Best Of :: Bars & Clubs
With all due respect to Club Deuce, Zeke's, and the Abbey Pub, sometimes even those establishments aren't powerful enough to shield you from attitude-heavy South Beach. When such ennui strikes, try Norman's. It's just far enough away to be unfashionable, which for the rest of us means relaxed, not subject to the supercilious gaze of the fashionista. "This is very much a locals' bar," explains owner Xavier Cervera. "People who grew up around here, versus South Beach, which is very transient." All of which makes it a very friendly hangout. Three professional-size pool tables and a selection of 35 beers add to the ambiance. Norman's is open seven days a week from 11:00 until 5:00 a.m.
This darkly hued downtown oasis is ideal for checking your investments while you quaff some refreshments. Sure it's a national chain with a gimmick: a news ticker. But at least it's an informative gimmick. Sit in air-conditioned elegance while the headlines and stock market updates whiz by on the wall. Somehow it's more exciting than watching television over the massive wooden bar. Steeped in sophistication the Capital Grille bar is cigar-friendly and aurally agreeable: A piano player jams nearby from Tuesday through Saturday. There is no happy hour to attract the boisterous riffraff, though you may get to observe how your neighbor at the bar reacts when he loses his shorts on those technology stocks.
Macabi's began as a retail store with one of the best tobacco selections around, as well as some of the best prices. But last June, after the nationwide cigar boom began to wane, owners Henry Vilar and Arturo Sosa transformed their showroom into a smoke room, complete with high-end liquors and cordials. Now, after picking out a hefty Arturo Fuente Hemingway (at seven dollars, not a bad price) in the walk-in humidor, you can settle into a plush chair, sip a Fonseca port, and depending on the night, enjoy music (Friday is latin jazz, Saturday is often blues) or games (Tuesday night the old-school fumadores gather to play dominoes).
Tucked into the extreme south end of downtown Coral Gables, this unassuming ranch-style edifice next to the Knights of Columbus hall has been called the Crown and Garter as well as the English Crown before its current owners gave it a more prosaic moniker a couple of years back. In its latest incarnation as the Gables Pub, it attracts a youngish crowd (more platform shoes, midriffs, and chain wallets than you'd find at your usual Gables gathering place) with its low-key atmosphere, tasty food, and Bass and Guinness on tap. (It skews a little younger on Wednesday's ladies' night and a little smellier on Thursday, when the rugby players show up.) Two narrow inside rooms and the outdoor concrete courtyard filled with tables make it more of a place to hang out than to pick up or throw down -- unless someone's throwing down her last ficha in one of the pitched domino battles that have been known to break out. One oddity: Despite the fact that the gringo quotient is no higher here than anywhere else in the Gables, the jukebox features a veritable rogues' gallery of the worst and the whitest. (Styx, anyone?) Yet the pub is so otherwise inviting, the patrons don't run screaming for the exits.
There's a saying that given enough time, even the town whore becomes respectable. That adage certainly applies to Tobacco Road, rapidly closing in on a century as one of Miami's most cherished watering holes. Once a notorious den of iniquity, the Road now has a family friendly vibe, or at least the atmosphere of an all-American frat party. Sure you'll still find plenty of cops swarming the premises, but unlike the Prohibition Era, these days they're there as (hopefully off-duty) customers. In fact wander out back to the open-air patio to catch a breeze off the river, and you're likely to come across several city prosecutors settling into a beer and a burger. Of course what draws the consistently packed crowds isn't just the locale, the brew, or the pub chow (solid as it may be); it's the music, which remains both very live and thankfully little more than spit-polished. Gaze upon the walls here and you'll spy framed posters immortalizing past Road gigs by protorocker legends such as John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley, and Junior Wells, even outer-space soul-jazz visionary Sun Ra, all asserting that the "disco sucks" debate is far from over, at least in this joint. Veteran barflies may grouse that the booking policy is a bit less impressive on the talent front these days, but as last November's George Clinton date here proved, heavy hitters still occasionally grace the stage. Moreover Tobacco Road ensures a steady diet of roots-oriented outfits -- local and national, up-and-coming and unknown -- and continues to be a welcome home within which to wail away, providing a solid bet for an unpretentious, relaxed night out. In a city whose nightlife milieu increasingly is given over to tense stargazing, that says something.
Even if the Haitian music scene is dominated by men, Miami's best venue for live shows is powered by women. "The girls are in charge!" declares McArthur's social director Kathy Giddarie. Since March 1999 general manager Vivian Lazarre's female bartending crew has kept crowds of up to 800 compas fans happy. Out-of-town thrillers such as System, Sweet Mickey, and King Posse alternate with local favorites Zenglen and D-Zine on Friday and Sunday nights. Oldies night on Saturdays brings back the bands of yesteryear, from Haitian memory-makers to influential black acts such as the Temptations. Weekly dance contests put the fans in the spotlight. Since all that compas can work up an appetite, the kitchen is stocked with party foods, including conch fritters and the fried pork known as griot. Vive la femme!
Most people don't know the name of this bar. They know it only by its location: south of Wolfie's, a couple of doors north of an adult bookstore, which is a couple of doors north of the Déjà Vu strip club. This is perhaps the seediest block left in South Beach. And the Champ, one of the Beach's last shabby outposts, boasts patrons who fit right in. Blue-collar Latins and gringos, occasional club kids, working girls, clueless tourists, gays, straights, strippers, transvestites, and who-knows-whats can all be spotted at the bar enjoying a belt. We're talkin' low rent, low morals, low dough, all of which raises more than a few eyebrows. You certainly won't see anything like this on Ocean Drive.
