Swelter

So many new things lately: 32 Grand in the Grove, the cinema/pub/theater complex with identity problems. The Century Hotel restaurant, which, according to co-owner Willy Moser, will shortly be in the throes of a soft opening. And then, as always, the gay South Beach beat, mushrooming steadily like some sort of post-apocalyptic fallout. It's all a bit overwhelming, but a confidential source in the nightclub industry had a few helpful tips. And a rather unseemly promise: "If you mention me more than anybody else - I know you're straight and everything, so don't worry - I'll kiss you."

The old Acme Acting Company space within the Strand will, rumor has it, become a gay bar. But new Strand co-owner Eric Milon dismisses this entirely: "A rumor without foundation. We are talking to people about leasing the space for a bar, but they are not planning a gay bar." Mel Reaume of New York's The Saint has reportedly acquired the Paris Moderne space down the street from the Strand, and will be opening a mega-gay Saint outpost sometime this winter.

The "incredibly chic, invitation-only" after-hours parties thrown by Patrick McNamara of The Big Pig coffee house on Espanola Way are just, well, unbearably chic. Hell Fire, the new Sunday special men-only gay night ("Raunch Riot! Scum! Pig! Shave! Toilets! Showers!") at the Junkyard is the coming thing, disgusting-wise. Drive Shaft, the Wednesday-only gay party put together by ex-Trouble partners Mike Davis and Doug Dmitrzak, also at the Junkyard, is really too much.

All the hype about The Big Pig had been pretty intense, and we were in a lather, momentarily, to get on that hyper-private guest list. In truth, it really is a nifty-looking place: metal sculptures, sanded concrete walls and floors, bright blue accents, cement tables jutting out from the wall. Very Los Angeles. But it's an off-night or something for McNamara, who's slipped into a kind of over-it-all Beckett/Warhol conceptual restaurateur persona. Something to do with all those parties, some of which start at 12:30 in the afternoon, after everything else has ended.

"It's scary, all these people out so late," McNamara mutters. "I don't really like to go out like that. I mean, I don't even like to let anybody know I'm here. If you think I'm bad, you should see my partner. He's never here."

We were there, totally there, but believing it took some time. It was hot, crowded, and the center would not hold, but we just had to stay out and jump into the maelstrom at Hell (Master! Slut! Chains!) Fire. Despite all the nasty words on the flyer, though, everyone couldn't have been nicer.

The decorative rat on the bar stayed put. Assorted Leather Men! stood around posing, absorbed in the penis-theme decorations, the display of sexual accouterments, the shower stalls, and the imagined magnificence of their physiques. And co-promoter Dan Wenger (Nuts! Butt! Balls! Condom! Safe!), in a leather mask and harness, was pleasant enough about the operating aesthetic: "We're trying to get away from that whole Suzanne Bartsch drag-queen number. This is a party for men. We even made one queen take off her thousand-dollar couture dress before we'd let her in."

It was all good, clean, nondressy, disgusting fun, in a boys-only kind of way (even a graffiti rendering of the feminine form was summarily wiped off the wall). But the affable John Fox, operations manager of the aptly named Junkyard ("Don't let any of my droogs give you a hard time"), turned out to be the most interesting element of the evening: "We've got more totally different kinds of nights here than any place in town. This new gay stuff. A Grateful Dead night. Hard-core metal, you know, bands like Christ on a Crutch. Hip-hop. But what I miss is the after-hours parties we used to do. Mostly people in the industry. Bartenders. Models. Local professionals. You spend a night with a bunch of metal heads, you're in the mood to talk to somebody of like mind."

The great thing about Centro Espanol is that you are unlikely to see any people of like mind, local professionals, or even anybody you remotely recognize. In a city full of splendid possibilities for ethno-nightlife - Obsession for Haitian compas, the Dominican haunt Club Tipico Dominicano for merengue, El Internacional, Maxim's Supper Club, and Club Mystique for salsa - Centro Espanol on the Miami River has, during the course of some 21 years of operation, established a beachhead for truly atmospheric evenings. A huge operation, some two acres of asphalt and whimsy, it is situated in the middle of a heavily industrial section of the river, smack-dab in the heart of darkness. On one side of the complex is a stage, dance floor, and a thatched tiki-hut bar and restaurant, made by Seminole Indians. Across a fenced-in parking lot, set up as a picnic ground for families on Sunday afternoons, is the main building, with its trademark seafood-theme watchtower, a back patio on the water, and an enormous outdoor clock that once graced the Sheik Al Fassi estate.

The S.S. Galleon, a party boat operated by the club, is also docked out back. On Sundays at 3:00 p.m., the Galleon - equipped with DJ Jorge Valdes playing everything from Roberto Torres tributes to bachata medleys - heads down to Bayside and returns again. The trip costs one dollar.

From the beginning, owner Abdon Grau - one of the more likable club owners in town ("Everybody come here, never no trouble") - has aimed to keep things cheap and to touch all bases. Sunday is family day, with the main dance club closed. Tuesday is American black night, with a lip-synch contest and a half-gay/half-straight crowd. Wednesday is a straight salsa contest. Thursday is a salsa competition for gays. Friday is straight, and there's usually live music - a truly jumping night. Saturday is predominantly gay, with occasional big bands from Santo Domingo and acts like Gloria Gaynor. (On gay nights, the room is called, appropriately enough, On the Waterfront.)

On a recent Sunday afternoon, the boat was jammed with madly salsa-ing Latins, as a few regulars hung out on the riverside deck. Even in the harsh light of day, it is still an oddly irresistible club: the mirrored bathroom stalls with the warning signs "Prohibido entrar 2 personas en un bano"; Grau's furnitureless office, crammed with inscribed publicity stills from Johnny Ventura, Celia Cruz, and Ronald Reagan; the shrine to his father, with an oil portrait, fountain, and an Astroturf-accented garden.

Every bit of it is absolutely wonderful. And best of all, the yuppie ethnic culture voyeurs are not out in force. Yet. A place this great can't go unrecognized, or remain untainted, much longer.

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