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What Do We Lose When Every City Has a Carbone?

bon Appétit logo bon Appétit 9/26/2022 Adam Reiner
© Illustration by Ian Woods

Julian Barsotti opened Carbone’s Fine Food and Wine on Oak Lawn Avenue in uptown Dallas in 2012. The restaurant pays homage to his grandfather Angelo Carbone, once a successful restaurateur in his own right, and it's been beloved by locals over the past decade. But when most people hear “Carbone,” it’s probably not Barsotti’s Dallas restaurant that comes to mind. On a national level, diners are much more familiar with a different restaurant of the same name, a glitzy multi-location Italian-American celebrity-magnet operated by Major Food Group. That Carbone opened in New York City in 2013, almost a year after Barsotti opened his restaurant, and has been making headlines ever since.

In March, Major Food Group launched a satellite location of its Carbone 10 minutes from Carbone’s Fine Food and Wine in Dallas, and it took a toll on Barsotti’s business. People have made reservations thinking it’s the other Carbone, then leave once they realize it’s not. “It wastes our time and loses us money,” says Barsotti, who brought a lawsuit against Carbone for trademark infringement. (Since I interviewed Barsotti, he’s withdrawn the lawsuit, and confirmed a settlement will not be announced. When reached by Bon Appétit for comment regarding Barsotti’s original claims, Major Food Group did not respond.)

When well-capitalized upscale restaurants like Carbone (where I worked as a captain intermittently between 2015 and 2018) or the London import Hakkasan enter hot markets like Dallas or Miami, it exacerbates the challenges that small restaurants already face to stay competitive and relevant. Restaurant groups with deep pockets have been expanding during the pandemic, and it’s creating tension and resentment among many local independent restaurateurs. Businesses in Miami say they’re having trouble offering competitive wages when trying to hire staff, or they feel forced to offer more luxuries to diners in order to compete—luxuries they sometimes can’t afford.

"We effectively had to raise our prices and become a part of that upscale segment of restaurants to even remain relevant.”

Some local restaurateurs admit the import of flashy, high-profile restaurants is good for the scene. But others worry that it’s changing the very identity of local dining culture. Independent restaurants used to feel pressure to compete with multinational chains like Ruth’s Chris and Olive Garden—now they also have to contend with the Hakkasans and Carbones of the world.

“What they’re really reinforcing is Miami’s reputation for being all T-and-A and no substance,” says Ani Meinhold, the co-owner of Viet-Cajun restaurant Phuc Yea in Miami, where Carbone opened a location in early 2021.

In the early Aughts, hotels in Las Vegas capitalized on restaurant-obsessive culture by recruiting big name restaurateurs from cities like New York and California in the hopes of luring affluent hotel guests by making the city a dining destination. Celebrity chefs like Thomas Keller, Joël Robuchon, Masaharu Morimoto, and David Chang cashed in by partnering with multinational hotel groups to build (generally gaudier) simulations of their established restaurants on the Strip. Following in their footsteps, Carbone in Vegas opened in the Aria Resort & Casino in 2015, serving flashy versions of classic dishes like Caesar salad and lobster fra diavolo.

Even at the start of the pandemic, diners would do almost anything to get a taste of Carbone—but it’s far from the only luxury restaurant group on a mission to expand. And since the pandemic, Dallas isn’t the only city to have seen an influx of capital from outside restaurant groups looking to replicate the success of existing concepts by following the migratory pattern of the wealthiest diners. In Miami, Cote Korean Steakhouse, another New York transplant, was recently awarded a Michelin star in the guide’s first-ever Miami edition, and Austin’s suchi-centric Uchi, which opened a Miami location in early 2021, has been a runaway success.

When Drake rapped about having the last table at Carbone, he was likely referring to the original location. Now, there are five Carbone locations.

In some ways, dining at the satellite locations of big-name restaurant groups in Miami, Dallas, and Las Vegas is like seeing the touring company of a hit Broadway show. “These restaurants are tourist attractions for locals,” says Brian Reinhart, the dining critic for the Dallas publication D Magazine, of the new crop of restaurants that have invaded the city. Reinhart has witnessed the encroachment of outsiders like Major Food Group in Dallas and worries that his city is trying too hard to be something it’s not. “Dallas is very keen on out-of-town concepts, especially from the coasts,” Reinhart says, “I think there’s a little residual insecurity among the dining public here and a feeling that if it’s from New York or Los Angeles, it must be better.”

Aside from Major Food Group's three Dallas restaurants, the company went from having no restaurants in Miami before the pandemic to operating five—with another on the way in the Design District. Regular diners and celebrities alike have flocked to these restaurants. In Miami, Carbone is a favorite of local celebrities and athletes with ties to the city like LeBron James. When, in 2017, Drake rapped about having the last table at Carbone in his song Do Not Disturb, he was likely referring to the original location. Now, there are five Carbone locations, including one in Hong Kong.

