In just a year and a half, a West Coast transplant has built a culinary empire in Delray
Craig O’Keefe cares about the minutiae.
“There’s a thought behind everything,” he says, sitting in a corner booth at Lionfish on an autumn morning, the table set for the evening’s 4 p.m. opening. “Behind this napkin, behind this silverware, the glassware. It’s not just the food, or the materials you’re using. It’s everything. There’s intention behind all of it. And we have to deliver all of that, all the time.”
O’Keefe, the 36-year-old managing partner of Clique Hospitality, may be a recent import to Delray Beach, having only moved here in the summer of 2019. But his firm’s reputation precedes him, having built an empire in the West Coast with some 17 restaurants, nightclubs and lounges in the San Diego and Las Vegas markets. Clique’s venues, from the décor to the menu to the house music, are designed with Gen-X and millennial diners in mind, and O’Keefe is not shy about trumpeting his company’s record.
“We changed the entire food and beverage landscape in Las Vegas,” he says. He’s hoping to accomplish much the same in Delray. “There’s so much potential here, and I think most people in this area can feel this emerging market coming out of the Delray area,” he says. “I think it’s right in line with the type of atmosphere, service, food quality, drink quality that our company delivers.”
Much of Clique’s expansion in Delray Beach is thanks to developer Craig Menin, who enlisted O’Keefe as the food and beverage director on Menin Development’s The Ray, a 141-room hotel in Pineapple Grove that is projected to open this summer. O’Keefe is designing its three restaurants, lobby bar and grab-and-go market.
Opportunities mushroomed from there, most visibly the Delray Beach Market, the massive four-story food hall set to open this spring. Clique was originally hired to develop a handful of the two-dozen stalls in the market, but last November Menin announced that O’Keefe would oversee the market’s entire operations.
Last but certainly not least are the two restaurants O’Keefe runs across the street from the Delray Beach Market: Johnnie Brown’s, which has seen upgrades to its menu and live entertainment since Clique took overin December 2019, and Lionfish, its adjoining fine-dining restaurant with a hyperlocal “dock to dish” ethos. Lionfish, which serves its invasive namesake whole, among other seafood, carnivorous and vegan delicacies, is upscale but approachable—and prides itself on its sustainable mission.
“All of our fish and meats are found from sustainable places,” O’Keefe says. “Almost everything we use produce-wise is from local farms here. We get all of our microgreens made specifically from hydroponics people here. When you’re ordering the swordfish, we can tell you who’s fishing for it. To be able to literally trace the lineage of the food you’re eating is a really cool concept.”
The restaurant, which opened in September after five months of COVID delays, has already had an appreciable impact on culling lionfish; O’Keefe’s supplier says he’s had to take his spearfishing operation south because so few predators remain in the waters off Boynton/Delray.
If all of this pressure—the market, the hotel, the restaurants—is weighing down on O’Keefe, he doesn’t show it. He’s laser-focused on the job, which he credits in part to not having children (he moved to Delray with his wife and three dogs, which he says are “hilarious and more than I could handle”). He arrived in culinary management from another competitive industry, the film business, where he worked as an actor, cameraman and production assistant. This included five years under the direct employ of Sylvester Stallone, a time that included traveling to Brazil to watch things blow up on the set of “The Expendables.”
O’Keefe has enjoyed a go-go lifestyle in which one gig has snowballed into another, and a new opportunity is forever on the horizon. So when asked if there are still more projects to come in Delray Beach, his answer of “not at the moment” came with qualifications.
“Right now our focus is on making sure our venues are successful in this market, as we continue to grow here,” he says. “We’re not a company that usually retreats. We continue to move forward, and I’m confident we’re going to keep doing so.”