Chef Michael Beltrán of the Michelin-starred Ariete is bringing top-tier hospitality to the cigar bar game in downtown Miami
Cigar Snob: “What do you name a cigar bar that isn’t a dreadful name?”
Chef Michael Beltrán sends me lots of texts like this one he sent in April 2021. He and I met in 2018 when I was an editor at Cigar Snob Magazine and publishing a podcast with Mike called Pan Con Podcast as a side project. He’s the chef-owner of Miami-based Ariete Hospitality Group, whose flagship restaurant, Ariete, has been awarded a Michelin Star in each of the last two years.
In the early days of our podcast, Beltrán referred to me as his “creative life partner.” He did it mainly because he knew it pissed me off, but also because we’d become close enough through the show to be constantly bouncing ideas off one another about other stuff. In this case, he was texting me for name ideas while sitting in a meeting with his partners about a cigar bar they were planning to put next door to Brasserie Laurel, the group’s new French concept.
I knew — because Pan Con Podcast had pulled me behind the Ariete Hospitality Group curtain — that whatever this place was called, it was going to be different. Seven years at Cigar Snob took me to cigar establishments all over the world. Some have huge humidors. Others, long wine lists. Great views. Central locations. Comfy chairs. But not one had a team behind it with the creativity and hospitality credentials of this company.
What I didn’t know was that I would become involved in the project — and the cigar world, again — as a partner and director of the bar’s cigar program. My response to Beltrán’s text remains my most significant contribution to this business.
“I just had an idea you might be into,” I responded. “You mentioned it’s next to the restaurant as I was thinking of factory and brand names and remembered that the Arturo Fuente farm in Nicaragua is called El Buen Vecino. What if you called it El Vecino?”
Roots at the domino table
“I really do love to smoke cigars,” Beltrán told me. His first real introduction to cigar lounges came as a young cook in Miami, working two jobs in his early twenties and spending his one day off a week at a shop where he got to know not only a variety of cigars, but the cigar lounge culture.
“I would literally spend all day, from open to close,” he said, referring to a shop near Miami’s Westchester neighborhood. “Those were the guys that I hung out with. We’d have drinks, talk, play dominoes. During the day, it was an older clientele, people from doctors to politicians to police officers. That was always such a special memory for me. We had a great time and I learned so much about cigars. My dad and I also used to play dominoes at this other little shop in Miami Springs. We just played dominoes all day. You get to know these people and you get to create a bond with them, even if it’s for a short time. That was about 16 years ago and I still see some of those guys when they dine at our restaurants.”
El Vecino — Spanish for “The Neighbor” — is named that way, in part, because it’s next door to Brasserie Laurel. But it’s also a recognition that the bar is part of that broader South Florida cigar community that Beltrán spent so much time with early in his career. When I first met Beltrán, he wasn’t drinking and hadn’t been for a long time; all part of a weight loss and general wellness journey that saw him lose about 170 pounds. But he was smoking cigars. We’d light up together often, whether during podcasts, at cigar lounges or on my front porch. Just as they were on his days off earlier in his career, cigars have remained a vehicle for deepening relationships, including our own friendship. So it makes sense that Beltrán would want to make that part of what Ariete Hospitality Group is building.
“I wanted to be able to combine the stuff I had been working on my entire career, which was hospitality, with what a cigar shop offers,” he said.
Ariete Hospitality partner and CEO Andrew Falsetto was less familiar with that cigar scene when Mike first brought up the idea of the group breaking into the cigar business.
“I remember it was December 26, 2020. A buddy of mine was in town from upstate New York, and he spent Christmas here,” Falsetto said. “So we were like, ‘Let’s go check out a cigar lounge.’ In New York, everything was locked down. He was very excited to do whatever we could, especially smoking, which was not a very easy thing to do in upstate New York. So we went to Galiano Cigar Room in Coral Gables. I had never been, he had never been. And we spent like seven hours just hanging out.”
Beltrán’s casual musing about opening a cigar bar hadn’t meant much to Andrew before, but that night at Galiano made the idea real in his mind.
