|By Elaine Walker, The Miami
HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
March 30, 2010 --When The Forge closed its doors almost a year ago, many speculated that the Miami Beach landmark was yet another restaurant casualty of the recession.
The gossip made owner Shareef Malnik laugh because he knew better.
"I loved that talk," Malnik said. "Let them be surprised. It's a much more effective marketing tool. I knew that it was always going to play in my favor when I reopened."
That day arrives Wednesday, when Malnik will unveil the results of a more than $10 million renovation that completely transforms the more than 40-year-old restaurant. Everything has changed, from the menu and the chef to the decor and even the building's exterior.
Also gone are the nightclub and the famous Wednesday night parties that helped herald South Beach's revival.
You'll still find a few traces of The Forge's past, like the crystal chandeliers and stained-glass windows.
Malnik has tried to blend the history with a new vision for the future.
"I built this for the next 40 years," said Malnik, whose father first purchased The Forge in 1969 and ran it until 1991 when the son took over. "I don't need to get all my money back this year. I built it for the long term."
While The Forge remains an upscale fine-dining restaurant, Malnik has lowered prices and broadened the menu. He wants The Forge to be a place where diners come for more than just a celebration dinner or a big expense account meal.
The hope is that customers will also choose The Forge to meet a friend for a glass of wine and a snack after work or a casual weeknight dinner.
The Forge is not alone. Locally, Chef Allen's has reinvented itself, as have countless other fine-dining restaurants across the country. Experts say it's critical in an economy where consumer spending is down and competition is keen -- particularly in prime markets like Miami Beach.
"High-end restaurants are trying to reduce the cost of a visit to encourage more visits, so people don't trade down," said Richard Lackey, a Palm Beach Gardens-based restaurant broker and consultant. "People are eating out less, so incentives for return visits are key."
Malnik decided to take advantage of last year's slowdown in business and reinvest for the future. He originally planned to be open in time for the busy winter season, but later realized those were "unrealistic expectations."
The new environment is designed to be more comfortable for guests. The number of seats has been reduced by 40 percent, adding more couches and oversized wing chairs. Every piece of furniture was custom-made or designed, including tables made of trees from Indonesia and Murano glass chandeliers from Italy.
"We didn't design a restaurant; we designed a space," Malnik said. "Before it was all about excess. Now it's about access. It's much more familiar. That's the feeling we're trying to engender."
Gone is the tuxedo-clad staff, replaced by a uniform featuring black stand-up collar shirts with a prominent white F on the cuff. The menu no longer focuses on traditional fare such as steak and creamed spinach. While the steaks remain, chef Dewey LoSasso offers choices that are lighter and more eclectic.
There's a lobster peanut butter and jelly sandwich ($15), tomato and goat cheese brulee salad ($16) or a grilled Angus burger topped with boneless short ribs and lobster marmalade ($20). Entrees range from $15 to $55, including a grilled whole Branzino fish in wild mushroom miso broth ($39).
The average per-person check will be $80, down from $120, Malnik estimates.
Malnik also has integrated new technology throughout the restaurant. He can view the restaurant's lighting and music on his iPhone and adjust the levels from anywhere. Six different satellites can pipe in music from radio stations around the world.
The restaurant features 10 self-service wine machines and 80 wines, allowing customers to buy 1 ounce, 3 ounces or 5 ounces. They can use an iTouch to access information about each wine, post a toast on Facebook or Twitter and create a virtual wine locker to save their favorites on their own iPhone.
"For us, the bad economy gave me a new breath of life," Malnik said. "The brand has got so much goodwill, I would be foolish to not come back. But it had to be a business model that makes sense."
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