I’m sure you know the old line about real estate: The three most important features of any property that’s for sale are location, location, location. You may also know that the most important factor influencing the success of a retail operation is, yes again, location. And you can guess where I’m going with this. In a tourist town like San Miguel, the difference between success and failure of a restaurant is, very often, location.
I’ll use an example from another of Mexico’s most popular tourist destinations: Oaxaca. Check out the ten highest rated restaurants in that city on Trip Advisor and you’ll discover that the furthest any single one of them is from Andador de Macedonia Alcala, tourist central in Oaxaca, is a meagre three blocks and this is in a city twice as big as San Miguel.
Take a look around San Miguel de Allende’s jardin, the equivalent of Oaxaca’s Andador, and you’ll find places like El Pegaso, Pueblo Viejo, Mama Mia, El Correo, La Alborada, Don Tomas and La Posadita, all of which have been around this town longer than I have, while in other parts of San Miguel, restaurants come and go like monarch butterflies.
There’s a restaurant in this town that I owe an apology to. It’s a restaurant that’s quite a way from the central core, in a part of town that’s not exactly noted for its gastronomy, in a part of town some of my friends won’t even walk through at night. I owe it an apology because on the way home from my first visit there, Don Day’s Wife said, “Whaddaya think?” My reply: “At this location, two years. Max.” That was three years ago. I was obviously wrong.
You may have heard that the average life of a restaurant is one year. In reality, the average is about two years. So this restaurant is obviously above average. And that’s in terms of decor, ambience, view, service and, most importantly, food. And how far above average? Despite its location, location, location, it always seems to rank in the top ten of the 362 restaurants on the very valuable Trip Advisor rankings in San Miguel.
The restaurant is Zumo and, I think the reason it’s always highly-ranked is because it doesn’t sit on its laurels. Zumo is constantly improving. And shares that information with people.
The restaurant is located on a third floor terrace with a unique and delightful eastern view of the hill that borders San Miguel. At dusk, the light can be enchanting. But after dusk, the winds used to give you an icy chill that I remember, one night, had me shivering in my seat. Stewart Haverlack, owner of Zumo with partner Vanessa Villegas, soon installed glass shields and gas heaters that made the space both cozy and comfortable.
For its first two years, the restaurant seemed to have rotating doors for its staff, both in the kitchen and out on the floor. The first two years saw two good but soon gone executive chefs as well as a term when Stewart Haverlack made the brash move of appointing himself to the position. These days, things seem much more stable.
Stewart told me, “A year ago, I brought in Alejandro Zuno as our new Executive Chef. Alex worked for me for ten years while I was in Puerto Vallarta and recently returned from Argentina after a three-year stay.”
The menu at Zumo rotated a little too often as well in the early days. The cuisine started as mostly French, then had some North African influences, followed by themes with Asian and Latin touches. These days, it’s labeled as the safe but sure “global cuisine” and I like what’s on the menu. The selections testify to chef Zuno’s involvement in the slow food movement, his dedication to local sourcing, and the fact that a family-owned farm in Guadalajara is producing some superb organic microgreens.
One highlight of Zumo’s current menu is what’s called a foie gras mousse marinated in Grand Marnier. It’s actually better than a mousse, more firm, more like a torchon, and it’s decorated with a pleasant but not overpowering sun-dried tomato puree and a basil foam.
Another favorite of mine is a salad (and I don’t have a lot of favorite dishes that are salads). There are a few burratta cheeses available from local farms and Zumo uses one of the best. It’s combined with a couple of varieties of sweet tomatoes, peppery arugula, salty capers and a good olive oil.
Beef carpaccio has disappeared from a lot of high-end restaurant menus so it’s good to see it still on Zumo’s. The tender beef, probably from a frozen filet cut, comes with arugula, capers, the very trendy but visually wonderful watermelon radish, gran padano cheese and smudges of green peppercorn aioli.
“We will continue to change the menu three times each year and feature our seven-course tasting menu as well as à la carte options”, Stewart Haverlack told me.
When Stewart and Vanessa opened Zumo, there were four other restaurants in San Miguel de Allende that I would categorize as upscale venues. In the last year, three more have opened: Bovine, Atrio and Trazo 1810, all located within two blocks of San Miguel’s jardin. I asked Stewart Haverlack how the increased competition was affecting Zumo’s business.
“What happens with the new restaurants is the local crowd all wants to try what’s considered the latest and the greatest at least once”, Stewart told me. “After they’ve tried them all, I think they’ll come back to Zumo. Some of the locals are already back and I know there’ll be more. Hey, you and Sharon are back tonight and I hadn’t seen you in a while.”
“The way we compete with the new guys, the restaurants you can walk to from the jardin, is with a total experience. It’s the service, it’s the view and it’s the cuisine.”
“90% of our business these days comes from the hotels and, as tourism is up, so is our business. If you’re staying at The Rosewood or Matilda, it’s not much further to Zumo than it is to the jardin.”
Tara Liebermann, Senior Public Relations Specialist at TripAdvisor has been sharing some of the results of TripAdvisor’s 2017 Restaurant Marketing Study with me. The numbers show the online listing service can have an enormous impact on the success of hotels and restaurants, particularly in locations with a significant amount of tourists such as San Miguel de Allende.
I asked Stewart Haverlack if he requested guests to write reviews on TripAdvisor.
“I certainly don’t discourage it”, he told me. “I don’t think there’s any other media that has as great an impact on new business. And it works now in both the English language and with Spanish speaking people.”
Another way Stewart Haverlack and Vanessa Villegas are attracting people out those few extra blocks to Zumo is with some very special events that usually revolve around wine. At Don Day Wife and I’s most recent visit to Zumo, we were sampling some of the wines that will be featured at an upcoming wine-pairing dinner.
Don Tomas Vinedo is one of the growing number of young wineries in the Valle de Guadalupe in Baja, California and Larry Lemieux who helps organize A to Z Wine Tours told me he thinks the winery is “one of the very best”.
Larry and Arael Gómez have arranged for a luxury bus to go to the Cien Vinos Mexicanos exhibition on March 3 and the night before, Ishmael Pérez, chef at Don Tomas Vinedo will be preparing a special wine pairing dinner at Zumo.
Don Day’s Wife and I have tried the Sauvignon Blanc, the Sangiovese+Nebbiolo, and the Cabernet Sauvignon from Don Tomas and were impressed. They will all be included in the wine dinner that’s scheduled and well worth, I think, the little bit of extra effort to get to Zumo’s location, location, location.
Zumo is located at Orizaba 87-9 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The restaurant is open from Tuesday to Sunday, 6:00 pm to 11-00 pm.
Chef Ishmael Pérez and Winemaker Geronimo Altamirano of Don Tomas Vinedo will be hosting a winemaker’s dinner at Zumo at 7:00 pm on Friday, March 2. The price of the pairing dinner is $1750 pesos + 15% service. For reservations, telephone 415 152 0489.
To join Don Day’s Wife and I at the 100 Vinos Mexicanos festival, with transportation by private, luxury bus on March 3, email Larry Lemieux at A to Z Wine Tours, firstname.lastname@example.org. The price per person is 1000 pesos.