“I thought, ‘Man, this is such a fun thing to do.’ There’s such a unique social component to it,” Andrew said. “Especially during COVID, you were craving those social interactions. I called Chef immediately the next day. I said, ‘I was at Galiano last night. This is something we should do and I have an idea for a location.’” Brasserie Laurel was the first hospitality business to open at Miami World Center, a 25-acre development in downtown Miami that’s injected new life into a part of the city that, for a long time, was better known for empty lots you might park in for Miami Heat games (at what’s now called the Kaseya Center) than for the luxury condos, retail and restaurants that are sprouting there now. The second to open was El Vecino Cigars & Cocktails.
It’s about experience
“I was talking about El Vecino with some industry colleagues from other cigar companies,” said Eddy Guerra, Oettinger Davidoff senior brand manager. “I said, ‘the number one cigar venue in Florida right now is El Vecino.’ My metric might be different than most. For me it’s not just about product selection. It’s more about experience.”
That experience, for many guests, begins next door at Brasserie Laurel, where a kitchen team helmed by executive chef Ashley Moncada is bringing Ariete Hospitality’s ethos to diners in downtown Miami.
“Laurel is a nod to classic French food,” Moncada said. “A lot of sauce work, a lot of classical technique, but refining it. Making it look prettier, making it look more modern. The modernness has developed since we opened. It was a lot more classic then. The classic technique is still there in a lot of our dishes in terms of sauce work, emulsification, the mother sauces of French cookery and all of that stuff. But we’re mixing it up and using different ingredients and techniques to modernize it.”
Some of Laurel’s dishes have become instant favorites with diners — the venison, a whole guinea fowl for two, and foie gras served with a berry gastrique, canelé and cocoa nibs, for instance.
“We like to push things and we like change,” Moncada continued. “It was never going to be a classic thing all the time. That’s just how we opened to ground technique and establish a knowledge base with the team. Now that we’ve all got that, we can use those techniques and be a bit more creative now that we have our foot in the door.”
There’s also a menu of dishes that Laurel’s kitchen offers exclusively to guests of the cigar bar next door. That menu at this writing features a chicken and foie gras pâté, lobster cocktail, caviar, poutine, pork terrine, and a burger.
“The menu at El Vecino was based on the fact that people are going to be there for hours,” Moncada said. “They’re probably going to be sharing things, so we went charcuterie forward. Something you can spread on bread or a cracker, something you can nibble on for hours. And then obviously the burger everyone loves. It’s a classic.”
The chef-driven approach and high standards that this company takes to its restaurants have carried over to El Vecino, where cigars and cocktails are front and center.
“Mike’s food is unexpected finesse,” said Eddy Guerra. “I get the same type of emotion when I step into El Vecino. Nobody else has got the pedigree that group has right now to be able to pull that off [in a cigar bar].”
That “unexpected finesse” that Guerra refers to comes through in everything from the interior design — which Andrew Falsetto said took its initial inspiration from the feeling of drinking at a ski lodge — to the fact that every guest at El Vecino is presented with a palate cleansing shot and a finger rinsing bowl filled with water and scented oils before they leave (a brilliant touch that I mocked mercilessly at first when it was introduced by Ariete COO Brittany Rothwell, but which has become a calling card for the bar and many guests’ favorite detail).
The cocktail program — featuring a menu of signature drinks I was tasked with naming — is also a cut above what’s typical in cigar lounges, being treated with the seriousness of the programs at Laurel, Ariete and The Gibson Room (another Ariete Hospitality concept that has been recognized as one of the country’s best new cocktail bars).
“El Vecino’s bar is not stacked to the rafters with 80 billion bourbons and cocktail mixers and a bunch of tequilas,” Guerra said. “You have good shit and it is what it is. It’s the same in your humidor. Not a huge selection, but everything is fire. Just like a restaurant. Look at Laurel. The menu’s tight, but everything is incredible.”
