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South Beach: Seen and Scene
I had the good fortune of going to high school in Miami in the mid-70s. Good fortune because I was never more than twenty minutes away from the beach. All teenage angst -- bad test scores, breakup with the boyfriend of the week -- was soothed at the beach. My friends and I frequented the beaches along mid- and upper-Collins Avenue on Miami Beach, backed by huge hotels with fancy names like the Fontainebleau and the Eden Roc. We purposely avoided the southern tip of the beach, which was aptly named South Beach, because it was chockablock with squat, rundown buildings and hordes of retirees sunning themselves and playing canasta on the front porch of the very same buildings. Boy, how times have changed...
A writer by the name of Barbara Capitman took a good hard look at the buildings on South Beach and saw a treasure, not an eyesore. Most of the buildings were in the Art Deco style and dated to the 1930s and 40s. Behind the chipped facades were graceful, curved structures which had been the centerpiece of Miami Beach's heyday decades earlier. Leonard Horowitz, a friend of Barbara's and an industrial designer, seized on the idea of resurrecting the buildings with the use of color, splashing a palette of pastel hues on what had previously been whitewashed edifices. It worked. People started returning to South Beach, as visitors and as investors. Decaying, old hotels were restored and made to look better than ever. In 1979, as a result of the efforts of Barbara Capitman, the Miami Design Preservation League, and many others, Miami Beach's Art Deco District (an approximately square mile area at the tip of the island) was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The next step for this newly-popular strip of beach was to find an identity. Calvin Klein helped a bit. He came to South Beach to shoot a series of his wildly successful and controversial underwear ads in the early 80s. The images he produced convinced a number of fashion industry executives that this was an ideal location for photo shoots, what with good weather, colorful and attractive buildings and, of course, the beach. The designers came, and along with them came leggy models and sexy photographers. And then a lot of folks came just to watch them. Chic restaurants started appearing in hotel lobbies. Sidewalk cafes, boutiques, nightclubs. The press caught on and "South Beach" started rolling off everyone's tongue. Or rather, SOBE, in keeping with those other trendy enclaves, SOHO and SOMA. Madonna came, and so did Sylvester Stallone and Gianni Versace. A little rehab project started by one very dedicated woman spawned what many now refer to as the American Riviera. Personally, I like to think of it as a touch of St. Tropez in the good ol' US of A.
And the one constant throughout it all? The beach. The French Riviera has never had a beach as pretty as South Beach. A wide stretch of soft, nearly-white sand sparkles in the sunlight. The warm blue-green water rolls to the shore in gentle waves. Palm trees sway overhead in the soft breeze. Puffy, white clouds drift overhead, tasty creampuffs dotting a blue cake of a sky. It's easy to wax eloquent about the beach at South Beach. I'm sure it's one of the prettiest beaches in America, maybe the world. Reason enough for a visit. But there's a whole lot more on South Beach these days. The area is a 24-hour-a-day playground, where you can sun, swim, eat very well, dance all night long, and thank your lucky stars that you get to have so much fun.
Some pointers, you say? Here goes...
When to Go
Miami Beach still operates on a seasonal basis. High season is October to May, and the highest season is January to March. The summer months are considered low season. It's hottest, and most humid, in the dead of summer. I think the best months for a visit are late fall (November, December) and late spring (April, May). While you're likely to get less rain during this time, rain can be a year-round occurrence in Miami. This is the tropics, after all. Often the rain is nothing more than an afternoon shower to cool things off, which can be a blessing.
