By Rebecca Bulnes
By Laurie Charles
By Chuck Strouse
By Lee Zimmerman
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At the newly remodeled warehouse on the banks of the Miami River, a clamp-on construction lamp lights the way up dusty stairs to the nightclub of Pepe Horta's dreams. When the silver-haired host extraordinaire moved his beloved little Cuban dive -- the original Café Nostalgia -- from Eighth Street to the Forge on Miami Beach a few years back, many a barfly mourned the loss of the funky Little Havana atmosphere. So stuffy was Café Nostalgia's second incarnation that the club's closing a few months ago came less as a surprise than a relief; even Pepe confessed to being worn out. He needed a long vacation, he claimed. But two middle-aged businessmen had a better idea.
A year ago investment banker Alan Rubin and telecommunications mogul Jeffrey Knight sank more than $2 million into Rio, a South Beach-style behemoth tucked behind Tobacco Road and across from Big Fish. Despite a state of the art sound system and plush décor, Rio closed almost as soon as it opened. Jerking happily from side-to-side during a rehearsal by house band Yenyere, 50-year-old Rubin recounts how happy he and his partner were when they read in the paper that Horta was between clubs. "It really takes an artist," concedes Rubin. "We had the canvas, but Pepe has the vision."
Rubin and Knight hope Pepe's vision will pay off in more than bar tabs. Using a compression technology sold by the pair's company SVS (Secure Vision Services), all live performances at Café Nostalgia will be broadcast at cafenostalgia.com. The virtual nightclub will serve as an advertisement for SVS, whose clients are currently confined to the security industry. "Sometimes the investment banker in me comes out," Rubin smiles.
If SVS will bring Café Nostalgia to the world, old regulars are already streaming into the new digs, even though the official opening is still a week away. A jubilant Horta makes sure Rubin's ice water is freshened up before leading a tour. Objects familiar from the earlier Cafés are back -- the life-size cut-outs of Cuban musical legends; the painting of a torso cut off by a Cuban flag; the French movie poster for Our Man in Havana given to Horta by early patron Matt Dillon -- only now, in such a wide expanse, each object emits a grander aura.
After skipping up and down the tiers of white sofas in the enormous VIP section, Horta stops in front of a video screen next to the main bar. "That's Sol," he gushes, pointing to Tina Turner's Cuban back-up singer who will appear on opening night. "We'll play the video, then the screen will go up, and --" Horta draws back a black curtain and opens a door to the street, "Sol herself will enter, singing, through here!"
It is all so fabulous, Horta can hardly stand it. Besides Yenyere, Sol, and Forge favorites, tropi-pop trio Bacilos, he boasts, Manolin will sing from his seat in the VIP. And, thanks to his new partners' connections, mayors Manny Diaz and Alex Penelas may well be sitting nearby. Best of all, as Horta proves on the tour while Yenyere jams, no matter who plays and no matter where you sit or stand, the stellar sound system means you can actually carry on a conversation.
That's just opening night. Horta breathlessly describes a near future when the newest Nostalgia will host parties for the art gallery across the street. Outside, on a patio full of chic lounge chairs, there will be space for Latin jazz, for trios, or for book signings. And come September 7, the day of the Cuban patron saint La Virgin de Caridad (and the Afro-Cuban goddess of the river), another bar and stage will open on the rooftop with a view of the water.
The tour over, Horta glides across the dance floor, arms outstretched, to greet the rapidly growing group here for a sneak peak. Yenyere heats up with a Los Van Van cover. The dance floor fills. Regular-turned-operations manager Lily Martin raises her hands above her head and grinds. "We're not even open yet!" Horta beams.