It's late in the second period. The Heat is staving off the Knicks 48-46. Not far from the TV, a man and a woman sit cozily. The woman, holding a glass of wine in one hand and waving the other, tries to draw her man's gaze away from the game. She has things besides hoops on her mind. "Put more of that stuff on this thing," she commands, pointing first to a bottle of olive oil and then to a little plate. She has been dipping fresh bread on the plate, which until that last dunk held an elixir of extra-virgin olive oil infused with red pepper flakes. By the time her beau snaps out of it, the alert, gregarious waiter has replenished her little pool. She no longer minds her guy's inattentiveness, though. She is too engrossed in nibbling a delicious grilled calamari appetizer. But the real excitement erupts at halftime. The zupa di giorno (tonight it's carrot) has just arrived. Shortly thereafter, swoosh, a porcini mushroom risotto (one of the special entrées tonight, under ten dollars) lands softly before her. For boyfriend it's the ravioli di giorno (crab-lobster in pink sauce, also under ten dollars). And they still have half a bottle of decent wine left! Over at another table, a Heat fan whoops. The game hasn't resumed: His spaghetti and meatballs have arrived. Bravo!
Start by scoping out the looong L-shape wood bar planted in the middle of the room. Next sidle up to one of the cushiony metal stools upholstered in green velour. Now lean up against the bar and accommodate the shoes on the foot rests below. Once in perfect drinking position, order the liver killer. Northwest Miami-Dade suburbanites have visited this watering hole, located in a strip shopping center, for more than twenty years. Most patrons call bartender Bill by name. Resident band Powerhouse plays rock and pop favorites, which also dominate the jukebox. The requisite dart board hangs on the wall near the hall of fame, which features photos of famous guests. Remember Don Shula? The low lights, tinted windows, and dark wood paneling on the wall set the laid-back atmosphere. Show up any time except Sunday. The body deserves at least one day of rest.
Every so often the grind of city life pauses long enough to reveal why it's worth grinding on in our particular city. Nikki is just such an epiphany. It's a club/lounge/restaurant that exists solely under palm trees and on top of sand. Nestled in the dunes between the ocean and the rear of Penrod's, Nikki is the brainchild of long-time Beach nightlife promoter Tommy Pooch and Bash impresario Eric Omores. "We were looking to get out of the nightclub business and get into the daytime business," Pooch reveals. "Although now it's a nighttime business as well." The two promoters hired French designer Stephane Dupoux to create the scene. Dupoux didn't disappoint. He sculpted sand into berms and planted palm trees in them. Then he strung up hammocks between the trees. He continued that theme with the rest of the décor, laying down bamboo mats, erecting tepees, and strewing about carved wood chairs and tables from Asia. The place hums with excitement Sundays, as beachgoers, many of them Europeans, loll about in gently swaying hammocks, staving off thoughts of the Monday to come with a cold Corona.
On most Monday nights after nine, you can slip into Tobacco Road's beery downstairs barroom and enjoy the public rehearsal of Iko-Iko, this town's most seasoned and reliable blues ensemble. The band, led by local heavyweight Graham Drout, is a five-man Cajun-inflected Miami sound machine with a busy national tour schedule and official fan clubs in a dozen states, including New Jersey, California, and Kentucky. But on Mondays the boys are usually at home, comfortable in the bosom of the Road, chewing on good burgers, talking about working on their cars, and chatting with their hard-core fans. These nights are a tradition established more than eighteen years ago, when Drout began celebrating Monday at the Road with his pre-Iko group, the Fat Chance Blues Band. It's great to be there when the fellows grab an accordion, or whatever instrument is handy, catch a downbeat, and ease their tunes into the musical pocket as easy as a good riverboat captain navigates the waters of the nearby Miami River. They'll move you through several hours of home-brew music, mostly blues based, but all mooshed up with the sounds of Louisiana and spiced with the whine of old-time country harmonies. No cover, and the rack of lamb is cheap and good. They don't call it Blue Monday for nothing.
At Champagne's the finest jazz in Miami is served with a Kreyol flavor. "Remember, this is not just a music club; this is a restaurant," reminds owner Frantz Olivier, who recommends the griot pork seasoned with sour oranges. He might add that this joint, which opened in November 1999, is a bit of an art gallery, too. An enormous mural depicting a trumpet-blowing Dizzy Gillespie (among other legends) decorates the walls. Bathroom doors feature paintings by local Haitian artist Joseph Wilfrid Daleus. When musicians break, two televisions screen archival-type footage of jazz masters, courtesy of musician Jesse Jones, Jr.'s personal collection. Jones himself, regularly featured at this venue, is a pleasure to watch and hear, blowing his enormous black bass clarinet (and assorted woodwinds) or scatting in his signature falsetto style. You can join him onstage as you dine at a half-dozen tables on the bandstand. Or, if you prefer, listen from a table off-stage. Either way, there is no escape from Jones's playfully impassioned rendering of Ellington-Tizol-Mills's "Caravan." Hearing it, you will want to follow. Champagne's is open Friday through Sunday nights. Dinner begins at 6:00 p.m. Music begins at 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 8:00 p.m. Sunday.