Where to Stay
Of course, you'll want to stay at one of the deco palaces. One of my favorites is the Raleigh Hotel on Collins Avenue, a block from the beach. The hotel was opened in 1939. Martha Raye was the headliner on opening night, and her regular drummer didn't show up, so a sub was plucked from a hotel across the way. His name was Desi Arnaz. The hotel was a popular spot through the 50s, 60s, and 70s. It was always one of the most beautiful properties on the Beach, designed by architect Murray Dixon, one of the pioneers of the deco movement. The pool at the Raleigh, with its scalloped edges and graceful design, is a deco delight. The Raleigh was fully renovated during 1990-1993. "This place is a monument to salvage," according to general manager John Cashman. And he means that in the nicest way. The folks at the Raleigh didn't go out and buy a bunch of new and expensive things for their hotel. They carefully combed second-hand stores and abandoned buildings to find some real treasures. The chairs in the dining room are original 40s pieces, nothing fancy, with just a bit of a touch-up. They look great. The furniture in the lobby is comfortable and inviting. The rooms have a deco flavor to them, so while you'll feel like you're in the 40s, you're solidly in the 90s, thanks to some nifty modern touches. My favorite concession to progress is a bedside panel that lets you control everything in the room, from the TV to the lights and air conditioning. The Raleigh is a gem from top to bottom. Some well-traveled folks seem to agree with me. One of the suites on a top floor is referred to as the "DeNiro Suite." According to GM Cashman, "it's the only place he wants to stay when he's on South Beach." Who am I to argue with DeNiro? If you want to go all out, you can sum it up in one word: Delano. Also on Collins Avenue about a block from the Raleigh, this property was reopened within the past year and is owned by Ian Schrager, of the Royalton and Paramount hotels in New York City. In the case of the Delano, it isn't so much a renovation as a remodeling. The place is now very modern inside: dark paneled walls softened by billowy white fabric framing the windows and hanging from the high ceiling. Trust me: you will walk into the Delano and think white. White is everywhere, hanging from the ceiling, partitioning the rooms, dressing the hotel staff, covering the dining room chairs. I'm sure the idea is to make everything feel light, cool, and airy, but it may be a bit overdone. I have to admit, though, that the place feels rich. Most of the guests look rich. It's all very New York, even though this is South Beach. If that's your game, the Delano is your place. And there are some very clever touches. The "lobby" area goes on forever, and is a series of themed spaces as best I can see. There is an "eat-in kitchen," which was my favorite thing about the place. This area looks just like an eat-in kitchen, albeit one from a very fine home. A long marble table has the most wonderful edibles for the grazing pleasure of the guests. Pull up a stool and nibble on something to tide you over to your next meal, and put that on my tab, please. The lobby also has a pool area, as in billiards, and a lounge with some very interesting seating areas, courtesy of intrepid designer Philippe Starck. The rooms are -- you guessed it -- white. Very white. And lovely. A perfectly-shaped, green apple greets you from a small shelf as you walk into the room. It beckons you to take a bite so that you'll keep the doctor away. This is followed by a large, white bed; a cozy, white couch; and a soft, white orchid gracing the coffee table. When you look out your window, you see the blue ocean. Hooray! You may want to go to the beach while you're here, but you can also choose the rooftop spa, Agua, or David Barton's Gym downstairs. Or perhaps a meal at the Blue Door restaurant in the back of the lobby. Or maybe just a dip in the pool, with its underwater sound system. You might get spoiled at the Delano. I think that's the idea.
For those who want a taste of deco on a more modest scale, I nominate the Park Central Hotel as the best deal going. Located at the southern end of Ocean Drive, the hotel was originally opened in 1937 and reopened in 1987, after a thorough renovation by owner Tony Goldman. Some people refer to Mr. Goldman as the "Mayor of South Beach," and judging by his efforts at the Park Central, I'd say he's earned the title. The Park Central feels wonderfully cozy. The lobby is a mix of ideas and pleasures, with a juice bar, cocktail area, vintage pool table, and grand piano all vying for your attention. Don't feel bad if you can't play the piano -- Goldman does, and he just might serenade you with a tune. The management at the Park Central tells me they're trying to do two things just right: provide attentive service, and do so in a clean, neat environment. Score 100 for management. The rooms are well laid out, providing all the needed amenities in a breezy, relaxed setting. Ceiling fans whir overhead, and the carpet underfoot has palm trees all over it. You'll get a great view of the beach from the hotel's rooftop sundeck, and on weekends, the staff offers free 15, 20, and 30-minute massages on the sundeck. I suggest the 30-minute version. You might be surprised at the best thing about the Park Central. It's the concierge, Raul Penaranda. He is the most energetic and enthusiastic hotel person I have encountered in some time. You can tell that Raul loves his job. Be sure to ask him to make you a reservation at one of South Beach's hot dining spots. Or anything else you might need. This fellow delivers, with a smile.
