Location: 1776 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach, FL, 33139
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On any evening, as soon as you walk through the front doors, you are in the middle of what feels like one big dinner party. Wooden tables large and small, tall and short, on ground level and elevated behind a bar that has mastered the construction of cocktails one could only dream of putting together, are filled with families and groups of friends donning the largest of smiles. With a menu of over 80 perfectly executed dishes, what other expression would you expect to see on the faces of the patrons at one of South Beach’s newest and most successful Mediterranean culinary establishments?
Cleo, located on the first floor of the Redbury Hotel at 1776 Collins Avenue here in Miami Beach, has done something many restaurants try to do but often times fail to pull off. With its simple yet warm decor, friendly staff and impressive cuisine, Cleo offers an elevated dining experience while maintaining a level of comfort we often only find in our homes.
Executive Chef Arturo Paz heads the team of culinary experts that somehow manages to produce consistently high-quality dishes even when every table in the house is full, which tends to be often. On board since Cleo‘s doors opened in November of 2014, Chef Paz brings a wealth of experience to the establishment. His decades of work in the kitchens of restaurants and nightclubs in New York City, Hollywood, Puerto Rico and in a number of hotels and restaurants here in Miami Beach has done more than sharpen his skills as a chef. Having been at the culinary center of over-the-top parties for celebrities like Madonna, Lebron James, Dwayne Wade and Timbaland (to name a few), Chef Paz has grown to appreciate the power of bringing people together through food — a gift that Cleo offers to anyone who enters through its doors.
If you ask Chef Paz about his favorite aspects of working at Cleo, he would bring up its fun atmosphere, how approachable the restaurant is to its patrons and the unique menu that serves as the glue to Cleo‘s distinct dining experience — all attributes that became more than evident to me during my very first visit. Forget about adhering to the confines of “courses.” Despite the menu’s vastness, every item you order, whether it is the Cucumber and Yogurt, the Seasonal Mushroom Flatbread or the Duck Bastilla (all recommendations of mine), can not only be shared but can also be consumed as either an appetizer or an entrée. Cleo allows you to ignore the conventional rules for how you order at a restaurant, turning the dining experience at every table into its own care-free party.
Like myself, Chef Paz believes that food is about bringing people together, and it is this theme that permeates the way the dishes at Cleo are prepared and served. Unique to this restaurant, many of the ingredients in the dishes offered are layered, which allows the flavors to entice your tastebuds in waves. This is why if you eavesdrop on the conversations around you when you visit this restaurant, you’ll find that when the food comes out and the patrons start eating, whatever the topics were fueling their discussions suddenly turn into moans of excitement and verbal attempts at trying to understand how a dish that could be thought of as simple (like the popular Hummus and Tahini) offers such delicious complexity.
There’s an excitement that flourishes and a passion that shines within Chef Paz whenever he talks about food. Cooking has been his life ever since he left Tulane University to follow his love of creating things with his hands, landing his first chef job here in Miami Beach when commercial properties on 1st and Ocean were selling for $500,000. He’s lived through the development of this island and has witnessed both the successful rise and tragic fall of many establishments.
I asked Chef Paz what he thought the reason was for Cleo’s success thus far. He describes the kind of cuisine the restaurant offers as “popular.” With this island being as accessible as it is to Latin America and Europe, it is food like the kind which Cleo serves that touches the heart of many whom have traveled from all over the world to the well-known streets of Miami Beach. And while there are all kinds of incredible cuisine to be had up and down Collins Avenue alone, it is the essence of Cleo that sets the dining experience head and shoulders above much of its competition.
The prices are reasonable, ranging from $6 to $18 per shareable dish. The atmosphere is casual, allowing you to come dressed to impress or wearing Miami’s finest (that’s shorts and flip flops if you didn’t get the memo). The waitstaff is always warm and welcoming. The signature drinks are original and creative. And like with any gathering, the food itself sits at the center. The quality of execution is consistent with every visit, drawing you back to the establishment again and again in hopes of experiencing every item on the menu. There is heart put into the making of the food, which fosters that “home away from home” feel. And with Executive Chef Arturo Paz at the helm, there is no doubt Cleo of South Beach will be standing for years to come, giving the visitors and residents of the area something to look forward to any day or night of the week.