Hooked

The river flows through it

It's around 1:30 a.m., just south of downtown. In the warm, breezy outdoors, an onstage DJ pours Latin dance music over a crowd of jovial party people. Rod, an olive-complexioned 34-year-old, sits at a wooden table draped with a white tablecloth, a remnant of the long-gone dinner hour. Behind him a few tall buildings stand out against the dark sky, below which flows the Miami River.

Rod has short brown hair and round, expressive eyes, and wears a loose white button-down shirt. As we talk, he casually sniffs bumps of cocaine off a house key, all the while explaining he is a Miami native and lives in a condo a few blocks away on Brickell Key. The motion of the scoop and snort is marvelously fluid and nearly imperceptible.

As the conversation turns to our surroundings, he begins spouting praise for Big Fish (55 SW Miami Avenue Rd.), the locale at which we find ourselves, and its evolving nightlife. Listening, but slightly distracted by his adept display of discreet coke ingestion, I can't help but recall the three, apparently ineffective, steely-eyed cops monitoring the line on the way into the club.

"Here you'll find young professionals who are sick of South Beach who live locally and who know how to have a good time," he says.

"That tree over there," he adds, pointing to the enormous banyan that wraps around the main bar, "is over 200 years old." It's difficult to corroborate this statement, but considering that the trunk is more than five feet wide and that banyans live up to age 1000, it seems possible.

Big Fish's history isn't nearly as extensive as that of its famous tree, but it is nonetheless noteworthy. The restaurant and recently added nightclub were born in 1982, when the late entrepreneur Tommy Sykes converted the building from a gas station into a "seafood shack" that served two-dollar fish sandwiches to factory workers and truck drivers — as well as millionaire yachtsmen. Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles and Connie Chung even dined here.

Soon after filming began in 1984, Big Fish served as a favorite location for the shooting of TV show Miami Vice. Six years ago, patrons at the restaurant claimed to have witnessed, from the comfort of their riverside tables, the last moments of the aquatic chase that ended in the bust of the cocaine-smuggling container ship, the Rio Star. More recently, tens of thousands of pounds of illicit drugs, including mostly cocaine but also heroin and ecstasy, have been confiscated from watercraft cruising the channel.

At the tree bar this night, patrons stand four deep to beg for drinks from the five frantic bartenders playing ring-around-the-rosy about the bark-backed liquor shelves. I wait about 25 minutes for a cocktail but genuinely don't mind because I'm so entertained by the lively movements and conversations surrounding me.

"You girls related?" a rotund, middle-age man asks of two beautiful twentysomething ladies with long, healthy hair and clean, fresh faces. They are obviously sisters, sharing the same almond-shape eyes, high cheekbones, and near-translucent skin.

The two respond with friendly smiles and an affirmative "Could you tell?"

The large man buys the two a round of drinks, leaning back on his barstool and instructing the bartender to put it on his tab, just before his busty girlfriend slices through the crowd and plops onto his lap.

Quickly the foursome exchange warm introductions and banter as a blond bartender with a thick Spanish accent finally pauses to take my order. I am so stunned by the social phenomenon I'd just witnessed that I can barely remember what I'd had in mind. An older man chatting up two young women in a good-natured way without expectations? There is no mistaking this place for catty, hollow, sex-driven South Beach.

Also exemplary of the un-SoBe factor is the impotent pickup line that follows: "Do you mind if I catch my breath for a moment?" The struggling would-be Romeo, named Martin, is a mildly attractive guy with tan skin, wide eyes, and a large nose.

I stare straight ahead watching the DJ as I answer, "Well it's your breath. I think it's up to you."

"Of course," comes the too-quick response. "I was just being courteous."

I play with him. "Do you always ask strangers for permission to breathe?"

He gives a stilted laugh. "Well I guess it was more about where I was going to stand while catching the breath than catching the breath itself."

Martin is on the bookish end of the Big Fish crowd, a good two-thirds of which is composed of Hispanic and Anglo 25- to 40-year-old men decked out in gauzy button-down shirts, expensive jeans, and leather shoes. Despite his stiff demeanor, his smile suggests a sweet nervousness. Martin tells me he is an Automatic Data Processing account manager. Of the other patrons I have spoken with this night, three are in sales, two are in stocks, and two others are in IT.

The party officially begins winding down about 3:00 a.m., and the valets outside efficiently harvest each car from unseen crevasses of the dingy, industrial compound in which Big Fish is nestled.

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