Where to Eat
The restaurant scene on South Beach has evolved in recent years from its humble beginnings of kosher delis and seafood shacks. The terms you hear today are "New World Cuisine," "Nuevo Latino," and "Eurasian." The chefs executing these cuisines are in the top ranks of US chefs, winning accolades from respected publications and ensuring many a satisfied palate. You can eat well on South Beach any time of day or night and the choices are varied and plentiful.
For a light bite, I like the News Cafe on Ocean Drive. This was one of the first spots to open once Ocean Drive, and South Beach, were back on the map. It was originally nothing more than an ice cream store, and from there they moved on to sandwiches and cappuccino. Today it's a little bit of everything: international newsstand, t-shirt emporium, cigar shop, lounge, outdoor cafe. The last is the best thing about the News Cafe. The world whizzes by while you sit on the spacious patio. The world in this case is a succession of roller bladers, skateboarders, moms with babies, French tourists, and most anything and anyone else. Menu selections are simple and straightforward, consisting of salads, sandwiches, and pastas. One of the nicest things about the cafe is that you are not rushed out the door. "You can lounge here," according to Tony Pucci, the general manager. "We're different that way. There's no rushing. Our philosophy is you ask for the check." That Tony is one smart fellow, because News Cafe is one of the most popular spots on the beach. What else? The key lime pie is a winner, and goes very well with their iced cappuccino, which is served in a tall glass with a dusting of chocolate on top. You may have to wait a few minutes for your table. If you do, just relax and gaze out at the beach. Your time will come.
A pretty spot at the southern tip of Collins Avenue is Nemo. Just a year old, it has quickly garnered rave reviews. The space is warm and modern at the same time, with a series of French doors all around, usually open and letting in a delightful breeze. There's an outdoor dining patio adjacent to the main dining room. The cuisine at Nemo is "American eclectic," according to partner Myles Chefetz, which to him means a melding of cultures and flavors into our standard palate. As the name might suggest, fish is a staple of the menu. The food is light, fresh, and satisfying.
For a taste of new Latin cuisine, the requisite stop is Yuca on the Lincoln Road Mall. Yuca burst on the Miami dining scene seven years ago with its unique version of Cuban and Latin American cooking and quickly converted the traditionalists who thought it couldn't, and shouldn't, be done. The founding chef at Yuca, Douglas Rodriguez, recently received a James Beard Award as one of the country's rising new chefs, so he must have been on the right track. New chef Guillermo Veloso is usually in the South Beach kitchen, Yuca's second location, which was opened several months ago. The accent is on lighter, more modern preparations of traditional dishes, and meat is as popular a dish as seafood here. The presentations are colorful and inventive, and the flavors are clearly defined. Desserts are a must.
Farther down Lincoln Road Mall is Pacific Time, opened four years ago by New Yorker Jonathan Eismann. The emphasis here is on Pacific Rim cuisine: a fusion of Japanese, Chinese, and Indian flavors. Eismann is a stickler for freshness, changing his menu somewhat every day to take maximum advantage of what's fresh and in season. The kitchen has fun with seafood, turning out beautifully prepared dishes to perfection. It's no wonder Pacific Time has received four stars from both the Zagat and Mobil guides. You'll enjoy your gustatory adventure in an elegant and understated dining room. If you have to wait a few minutes for your table, sip a drink at the sexy, semicircle bar.
