Twenty years can change the whole character of a place sometimes. The first time I visited South Beach—the Deco District of Miami Beach—was in 1985. Back then, two groups of people dominated: elderly Jews and elderly Cubans. people shuffled through the streets, often with walkers or canes. They shopped at little bodgeas, bought onion rye bread and workingman's pastries from the Jewish bakeries along Washington Avenue, and sipped strong Cuban coffee in no-frills cafes with a handful of tables and bright fluorescent lights. The Jews worshipped in dozens of small synagogues (and a few larger ones); the Cubans had their storefront Catholic and Pentecostal churches.
Lincoln Road was a fairly quiet street, although it was home to several large department stores and the occasional art gallery.
But there was a new in-migration: yuppies. The first waves of young professionals were small, but they had their outposts, like the Osteria del Teatro Italian restaurant on Washington and Española, or Thai Toni. a few blocks south, on Washington and 9th (not as good as it used to be unfortunately). And a growing gay male subculture supported biker shops, home decorating stores, and a few bars.
This despite the condition at the time of Washington Avenue and the neighborhood in general: lots of trash on the street, peeling paint on many of the storefronts, and more than its share of derelicts and destitute. It didn't always feel safe walking around at night.
Those two restaurants are still there. And you still hear plenty of Spanish on the streets, in the cafes, and in hotel lobbies (almost no Yiddish anymore, though). But the old people, of both ethnicities, seem to have quietly vanished. Perhaps they all died off, and so did most of the community businesses and institutions they supported.
What has risen to take their place is astounding: a European-style youth Mecca of art and fashion and food, where the average age seems to be 28 or 30, where everything pulses to a dance beat, and many dozen up-market restaurants and clubs all seem to be packed, even late into the night. We arrived after a plane delay, at 2:30 a.m. on a Thursday night, and were amazed to see hundreds of people still reveling.
And the nightlife extends for blocks. Ocean Drive around 9th and 10th streets is the hottest of hotspots, with club after club jamming in the crowds, and turning up the music. Often, you can see the crowded dance floors as you thread your way through the dense multitudes enjoying sidewalk dining long after dark. Last time we were through here, this was the center of South Beach's gay culture. Now, though, it seems very heterosexual, and very, very young. In my 40s, I feel ancient.
Miami Beach fashions have come a long way from Bermuda shorts and floppy fishing hats. Much of what was displayed in shop windows, or worn by the constant parade of deeply tanned tall and thin young beauties of multiple genders (male, female, and mixed), could have gotten the wearer arrested in the America of my youth. Sparkles and spangles and skimpiness, in bold bright colors or deep black—it makes Manhattan seem tame and conservative; this is the land of skin.
Real estate, too, has shifted. When my father's mother bought her minuscule, viewless studio apartment on Española in the late 70s, she paid $18,000 for it; the maintenance charges when my dad took it over in 1983 were under $500 per year! He could sell it today for over $100,000.
And near the ocean, many of the small old Deco hotels have been completely renovated, like the Best Western complex of several old buildings at 10th and Washington, or torn down to make way for massive and elegant new construction, such as the beautiful Loews Hotel on 16th and Collins, with a lobby that's more elegant than the Hilton New York in midtown Manhattan and a pricetag to match. Once west of Collins, most of the old buildings remain, though for some odd reason it's become the fashion to paint over many of their pastel blue, green, pink, and yellow exteriors in a monotonous and blinding white—one change I don't think is for the better.
And what people drive is different. While Miami always had more convertibles than elsewhere, the number of sports and luxury cars has multiplied several times over. Everywhere you turn, you see not just Corvettes and Jaguars and Hummers and BMWs, but multiple Rolls-Royces and Ferraris, a beautiful new Bentley convertible, and others in the $100,000 and up range. At least the tiny Daewoo I rented is easier to park (another thing that's changed; in previous visits, it was always easy to find on-street parking, no meter or permits, as long as I went a block or two west of Washington. Much harder now.)
Restaurants have an attitude here. Lincoln Road, several blocks of which have been turned into a pedestrian mall, is lined with cafe tables that stretch across the plaza, just as they might in Geneva or Paris. Even though they all seem popular, most of them employ someone to hustle people in, accosting passers-by with menus and specials boards and a recitation of their glories. Yes, there are still a few family-style restaurants serving the stuff we grew up on in the 50s and 60s (on and near Washington, anyway—not on Lincoln or Ocean Drive)—but other than the landmark Jerry's Deli (Collins and Española) and a classic retro diner called Diner a few blocks south on Washington and 11th, they are almost invisible amid the authentic trattoras, where the staff all converse in Italian (where did all these Italians come from?), or the Asian fusion places—Sushi Samba (hinting at the large Brazilian subculture), sushi and Thai, Sushi Saigon, or the creperies and nouvelle cuisine French or pan-European restaurants. On Lincoln and Española, most of them even have display platters outside with the day's expensive offerings sitting out for inspection, under thick layers of plastic wrap to keep the bugs off—to my mind, a rather odd thing in hot weather. But during our late-afternoon stroll, at least, none of the fish or meat had started to stink. Maybe they replace them every few hours.
In the midst of it all, there are still some Cuban home cooking places. But they're no longer the grimy, fluorescent-lit small cafes of times gone by. We tried plantains and coffee at Raffi's Cuban Caffe, Collins Avenue at 15th, where the staff all wear matching logo t-shirts and there's room for about 40 people to sit (as compared to maybe eight or ten in the old days). The food is good, the prices very reasonable, and when I order my Cuban coffee in Spanish, the waitress warns me in Spanish that it's like espresso and very strong. "Si," I say. I enjoy thick sweet coffee that you can almost eat with a fork. At 75 cents and potent enough to share, it's one of the best bargains in South Beach—though I'd have preferred not to be served in a styrofoam cup.
Another great choice for very different hot drinks: A La Folie, 516 Espaõla, which offered a rich and succulent unsweetened hot chocolate, as well as a selection of espresso drinks and excellent crepes (try the Mont Blanc with its homemade chestnut purée)—but don't expect to pay Raffi's prices. Practice your French with both staff and customers, though.
Our best South Beach meal: From the myriad of food possibilities, we choose the Hosteria Romano, on Española just west of Washington. The food is authentic and the place has real personality. Its waiters and bus boys—almost all from Italy—all gather every once in a while to sing songs or do a percussion performance on assorted pots and pans and real drums. Oh yes, and tonight the maitre d' is dressed as a Roman Legionnaire.
The food, in the $15-20 range for most entrees, is delicious, from the warm homemade bread served with a spicy olive oil/balsamic, hot pepper dip, to the wonderful homemade pasta, to the pricy but elegant tira mi su, so rich that all five of us feel sated sharing one piece (a good thing, at $10 per slice!) The only place I've had better was in Venice. Even with the dessert, we manage to spend only $76 before tip. Considering it's often possible to spend $15 per person or more for a mediocre dining experience, we count it as a frugal delight. My 17-year-old daughter, herself a gourmet baker and collector of fancy cookbooks, calls it "awesome," and says it's now one of her favorite restaurants in the world—and she has experience to compare with, having been in fourteen countries.
And what a treat, in January, after swimming in the ocean earlier in the day, to dine outdoors at 72 degrees Fahrenheit. At home in New England, there's snow on the ground, and even in the summer, the Atlantic can be pretty cold.
Shel Horowitz, Editor of Global Travel Review and owner of FrugalFun.com, is the author of the e-book, The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook, and the creator of the Ethical Business Pledge campaign.
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