UPDATE: Lionfish was all set to open up in the heart of Delray Beach’s buzzy downtown in March, but COVID-19 scuttled those plans with the pandemic shutdown. Now the restaurant is gearing up for its official opening on Sept. 21 (you can start making reservations on Sept. 8). They will be opening with dinner and brunch, with lunch to begin at a later date.
“Nothing really changed other than our operating procedures,” co-owner Andy Masi told the South Florida Sun Sentinel on Wednesday, Sept. 2. “Masks, gloves, tables six feet apart — we looked at the floor plan and asked ourselves, ’How can we make this more efficient?’”
Lionfish restaurant plans on doing something about that.
This will be the second location for the San Diego-based eatery that opened in 2017 and has been recognized twice as a James Beard Foundation Smart Catch Leader. That West Coast original has earned a reputation for a socially conscious, locally sourced, sustainable-savvy menu that it hopes to duplicate with the first East Coast location.
Executive chef and Lionfish partner Jose “Jo Jo” Ruiz says lionfish has been underestimated by foodies.
“I think lionfish is a great taste in sushi and other seafood dishes,” says Ruiz, who is also executive chef at San Diego’s Seréa. “The other side of it is it’s ... such an invasive species. It really is destroying all the coral and all the reefs.”
Andy Masi — Lionfish’s other partner and the founder of Clique Hospitality, with restaurants and lounges in Las Vegas, Washington D.C. and San Diego — adds that Lionfish in Delray Beach will include menu items with grass-fed meats, grains and wild catches.
If the San Diego restaurant is any indication, dishes on the menu in South Florida could include New York Steak Tataki, Big-Eye Tuna Pizza, Pan Roasted Lamb Striploin, Spicy Grilled Octopus and Duck Confit Tostadas. Prices on the San Diego menu range from $9 for a striped bass sushi roll to $85 for a bone-in 30-ounce natural rib-eye.
“Believe me, if you have our lionfish ceviche, you realize how tasty [lionfish] are,” adds Masi. “Once you taste the flavors of the lionfish, you want to get it out of the sea and onto the grill.”
For his part, Ruiz says, “We want people to look at the food and not be scared.”
But that’s not really how Lionfish got its name
It turns out the original Lionfish wasn’t named after its menu staple as much as a beloved toy for Masi’s then 4-year-old daughter.
Masi explains: “When we were working on the restaurant in San Diego it wasn’t really about that fish. My daughter kept saying to me ‘Lionfish dada, lionfish.’ She has this stuffed lionfish. She kept holding it above her head and saying over and over, ‘Lionfish dada, lionfish,’ until I finally thought to myself, ‘Hey, that’s a great name.’ "
Why Delray Beach?
Masi grew up on Long Island, N.Y., and visited South Florida frequently as a tourist, eventually living in Boca Raton for five or six months and coming back every now and then for the last 30 years.
Before starting Clique Hospitality, Masi spent 14 years in Las Vegas as a co-founder, managing partner and CEO of the Light Group, which is credited for bringing a cool factor to restaurants and nightlife at the Bellagio, Mirage, Mandalay Bar, Aria and Red Rock. He even oversaw the culinary makeover of the Delano in South Beach.
Thinking back on entering the Las Vegas scene with the Light Group 20 years ago, he remembers, "I knew instantly something was happening there. You could feel it. There was no Bellagio, no Mandalay. And in San Diego you could see the same thing — this young redevelopment.
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“When I came down to visit Delray a year or two ago, I’m thinking, ‘You know Palm Beach. You know Boca,' ” he continues. “But you walk into Delray and you’re like, ‘Wow.’ You’re not losing the old, you’re revitalizing it. You can see the people and the culture up and down the street. I’ve gotten lucky over the years introducing successes, to take part in the revitalization, the reinvigoration of the soul of the city in a little bit of a way.”
Masi also says that Delray Beach, in addition to being a foodie enclave, is also a good fit for Lionfish because of the culture of people “... who respect the ocean. You can’t do that in other cities. There are very few cities that create that energy. San Diego and South Florida have that, that ocean culture.”
He adds, “It’s a really light, airy restaurant. It will have light wood, bright tones. It’s very open to the street. The whole front of the restaurant opens up. It’s very open and very, very clean in design, so it feels like it belongs in the beach community.”
If you go
Lionfish Delray is at 307 E. Atlantic Ave., Delray Beach (formerly Luigi’s Coal Oven Pizza and before that Buster’s Bar and Grill).
The hours will be Mondays-Fridays 4-11 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays 11 a.m.-11 p.m.