The presence of a notable restaurant group can raise the culinary profile of these cities and attract tourists. However, the negative effects of these expansions are often out of view of customers.

Some chefs and restaurateurs in these cities are reporting that staff shortages—already bad before the pandemic—are exacerbated by well-capitalized groups monopolizing the talent pool by offering generous signing bonuses and higher starting salaries. “They’re paying an amount of money that people in Dallas aren’t used to being paid,” says the critic Reinhart, who hears rumblings in the restaurant community he covers. “They have the financial backing to do that, and they have the ability to come into town and more or less hire whoever they want.”

Rather than idling while the new competition siphons away consumer dollars, Meinhold of Miami’s Phuc Yea and chef-partner Cesar Zapata have reshaped aspects of their dining experience to attract customers seeking that luxury. These investments have been costly. “We’ve upgraded all our china, glassware, and silver. We effectively had to raise our prices and become a part of that upscale segment of restaurants to even remain relevant,” says Meinhold.

“They’re just reinforcing the fact that every single restaurant here has to be a clubstaraunt.

Despite the challenges facing local restaurant owners, plenty of people consider these new financial opportunities a net positive for the hospitality community in the Miami area. According to Gabriel Urrutia, a liquor brand ambassador who teaches at the hospitality school at Florida International University, graduates of the program working at the many imported concepts like Cote say they are thrilled with these new jobs. “I think these types of restaurants definitely add a lot of value,” says Urrutia, “They’re not coming down here and bringing 160 New Yorkers to take the jobs of Miamians. They’re bringing in Miamians and teaching them their style of hospitality, which is something that locals can take somewhere else in their career.”

Jamila West, the co-owner of Rosie’s in Miami’s Little River neighborhood, sees the import of high-profile restaurants in under-resourced parts of town as a way to effect positive change. She cites Marcus Samuelsson’s success with Red Rooster in neighboring Overtown as a template for Black business owners. (Samuelsson was previously a guest editor and advisor at Bon Appétit.) “I think Red Rooster has done great things for that community, in the sense that it’s created a lot of jobs and created a sense of hope,” says West. She isn’t bothered by the fact that Samuelsson isn’t from Miami.

Though New York City restaurant groups are primarily exporters of restaurant concepts, the city has recently seen a spate of imports from outside restaurant groups, like Philadelphia’s Laser Wolf and Chicago’s Au Cheval. Will Beckett from London’s Hawksmoor opened his first overseas steakhouse last year in New York, a city renowned for iconic steak restaurants and filled with strong opinions about them. “I think people respect the effort that you make embracing their city and their culture, and if you can bring your own interesting influence to that, then great,” Beckett says, “but don’t just cut-and-paste and stick [your restaurant] in a new place.”

In Miami, Meinhold appreciates the attention that outside groups bring to the city, and knows that attracting new investment is critical to building Miami’s hospitality industry. But for her, it’s not about the investment—it’s about how the money is largely being poured into high-end ventures. She worries that these clubby, celebrity-driven concepts disparage the city’s culinary reputation and detract from the character of its food scene.

“They’re catering to the one-percenters who have unlimited funds, and they’re doing it through celebrity, so that means that everyone wants to go to these places,” she says. “They’re just reinforcing the fact that every single restaurant here has to be a clubstaraunt.

“If we want to get our native dining scene up to the next level, we need to figure out why we are seen as a mark for outside restaurant groups.”

“A great food scene is always organic,” Barsotti says. But, he also sees Dallas growing rapidly and acknowledges that having great restaurants from other cities like Carbone entering the market motivates him to raise the bar with his own businesses.

Whether or not the upscale imports will last is another question. Barsotti cites many failed Dallas projects by big-name chefs like Wolfgang Puck and Tom Colicchio, as well as Il Mulino from New York, which closed in 2006 after just two years. “I think people underestimate and just don’t understand the market here,” he says.

For now, at least, the Carbone Dallas is full every night; it’s already near-impossible to get a table. Reinhart told me that he couldn’t make a reservation for his restaurant review without the help of a VIP who had the inside track. The restaurant’s early success has Reinhart concerned about what it means for the future of dining in Dallas. He worries local talent and independent Dallas restaurants will be overlooked in favor of shiny restaurant groups from out of town. “If we want to get our native dining scene up to the next level,” Reinhart says, “we need to figure out why we are seen as a mark for outside restaurant groups.”

Meinhold, for her part, isn’t letting the import of competing restaurant groups discourage her: “I think the influx of capital has only made our knives a little sharper.”

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