Charles Khabouth raises his right eyebrow, the look of a man about to make a point. He reaches down for the buttons on his black dress shirt, as black as his dress pants, as black as nearly every article of clothing he owns.
“Am I Christian? I am very Christian,” he says. Right there, in the middle of a Miami restaurant he opened last year that is, at the moment, absolutely packed with a Wednesday lunch crowd, the 60-year-old begins unbuttoning his shirt. He stops at his navel – salt-and-pepper chest hair fully exposed now – and angles down the sleeve to expose his right bicep. There’s an ornate cross covering most of it, the flared corners reminiscent of some Indiana Jones treasure.
It’s not that Khabouth is a practising Christian. He’s not actually that religious, he explains. But what the cross represents is his status as a perennial outsider. In the 1960s, he was raised in a Christian family in Lebanon, a largely Muslim country. They fled a civil war and ended up in Canada knowing no English. He became a nightclub owner when nightclub owners weren’t exactly well regarded. And now, he’s working in Miami, where it seemed everyone doubted he could succeed, thinking, he says, he was some hick from flyover country.
He could’ve just stayed in Toronto, where he’d made something of himself over four decades. But, he says: “We don’t like easy.”
Khabouth had arrived to Amal, his new enterprise, a few minutes early for our meeting – he says he’ll call people to tell them if he’s running just one minute late. He looks like a man juggling too many things. He paces between high-top tables and stools lined up at the bar, fielding phone calls and simultaneously giving orders to people who stand nearby as if anticipating his next command. When a server passes by, he puts in an order for a sandwich that arrives in seconds, wrapped in waxed paper so he can eat while he paces.
Amal is a sister restaurant to the one he owns by the same name in Yorkville. In Miami, it’s rare for locals to embrace a restaurant that arrived from elsewhere – why should a city that wears its restaurant pride like a splashy Miami Dolphins jersey go for someone else’s idea? But the 180-seat space is simply gorgeous, all white, terracotta and muted teal contrasting with leafy green plants, giving it the feel of beach dunes. The food is Mediterranean and mostly share plates, and reviewers (including this author) have raved about it.
All in black, Khabouth stands in contrast to the space around him. While early in his career he had more of a Jeff-Goldblum-in-black-leather look, now he could pass for the veteran head of a fashion house, his right wrist covered in black and silver bracelets, dress-shirt sleeves rolled up, low-profile black-rimmed glasses giving him a professorial air. He’s replaced the mustache that was once his signature with a short-trimmed beard.
In the crowded dining room, Khabouth skips an intimate four-top that’s unoccupied and opts instead for a long table by the window that could seat an entire office party. He sits at the head, nearly finished with the sandwich and sipping a Coke from a glittery cocktail glass.
“I’ve been going since six. Look,” Khabouth says, showing the text discussion with his business partner that began at 6:07 a.m.
“I told him to go back to bed,” says the man sitting now to his left, Danny Soberano, 67. They’re similar in many ways, both in dark dress shirts and slacks, slicked-back graying hair, slim and in shape. They were both in the nightclub/restaurant business back in the 1980s and heard each other’s stories. Khabouth’s family fled Lebanon during the civil war; Soberano’s Jewish family fled Morocco. They started working together two decades ago and now finish each other’s sentences.
“Whatever we do, we do as one,” Soberano says.
“Maybe it’s time for a divorce,” Khabouth jokes.
Together, Khabouth and Soberano’s company, INK Entertainment Group, owns 27 properties between Toronto, Miami and Niagara Falls. INK runs or is partnered on several festivals: Veld, Solaris, ÎleSoniq and Yorkville Murals. Khabouth and Soberano partnered with Lifetime Developments & Loews to launch the Bisha Hotel & Residences in 2017. These days they’re considering expanding to Las Vegas.
The two of them might have similar backgrounds, but their business style couldn’t be more different. While Soberano is a keep-the-ship-afloat straight man, everyone in the business has heard about the risks Khabouth takes – like the one with the live tiger.
