South Beach is prettily seductive – but Miami’s edgier parts now deliver its nicest vices, says Nick Redman.
In Miami, it’s dogs that seem to enjoy the vices these days. After an afternoon exploring Coconut Grove, I’m getting my head around the local yappy hour: a canine happy hour, when pets can upgrade their chicken and rice bowls with a Cuban cigar, or ‘chew-gar’, as the staff at the Spillover call it. ‘Almost all the restaurants in the Grove have dog menus,’ says Nicole, a resident who’s been my guide. Her Jack Russell (‘Jack’) eyes its prize as Nicole and I share virtuous oven-cooked heirloom cauliflower.
All’s serene on this balmy spring day in the Grove, an enclave of jewellers and yachts on the edge of Biscayne Bay. We’ve seen Regatta Harbor, lined with mangroves. We’ve wandered along Grand Avenue and Main Highway, where live oaks dapple the sidewalks with shade. We’ve even tried (and failed) to flag down a Freebee, the new golf-cart-style service introduced to whizz locals around (Don Johnson’s Miami Vice Ferrari it isn’t). Ironically, it was in search of gritty city colour that I’d Uber’d to Coconut Grove from the throngs and thongs of South Beach. Somehow its name held the promise of a TV drama: skateboarders, streetwalkers, larger-than-life types. And yet, the Grove, like the beachfront, could easily be a big, blissful, mainstream Caribbean resort.
For all the pushy backstory — the crime, the busts, the killing of Gianni Versace — my wanderings have so far reinforced just how much Miami isn’t the scary TV-cop series place it was in the ’80s and ’90s. I enjoyed a drink last night 40 storeys above the glittery city at Sugar, a kooky nook set in shrubbery atop the hotel East, itself a fine glitzy Asian-brand import. The moment was rare, even if I could have been anywhere, so highrise-international was the outlook over the financial district, Brickell, ‘the Manhattan of the South’. From this viewpoint it appeared like an armada of cruise-ship monsters upended: stunning yet sanitised, the shiny new self-appointed capital of North-meets-South America.
‘Stunning yet sanitised, the shiny new self-appointed capital of North-meets-South America’
I didn’t want to see Miami and get it in the neck, exactly, but for me the whole point of coming is for exposure to urban-US excess: horn-beep and street hustle; late-night loucheness and offbeat types. In fashion shoots and movies, Florida’s capital of sun and sin invariably comes off like some glam-fatale time warp, where ceiling fans stir the potted palms portentously while the bar band plays shuffly salsa and guys in zoot suits peer shiftily over drinks, waiting for ‘The Man’. I’m craving that filmic frisson and, while seduced by beautiful, laid-back Coconut Grove, I’m ready now for a part of Miami with more welly than its electric buggies.
I got a first whiff of overpowering pleasantness upon checking in at my hotel, the Betsy, on Ocean Drive, in South Beach. This is the famous shorefront district of pastel Art Deco hotels and bars that reinforced the city’s as-seen-on-MTV bad-girl image — helped by the likes of J Lo and Madonna. Taking my first walk beside the sands, though, I got more of a vanilla-Vegas vibe, mixing among snowbirds in matching baseball caps and parties of off-the-leash young weekenders. All great fun, but big-city gritty? South Beach deserves due homage all the same, and the Betsy was the place to pay it, with its faux-colonial lobby of foxtail palms, low sofas, a giant mirror framed in zebra print and a retrolicious cocktail bar: without doubt the most elegant, grown-up hotel on Ocean Drive. An ice-cream-cool slab of streamlined interwar modernity, it basked in understatement, with big alfresco burgers on the veranda, which invited you to idle for hours, and low chairs serving as stalls for the ballet that is beachy Miami.
A pink ice-cream truck glided past, topped with a giant white cat. A pneumatic pedestrian gyrated by, then another, with a bum like blown bubble gum. Who could fail to love Ocean Drive? Even the blip-beat of identikit R&B from cafes was agreeably hypnotic. Boyfriends and girlfriends snapped each other against spaceship-sized vintage cars, candy-coloured lifeguard stations and angular hotels.
Born in 1896, when the railroad arrived, Miami grew into a naughty whirl of a girl: a playground for escapees from the cold formality of the north, purpose-built to be the Florida Mediterranean, with ‘dreams set in concrete, terracotta and stucco’ as one historian put it. During Prohibition, from 1920 to 1933, South Florida was one of the ‘leakiest’ spots in the USA, as rum runners dropped the Cuban crates discreetly — but directly — onto the beach in places such as the Surf Club. Today, that former den of iniquity is a luxury Four Seasons hotel, north of South Beach in idyllic Surfside, peopled by clean-cut success stories, relaxing in chinos and floaty dresses.
