Night on Fire

On any given weekend, CocoWalk teems with a young and racially diverse party crowd

Your goal is to have as much fun as possible with as little static as possible, so South Beach, with its parasitic parking lots, outrageous cover charges, and celebrity peacocks, is out.

For your purposes, however, Coconut Grove is in. In the area that surrounds the intersection of McFarlane Road and Grand Avenue, affectionately known as CocoWalk, Anglos, Latinos, blacks, coeds, Kendall kids, and eager tourists all meet in an insular amusement park -- where, if shopping, shows, eateries, and galleries aren't excitement enough, there's always the nightclubs.

First, you go to Oxygen Lounge (2911 Grand Ave.), where an apple martini magically appears in seconds when you approach the bar. The red polyethylene and metal partition in the middle of the lounge separates the miniature dance floor from the main bar, but people tend to dance anywhere they can, facing the DJ booth as if they were facing Mecca. Meanwhile, DJ Vertigo excites the young, racially mixed (but a mite bit on the Latino side) crowd with Lil Wayne's "Go DJ." As he cuts out the fader during the chorus, the crowd fills in the space by yelling, "That's my DJ!!!" Lasers blaze, a siren sounds, hissing fog wafts across the room, and culos shake.

Later, you climb one of the rickety wooden staircases to enter the circuitous cabana on stilts known as Life (3342 Virginia St.). The wall-to-wall mirrored maze gives this place a fun-house feel, making its three dance rooms seem immense and impossible to navigate through. But, as Jim Morrison once suggested, break on through to the other side.

First stop is a room full of sweaty young Latino couples grinding to reggaeton. The couples are so into their own gyrations that they hardly notice you. The main room offers mainstream radio fare, which happens to be hip-hop. Walk through the arctic auditorium known as Life's main room and an enclave into a lounge area pumping laid-back R&B, where young black and Latino women wearing bikini tops and bearing tattoos on the small of their backs dance on the tables -- even to ballads.

All of this is making you very, very hungry, so refuel at the polestar known as Johnny Rockets. But don't sit at one of the tables outside the restaurant, which features a panoramic view of CocoWalk. Instead, sit inside on a barstool, so you can watch the cook, and interact with complete strangers -- fellow partiers like you.

You start with a cup of coffee. Then you order some cheese fries. A mature Anglo man walks in and sits at the barstool on your right. This snow-haired man orders a burger to go with his coffee. He says he has just moved to Coconut Grove from Pittsburgh for a high-paying job with TSA at the Miami-Dade International Airport, and is trying to meet people. "I just can't figure out this place," he says.

"What place?" you ask.

"Coconut Grove," he says. "I'm just looking for a friendly neighborhood bar -- not all these clubs full of youngsters." You nod your head sympathetically. There's nothing on CocoWalk like the Cheers image he has just conjured. But there is Flavour, so you direct him there, cautioning that the crowd is older, but not necessarily old.

The expansive, saloon-style bars on both levels of Flavour (2895 McFarlane Rd.) put the other Grove bars to shame. It might have the most diverse crowd you've seen all night, culling people from all races (though predominantly Anglo) and all age groups from 21 to 50-plus. Most of the older revelers are tourists from the neighboring Sonesta Hotel. They're drinking more Grey Goose than everyone else.

Here, surreal spacewoman canvasses line the pebble-painted walls, and the music is a montage that moves from George Thorogood's "Who Do You Love?" and David Bowie's "Let's Dance" to Eve's "What Ya'll Want" and Nine Inch Nails' "Closer." The snow-haired man from Johnny Rockets is sitting near the bar. He's slouching on his stool, his eyes drunken and half-closed, watching the revelry.

They say you never know who will be in the house at Banana Joe's (3015 Grand Ave.), a club frequented by Latinos and blacks (though mostly blacks), so don't get star-struck when you run into Christopher "Irv Gotti" Lorenzo, CEO of The Inc. His face is illuminated by the glow of the two-way pager he's fiddling with. He seems to blend in with his boys, who don't appear to be bodyguards, and look and act like they're actual friends of the record executive. The only female in Gotti's entourage is a friendly around-the-way girl with a South Miami twang.

You document your night on CocoWalk by posing for a digital photo at Banana Joe's in an area by the pool table, which is actually used for shooting craps. The club photographer takes the picture and produces it in five minutes for just five dollars. He develops it on a canvas with airbrush-illustrated captions that say (your choice), "Rich and Famous," "Magic Moment," "Too Hot to Handle," or "Wanted: One Million Dollar Reward."

 
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