The one meal that is a must when on South Beach is a stone crab feast at Joe's. The full name of the restaurant is Joe's Stone Crab Restaurant, and how many restaurants do you know that are willing to stake their name and reputation on one particular dish? Believe it or not, stone crabs have been a winning formula at Joe's for over 80 years. Stone crabs are a variety of crab that is only found in Florida waters. At Joe's, they boil the crabs and then serve them cold, with some drawn butter or a tangy mustard sauce. The crabs are succulent. What to have with your crabs? A side of creamy cole slaw, which comes with a sliced and oh so sweet beefsteak tomato, and a side (actually a heaping plateful) of crispy hash brown potatoes. Finish off your meal with the key lime pie, a specialty of the house. The pie is a velvety dream. You won't be the only one sauntering down to Joe's for lunch or dinner. The place is packed every single day and they don't take reservations, so either get there early or be happy to mingle at the bar while you wait for your table.
A couple of other interesting spots to sample while you're on the Beach are Norma's on the Beach, which features Jamaican cookery in a colorful and lively setting, and China Grill, which serves modern Chinese cuisine in an even more modern setting. Norma's is run by the founder's son, Delius Shirley, and he and chef Cindy Hutson have teamed up to produce some very inventive Caribbean cuisine, featuring seafood in a melange of tropical fruit sauces and accented by island spices. You can eat indoors or out at Norma's and a live band plays Thursday through Saturday.
If you're looking for a cozy spot for a cocktail before or after one of your many meals, stop in at the Van Dyke Cafe on the Lincoln Road Mall. Walk through the cafe's main dining area on the first floor and take the stairs up to the second floor bar/cafe. You may feel like you've entered Rick's Place in Casablanca. All the touches are there: ceiling fans, wicker chairs, soft couches, and a long bar. And romance. You'll want to whisper sweet nothings over your Pink Slipper (the drink, not the shoe).
Yes, South Beach is young, hip, and fun. This means that some people will want to stay out to all hours. Need a place to go? You might want to try Groove Jet, a bar/lounge/dance club which is the hot spot this season. Drink and dance among the beautiful people. Or else try Amnesia, a cavernous place where you can dance all night long. It's so noisy that the neighbors are prone to complaining, but hey, this is South Beach, and revelry comes with the territory. Amnesia has been known to throw a theme party or two, like the "foam" party not too long ago. That just might set your imagination racing. Where are you most likely to see a celebrity? Probably Liquid, a loft space catering to both straights and gays and where you can dance to house music till dawn. If your feet start to ache, crawl down to the Eleventh Street Diner. It's open 24 hours, and is busiest from midnight-6 AM, so you won't have that cup a joe alone. Hopefully all that dancing will have worked up a mean appetite, and if so, you're at the right place. All the diner classics are on the menu, from meat loaf to lumpy mashed potatoes, and smooth milkshakes. Indulge, and hope you'll work it off tomorrow.
You knew it wouldn't be long before all the cool stores made it down to South Beach. They're all here, from Armani Exchange to The Gap and Banana Republic. The good news is that the creative spirit which is infusing South Beach has led to the opening of some terrific and unique little shops. You'll find them in three main areas: along Washington Avenue, on the Lincoln Road Mall, and on Espanola Way. Washington Avenue is one of the main boulevards on South Beach, along with Collins Avenue and Alton Road. The area between Sixth Avenue and the Lincoln Road Mall is teeming with shops of all sizes and descriptions and it's a sure bet they have something for everyone. The Lincoln Road Mall is a ten-block long, pedestrian thoroughfare which is currently being restored with new terraces and landscaping, all the better for local restaurants to set up large outdoor seating areas. Sprinkled along the mall are a number of nifty stores, some better than others but all fun. Espanola Way is an original Spanish-style street that dates to early Miami Beach. Also a pedestrian thoroughfare, this two-block long promenade is a mix of outdoor cafes, chic boutiques, and galleries. When you're shopped out, head over to Java Junkies at the corner of Espanola and Washington for a quick pick-me-up. The coffee is strong, the Chai tea is cool, and the juices are fresh and sweet.