So I was pleased to find a generous dash of decadence in Peacock Alley, the Four Seasons’ atmospheric vaulted corridor that leads to the beach. Elizabeth Taylor, Dean Martin, Liberace — Monochrome photographs told the tale of Miami’s maverick mid-century years. It felt only right to raise a glass in the soigné new-classic restaurant Le Sirenuse, to the strains of Frank and Ella. And the vice went into overdrive when a second helping of saucy rigatoni arrived, peddled by white-jacketed Arturo, the persuasive head waiter.
Next day, I crossed the causeway from Miami Beach, bound for Little Havana, to find a city moving to an edgier rhythm. My base here, Life House Little Havana, was a new home-share-style place. Its lobby, lined with books and chairs around a communal table, made you feel part of the furniture — and the fun. In Latino shades of cigar, tobacco and coffee-cream, bedrooms oozed Cuba: a battered case as bedside table here, a vintage Kodak camera there. When dusk glowed orange, guests met in the rattan-colonial backyard, lit by candles in lanterns. Over salsa-tinkle from the speakers, chat drifted like smoke.
Little Havana is well accustomed to lunch trade — not least for the cheese, ham, mustard and pickle ‘midnight’ sandwich at Versailles Restaurant, a famous local window onto Cuban life, with regulars glued to the TV for news of The Island. Personally, I felt perfectly at home after dark. OK, once I passed a cop car a block from the hotel, and a handcuffed suspect under scrutiny from officers. But I couldn’t have been better placed for the nocturnal fizz of Calle Ocho, the main vein, neon-bright with signs for money-changing and hot chicken.
At Ball & Chain, a recent recreation of a spot that ran from the ’30s to the ’50s on the same site, I ordered a Cuban spring roll beneath posters for Chet Baker, Count Basie and others who’d been here long before me. Around 9pm, the band snapped into life in the corner, all fat organ chords and savage drum snares. I saw the sticks ticking away, white in a spotlight, and ducked when the salsa tutors started touting for partners.
Luckily Café La Trova, a smart new kid on the block, left things to the pros. As bejeaned friends in skyscraper heels drank, the band played trova — the old salsa of strolling players — below laundry on a balconied stage. Harmonies were angelic and spiritual, borne on the swishing conga rhythm, long into the heat-blurred night.
Waking to sun through slatty blinds, I planned the day over breakfast Colombian style at a Life House tip-off, Sanpocho, built around a parking lot. It was a big sprawl of a diner-store, where the server spoke Spanish and loved it when customers did, however poorly — which was me, ordering refried beans and rice. Here was one of those perfect only-in-America moments: ordinary yet edgy. Watching cars curl in to park, I felt like an extra in Breaking Bad, although the only threat to my existence was the corncake offered me, lethal with butter and salt.
I opted to go north for more illicit pleasures — outré art and pricey retail. Planes raced into the mid-am sky above me on the Uber ride to the Design District, and flinty glass high-rises were pin-sharp to infinity against a blue day. Sweeping around one curve of freeway after another, revealing more tough urbanity, I felt the beginning of the endlessness of America, that shiver of risky possibility, the urge to hitch a ride with some passing long-haul truck straight out of a movie, the irresistible danger of a stranger.
The new Institute of Contemporary Art was certainly sexier than its serious name: a sensory realm of white rooms to drift through, distracted by grainy, arcane video screens and labially informed ceramics. But the wider Design District was merely cookie-cutter retail heaven for label addicts, such as you find from LA to Shanghai.
‘Wynwood felt artfully rougher. Once a wasteland, its old warehouses now shouted with psychedelic graffiti’
Fortunately Wynwood, half an hour’s walk south, felt artfully rougher. Once a wasteland, its old warehouses now shouted with psychedelic graffiti and its walls with funky murals.
It was all downhill, or Downtown, from here. Walking on East Flagler Street the next day — my last in Miami — I saw an empty Art Deco pharmacy, formerly a famous branch of Walgreens, bearing a banner: ‘Witness the new Downtown!’ I’d come to pay my respects to the city’s origins here in 1896 — the year Henry Morrison Flagler, a founder of Standard Oil, unveiled a key station on the Florida East Coast Railway. His plan: to create a new American Riviera in a place immune to freezes.
Downtown had been depressed for decades, explained my guide, Dr Paul George. The area had, he said, been a victim of ‘white flight’: the gradual migration of the carowning middle classes out to the suburbs, lured by big malls and better living. Downtown’s fate spoke for itself, in boarded-up ’30s department stores and skyscraping Neo-Classical relics, many empty now. Barely a decade ago, it was dangerous to come here after dark.
Now, in its midst, there were green shoots: that defunct Walgreens was set to open as a restaurant, music hall and brewery, hence the banner. At night, among the faded Florentine-style civic buildings on and off Flagler, I found an upbeat scene going on, as drinkers flocked to a select few new scuzzy-chic spots.
Way after midnight, I reached Jaguar Sun, a terminally trendy little newcomer. I grinned, gingerly, and the bartender put me at ease. ‘I like that smile,’ he said, catching my eye as I scanned the offering, ‘and you look like you need a drink.’
Inspired to go? Click here for the latest offers.