sharp, who recently opened a new brewery a block north, Bay 13 Brewery and Kitchen, across from the Hyatt at the old Novecento location, has seen a steady stream of business in his expansive fountain courtyard.
“Giralda being an outdoor place has really helped us,” he said. “The streetscape project could have been smoother. But it’s a perfect match for outdoor dining. It’s custom made for the environment we’re in at the moment.”