Mediterranean pop-up Barbarella opens in Dadeland despite the pandemic

A husband and wife who own two Miami-area restaurants face perhaps their biggest challenge: the opening of their third place, a Kendall pop-up, during a global pandemic. 

Sebastian Fernandez and Leslie Ames own 33 Kitchen, a Peruvian eatery in Miami Beach’s Time Out Market, and Rare Burger, which offers gourmet fare in Little River’s Citadel food hall.

After a two-month delay, the pair opened the doors to their bistro, Barbarella, on May 18. They signed a one-year lease agreement in Dadeland Mall, but hope to make Barbarella a permanent location. 

“It’s a little bittersweet because we would love to have the place packed, but you know, it is what is,” said Fernandez. 

Limited to 50 percent capacity and hobbled by slow foot traffic, the main concern is surviving until things return to normal, Fernandez says. “The most challenging part of business right now is that we’re paying bills that are at 100 percent value while we’re working at 25 percent capacity,” he said. 

With each of their restaurants, the duo builds on what’s already in place. 

“This was originally an Italian restaurant, so our first approach was Italian,” said Fernandez. “We already had pizza ovens and pasta cookers and a name, Barbarella, after our daughter Barbara. It was a perfect match.” 

But with a number of Italian options already available at the mall, they opted for Mediterranean cuisine, which Fernandez said gives room for creativity.

“It’s more of a freelance way of cooking,” he said. “With the shortage on products and materials to work with right now, I can easily change my menu based off what’s available.” 

It’s not the first time Fernandez has worked with the cuisine. In his early 20s, he opened up his first restaurant back home in Santiago, Chile. It was called La Buena Costumbre.

Ames said their first week went as expected. “It’s slow but it’s a small restaurant,” said Ames. “With the limit, the busiest we can be is four or five tables. Since we’re new, we’re taking this as a soft opening, so it’s been good.” 

Ames, whose foray into entrepreneurship began more than two decades ago with Q, a café in Santiago, hopes that people will support local restaurants.

“Now is the time to invest in our own community, to support our small businesses,” Ames said. 

With a cozy European bistro in mind, the couple worked together to redesign the space from the inside and out.

“We had to change the face of what it was before,” said Fernandez. 

Inside, walls are splashed with warm earth tones while tall columns are wrapped in decorative grass. The restaurant’s dining tables are lined with decor from the couple’s home, leading to an open kitchen that offers a front-row seat to the chef’s work. 

In the kitchen, every dish served, from the Bolognese pasta to the tuna tartare, is made with vegetables from the couple’s home garden and fresh produce from local companies. 

Fire-roasted octopus with romesco sauce(Courtesy of Ames)

“That’s something that I don’t compromise on,” Fernandez said. “We could be dying because we don’t have customers and I’d still never go for cheap products. It’s a staple in all of our restaurants; the quality of our food is always the best that we can put on the table.” 

It’s this that the pair says will set their family-run bistro apart from the neighboring chain restaurants. 

Rafael Craveiro has dined at both of the couple’s restaurants over the last five years and was eager to order from Barbarella.

“I had white beans with chorizo and clams as an appetizer and ribs as an entrée,” said Craveiro. “It was excellent service, food, and atmosphere. They’re doing a great job with sanitation during these crazy times.” 

Despite the circumstances, Fernandez remains optimistic about Barbarella’s success.

“It’s going to be a couple of tough months, but we’ll fight it,” he said. “You know, that’s what I have done for years in this industry.” 

Barbarella is located at 7535 N. Kendall Dr. and is open from noon to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and from noon to 7 p.m. on Sundays.

Cristina Gonzalez is a senior pursuing her Bachelor's degree in Journalism and serving as the entertainment director for PantherNOW, FIU's student newspaper.  Everyone has a story to tell and as a journalist, it's her job to find and share those stories with the rest of the world, it's one of the greatest privileges.