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Restaurants see big boom in business this season

STORY BY MEG LAUGHLIN, (Week of April 4, 2013)
Photo: The Amalfi Grill

On the third anniversary of Citrus Grillhouse last week, the restaurant broke a record for reservations in one night – 175 of them, and that’s not counting almost the same number of walk-ins. “It’s not just us,” said executive chef Scott Varricchio. “Everybody is seeing record crowds this season.”

From Bijou and the Almalfi Grill on the mainland to Maison Martinique and Will’s 55 on the beach, Vero Beach’s fine-dining restaurants are packing diners in like never before.

Restaurant owners say nearly continuous snowstorms up north are bringing people here and keeping them here longer.

“We’ve been totally booked every night since Jan. 15,” said Bob Rose, owner of Amalfi Grill.

“We’re crazy busy," said Chuck Arnold, the Bijou chef. "I mean crazy.”

Claudia Arens, co-owner of The Tides, said she's seen a big jump in business. “We had a 25 percent increase this season,” she said.

Vero Beach is a drinking and eating town. 

 A good portion of the population – especially the fluctuating seasonal residents of the barrier island – like to kick back in the evening with a good martini, a linen napkin and a fine meal.

Despite being able to get all three in the club communities where many of them live, they venture out for the sake of variety.

“Considering the small size of Vero Beach, you get an amazing choice of great restaurants, each specializing in something different,” said Kory Yandle, manager of Michael’s Table, which was opened this winter by the former chef at The Moorings.

Yandle, who grew up in Vero Beach, said he has watched it become a destination spot for fine dining in recent years: “We’re getting a reputation for landmark hotels and excellent restaurants,” he said.

Aside from that, blizzards in the north haven’t hurt either when it comes to record restaurant crowds in Vero.

“I watch the Weather Channel and I see another snow storm in the northeast, and I say, ‘Keep snowing; keep our seasonal residents here,” said Citrus Grillhouse’s Varricchio.

Tides co-owner Arens noticed that the seasonal crowd was slow to get here – probably, she speculated, because hurricane Sandy required many to remain up north trying to get things in order. But, now that they’re here, they’re not heading back.  “We’re sorry for the crappy weather back home, but it’s helping us,” she said.

Not only have blizzards in the north increased crowds here, they also have apparently affected what customers are ordering. 

“Our customers are into hearty food,” said Bijou chef Arnold. “Pot-au-feu, cassoulet and steak frites are popular.”

Furthermore, noted Arnold, not only is getting out of the snow affecting menu choices, the cool weather here is also making people want “food that sticks to their ribs.”

“We’ve noticed a huge increase in the number of soups ordered,” said Arens of The Tides.

“I’m amazed at the number of $100 Wagyu steaks we’re selling," said Varricchio.

“Our $45 certified angus prime rib is doing very well,” said Rose of Amalfi.

Furthermore, Osceola Bistro executive chef Chris Bireley said the chilly weather here has enhanced the flavor of local organic tomatoes and citrus. He, like several other chefs, serves local vegetables, fruits, meats and fish.

“The organic tomatoes and citrus are better than they’ve been in years,” said Bireley, who relies on both for salads, sauces and juice.

Rose estimated that over 50 percent of his clientele are seasonal residents on the beach, who hail from the northeast. “We’re lucky,” he said “because they know quality food and service and appreciate what we do.”

Even on cold nights, the restaurant owners and managers said guests sit outside on patios and terraces. True, the restaurants have outdoor heaters, but even chillier spots on the edges tend to fill up.

“I’m pinching myself over how well everything is going,” said Varricchio.

“I think it’s two things: Offering a really good product and having customers tired of the cold, who want to relax.”