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At noon on South Beach, with the tourist season well under way, balmy breezes toss the palm fronds along Ocean Drive. Pale Midwesterners in flip-flops and brand-new swimming trunks gawk at the menus on sidewalk display. Between the foreign entrée items and the aggressive hostesses who hustle passersby like Bourbon Street barkers, some visitors, in self-defense, find themselves drawn to a two-story, chrome-edged bar on the southwest corner of Eighth and Ocean.
Wet Willie's serves an easy-to-understand menu of burgers and chicken sandwiches, complemented by the high-octane grain-alcohol Slurpees they call "daiquiris." It is immediately recognizable -- the kind of place that wouldn't stick out in Gulf Shores, Alabama, or Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. (The chain has eight locations throughout the South and one in Australia.) Classic rock and island-themed tunes blare from speakers. Customers seem grateful for the simplicity of it all.
"Make sure you get the Wet Willie's sign in the picture," says a sunburned middle-age woman, posing with hubby while a waitress takes their photo. "It's 25 degrees where we're from right now!" A family of Asian tourists is next in line for photos.
The tourists, sitting at Willie's well-worn barstools on the second-story balcony, are bookended -- and a little alarmed -- by two tables of college-age guys. The young men, who all seem to have been grown in the same vat somewhere in Iowa, wear identical white sun visors at varying degrees of crookedness. There will be many more of them in the bar after nightfall, slurping grain alcohol and rum drinks and tweaking their white-boy Ebonics until the poor girls in the sidewalk flesh parade can't understand the propositions being hurled at them: "Hey, sweet-uh! Wunna get speared?"
The bar has been in operation for a decade, a raucous contrast to some of its Ocean Drive neighbors. Across Eighth Street, News Café patrons drolly pick at salads or salmon, making a show of nonchalance, trying to seem as if sitting within earshot of the Atlantic in 70-degree sunshine on one of God's perfect South Florida winter days is nothing to get all worked up about. They are either locals or would like to seem like locals.
That's not to say that all locals avoid Wet Willie's. Bobby B., a retired Miami Beach cop (who, like many in his profession, has an aversion to seeing his full name in print), eats there every week. "A bunch of retired cops go down there every Wednesday," he says, "but we ride our motorcycles, so we have to drink Diet Cokes while we watch the flesh go by. And they got great burgers."
An old-as-Egypt formula for successful beach bars everywhere: half-naked people, great burgers. But Bobby, being a conscientious motorist, left out a key ingredient: alcohol. Wet Willie's daiquiris are endlessly churned in their metallic containers behind the upstairs bar, the machines spinning the frozen concoctions like candy-colored portholes to some boozy hallucination. With names like "Call a Cab" and "Attitude Adjustment," the drinks are potent enough to inspire a small-print warning on the menu, advising patrons that Wet Willie's daiquiris "contain more alcohol than most 'normal' bar drinks."
After a small daiquiri, the man escaping 25-degree weather looks as sunburned as his wife, and converses loudly with his young waitress. "Who wrote this song? Don'tcha know?" he slurs. "I mean, you work here. Geez, I love this song." Later he tenderly pats her shoulder, staring moist-eyed as he and his seemingly sober wife rise to leave. He could have been a proud father parting with a beloved daughter -- if it weren't for the tip he eagerly pushes into her hand.
Wet Willie's manager Julie Rissiotis admits the drinks are strong but says the staff is well versed in spotting potential problem customers and handling them delicately. Bobby B. adds that the on- and off-duty police (and retired cops) who frequent the bar help deter the problems that accompany exorbitant alcohol consumption. And while the lunch crowd's inhibitions may float away with the ocean breeze after a few drinks, it is nightfall that brings the real drama to Wet Willie's.
The just-turned-21, white-visor set is everywhere, but the crowd consists of more than that. "A lot of locals meet here for a drink on their way somewhere else," Rissiotis says. "For the Stone Temple Pilots concerts, it was like everyone who went met here first. It's like the neighborhood bar."
That may be, but the neighborhood has undergone some dramatic changes. When Wet Willie's first opened, many participants in the early South Beach renaissance saw the bar's arrival as a bad omen. Those were the days when Lincoln Road was still a deserted wasteland, long before Collins Avenue was dotted with boutique hotels and pricey clothing stores, before a night on Washington Avenue was one long club crawl. Ocean Drive was ground zero of an explosive transformation that was attracting the pioneers of chic -- from New York's downtown crowd to world-famous models and their photographers to an endless stream of glitzy Eurotrash. Even the dining was high-end; renowned chefs Norman Van Aken and Robbin Haas ran competing restaurants just blocks apart.
According to its detractors, a joint like Wet Willie's belonged on beer-soaked Duval Street in Key West, not in the heart of the new American Riviera. It represented a crass dumbing-down of this hip place called SoBe. In large part the critics had it right: Wet Willie's made Ocean Drive safe for the masses. And before long those masses descended in hordes, bringing with them behemoth tour buses, T-shirt shops, and TGI Friday's.
Today Wet Willie's stands as a proletarian beacon, attracting so much of Middle America that even the balcony sometimes has the feel of a sidewalk café -- packed with pedestrian traffic, especially after the sun goes down. The ambiance, as the night wears on, is distinctly meat-market, like a boardwalk bar in Ocean City, Anywhere.
While the open area downstairs stays busy, the balcony is the place to be. In the darkness it's harder to glimpse the beach, but Ocean Drive comes into full flower, the chromed-out Cadillacs and hopped-up motorcycles cruising by, narrowly avoiding collisions at the hectic intersection. After a couple of sixteen-ounce Attitude Adjustments, the visual and audible chaos mellows into a pleasant mélange of South Florida sleaze and faded glamour. "Yeah, it's crazy at night. A little crowded, but it's good," says Bobby B. "Overall it's probably one of the only neighborhood-type places left on Ocean Drive, you know?"