What to Do
For those who aren't content to just sit on the beach and tan, there are a lot of options on South Beach. So many that you might have to stay for a couple of weeks. The most popular, and logical, activity on South Beach is the beach. And why not? The sand is clean and soft beneath your feet, the water's clear and warm, it's usually sunny, it's always hot, and you bought that new swimsuit for a darned good reason. Wear it, and be sure to bring along some heavy-duty sunblock, a straw hat, and a good book. Everything else will take care of itself. If you can't sit still forever, you can rent a bicycle or rollerblades. There's a spanking new boardwalk on the beach side of Ocean Drive that runs for blocks on end. The ideal place to learn, or practice, rollerblading. Most of the hotels on the beach can set you up with equipment rentals and instructors, all of whom are fit and tan. Yes, there's hope for you, too.
Want your exercise at a more leisurely pace? Take a walking tour offered by the Miami Design Preservation League. Their 90-minute tours are conducted by local historians and architects and will give you an excellent primer on the Art Deco District. The tours are offered on Saturday mornings at 10:30 and leave from the Art Deco Welcome Center, where you can buy a good book on the District or take home a t-shirt that lets everyone know where you've been.
If you need to get indoors away from the sun for a little while, consider a museum. There are a couple of good choices in the neighborhood. The Bass Museum houses an excellent collection of paintings dating back to the Renaissance period. Nothing by da Vinci or Rubens, but you will see a lot of good art, and the air conditioning will feel awfully good. The Wolfsonian has a collection of decorative and industrial arts dating from the late 1800s through the 1940s. Lots of good deco-era stuff from around the world. If your soul is crying out for a symphony, you can listen to one on South Beach. The New World Symphony is an orchestra composed of hand-picked graduate musicians from around the world. They play at the old Lincoln Theatre, which has been lovingly restored, and make beautiful music from September to May.
The Best of SOBE
In an area that has so much to offer, it's hard to say what's best. That's a pretty subjective proposition, anyway. But take it from one who's been there and done that, lots of that, so to speak, on South Beach: just relax. One of the best ways to enjoy South Beach is to just let it wash over you. Give in to that temptation to do nothing. Or not much, anyway. Take a leisurely stroll along Ocean Drive, the soft breeze tickling your face. Stop at a cafe and sip a cappuccino while you read the newspaper...every single section. Write a few postcards. Watch the world go by right before your eyes. You are in one of the prettiest places in the world. Feel lucky. When I'm here, I whisper a mantra to myself: eat drink read think. This is all I want to do, a little bit at a time. Try it. South Beach is the perfect setting.
136 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach
2121 Park Avenue, Miami Beach
404 Washington Avenue, Miami Beach
Appetizers $12-$15/entrees $18-$52
1685 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach
(800) 555-5001 (reservations)
Eleventh Street Diner
11th Street at Washington Avenue, Miami Beach
323 - 23rd Street, Miami Beach
Joe's Stone Crab
227 Biscayne Street, Miami Beach
Stone crabs range from $16-$39 per order
Miami Design Preservation League
Art Deco Welcome Center
1001 Ocean Drive, Miami Beach
1439 Washington Avenue, Miami Beach
100 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach
Appetizers $6-$12/entrees $16-$21
New World Symphony at Lincoln Theatre
555 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach
800 Ocean Drive, Miami Beach
Norma's on the Beach
646 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach
Appetizers $5-$9/entrees $13-$23
915 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach
Appetizers $6-$13/entrees $19-$32
Park Central Hotel
640 Ocean Drive, Miami Beach
(800) PARK CENTRAL (reservations)
1775 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach
(800) 848-1775 ( reservations)
10th Street at Washington Avenue, Miami Beach
501 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach
Appetizers $6-$15/entrees $16-$23