It was ‘82, and Khabouth had just one nightclub, and it wasn’t doing well. He was 22, still struggling to get by but at least no longer sleeping in his car like he had been four years earlier. Looking to get attention for his ailing business, he borrowed a 654-pound tiger from a guy he met one night and put it in the front window – behind glass and steel bars. Overnight, the tiger broke the glass window and started taking swipes through the bars at pedestrians.
That tiger defines how he’s worked since, he says, always looking for one thing that’ll make his places different, and hopefully, better. Nowadays, “it’s a forever changing tiger.”
Soberano explains that their strategy is “figuring out what people want before they know they want it.” At Amal, for instance, they had all the tables and chairs built 1-1/2 to 2 inches shorter than usual height to give the place a more relaxed, loungey feel.
As their largesse has grown, they have also had their share of controversies. There’s the noise complaints from nightclub neighbours over the years, the homophobic musicians that played at one of his music festivals in 2008, the $40,000 gold chain Justin Bieber says went missing in 2013 at one of Khabouth’s clubs, and the confidential settlement in 2015 with a pastry chef from one of his restaurants who filed claims of sexism with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal.
Khabouth says he came to Miami often over the years, like many Canadians, escaping the very non-Lebanese winters and absorbing himself in the culture, the art scene, the restaurants. Finally, eight years ago, Khabouth and Soberano set out on opening their own place here. At least at first, it didn’t go well.
Back in Toronto, the two of them are well-known figures, but in Miami it was like starting over. Nobody knew their names, they say. They were stood up for meetings with prospective partners, often. One time, someone showed up at 4:30 for a 2 o’clock appointment. “Yeah, time here is not of the essence for people,” Khabouth says. “In Toronto, there’s a sense of urgency, commitment.” While they knew their hometown as a cosmopolitan place with a food scene to rival almost any global city, they say people in Miami would shrug when they mentioned where they’re from.
Khabouth says with disgust, “They didn’t even know where Toronto was.”
When Khabouth opened Byblos on Miami Beach eight years ago, it became an instant success – both for the house-made couscous and for the nightclub vibe that popped up later at night. He takes pride in it now, the fact that he knew what Miamians wanted despite the doubts he kept facing. There was no doubt in his mind that he could deliver the menu, a mix of Mediterranean and Lebanese, using dishes that had excelled at his spots in Toronto. There’s rich Turkish manti (dumplings) that look like stars floating in a sea of yogurt and molasses; Spanish octopus with potatoes and preserved lemon; and canoe-shaped pide, pizza-like troughs of gooey mozzarella, halloumi and black truffle. It’s all very well prepared. But beyond that, it has two very different spaces to appeal to anybody who walks in: a more chill restaurant in the front for those, ahem, of a certain age; and the more unst-music club-like scene in the back for those who came to the beach for a party.
Khabouth and Soberano have five spots now in Miami. With his day starting before sunrise, Khabouth says he’s got appointments back to back until late – a meeting with a landlord, looking at a potential new restaurant space in the Brickell neighbourhood for his concept Akira Back, and finally dinner with Miami artist Romero Britto.
These days Khabouth says he spends about half the year in Miami, although it’s never a vacation. Sometimes he cancels meetings before 10 so he can take his bicycle up the boardwalk from his waterfront condo in the tony South of Fifth neighbourhood of South Beach. He’s got what he would describe only as an “exotic car,” but he’s had to replace the battery three times because it gets used so little. His daily drive is modest by Miami standards, a drop-top BMW 4-series that he says he bought six years ago. But he did just buy a new toy, a Vespa, black on black, of course. He’s proud of the scooter’s frugality. “I filled it up this morning. Seven dollars.”
On his forearms, Khabouth has cursive tattoos of his children’s names: his son Charlie, now working for him, and his daughter Maya, wanting to follow. Divorced now from Libby Eder, his wife of 24 years, he’s single these days. Khabouth says he’s married to work, and also to his past. Going back to the tattoo of the cross, he says it is symbolic of the fact that he stood with his people, even as the civil war took everything from his family.
“When there’s a war,” he says, ”there’s no standing on the sidelines.”
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