“Honestly, it was my personal mission to make sure that we were there,” he added. “Everything we’ve been doing for the last four years at Davidoff has been about curating experiences, creating quality moments, and you can only do that with proper partners. When you know what Mike Beltrán is doing with food, you know that his mentality and his team’s mentality is the same. I didn’t have to set foot in the place to know it was going to be incredible. People who want a proper Davidoff experience should go to this corner in downtown Miami. You’re going to start off at an incredible French restaurant, then you’re going to go next door for a cocktail and a cigar, and you’re going to go ‘Wow. What a night.’” “If you’re a bartender that doesn’t really know, it’s a whole different world,” Beltrán said, whose go-to is a rum negroni. “Classic cocktail culture is a really long study. You can’t just pop into a bar and be like, ‘Yeah, I know how to make classic cocktails.’ It doesn’t work that way. AHG has really tuned up our cocktails a lot in the last few years and it prepared us for what El Vecino has done.”
In the humidor
When I first joined Cigar Snob Magazine in 2013, I did it for the magazine part, not the cigars. But over the seven years that I was with the magazine — smoking all the cigars, visiting the factories and farms, traveling all over the country to cigar bars and retailers — I picked up a knowledge base that made the friendship I’ve developed with Beltrán and others at AHG a happy coincidence. I wasn’t looking to get back into the cigar business, and I wouldn’t have accepted an invitation to do it from any other group. Knowing Beltrán, though, I understood that he was looking to create something I’d never seen before. He and his team put rich, thoughtful experiences at the center of everything they do. That means guests who know Ariete Hospitality aren’t just ready for a good time, they’re ready to experience and learn new things. That’s given us the ability to take a somewhat different approach to our cigar selection and how we guide guests through it. For instance, despite keeping the selection tight, we’re big on what some people call smoker’s sizes like lancero and lonsdale, and the selection was curated with heavy consideration given to pairings with our cocktail program.
What’s more, the Ariete reputation means we often have enough of a guest’s trust that they’re ready to jump into a bit of learning and to smoke outside their comfort zones from the jump. When they’re curious about cigar construction (“When you say binder, what do you mean exactly?”), we’ll occasionally sit with them at their tables and cut cigars open as we talk through how they’re built. And if guests don’t quite understand what we mean when we say maduro wrappers have a sweetness to them, I’ll often offer them a cigar — often Herrera Estelí Brazilian Maduro Lonsdale Deluxe — from which I’ve removed about a half inch of wrapper at the foot so they can feel that sweetness round out the blend when it starts burning and joins the filler and binder.
“So many companies are branded houses, right?” said Jonathan Drew, co-founder of Drew Estate Cigars. “Arturo Fuente, Rocky Patel, Perdomo, My Father. All great companies, but all of their brands fall under that master brand.
“Each of these brands have their own worlds, their own expressions. At Drew Estate we speak with 10 voices. For us to see Drew Estate smokers at El Vecino feels right for a number of our brands. All of our brands can be enjoyed anywhere; but when I saw dudes sitting in El Vecino smoking Liga Privada, I knew they were doing it in style. All the senses are lit up.”
Unlike so many of Ariete Hospitality’s other establishments, El Vecino’s is an experience that Beltrán can actually let himself enjoy in the same way Drew hopes any other smoker will.
“This was totally a selfish move for me,” Beltrán said. “I can go there and just enjoy my time. When it comes to dining in my own restaurants, I rarely have a good time. I know that sounds terrible, but it’s just because they’re food oriented and I see all the things, you know? This is a very different dynamic. I go to El Vecino to be a guest, not to work. It’s pretty awesome.”
El Vecino isn’t a huge bar, but it punches above its weight. I’d bet it’ll have an outsized influence on what smokers and tobacconists think a cigar bar can be now that we’ve planted our flag — the design for which Beltrán was already having fun with back in 2021 when I texted him the bar name idea.
“Oh man. That’s amazing. I love this idea. It’s done. Already approved by all partners,” he replied. “The logo is a silhouette of me in my big hat.”