Tobacco Road: A Seven-Part, 102-Year History
Photo by Marta Xochilt Perez
Legend has it that Miami was just 15 years old when the city's mayor lost its first liquor license in an illegal poker game with a Miccosukee card shark.
Now, 102 years later, that document has been to hell and back, and Tobacco Road is proof.
The joint has been a reckless, lawless haven for liquor-fueled revelry since its inception, and suffice to say, the record keeping wasn't the joint's top priority. So we've taken the pieces of real history that we could find and patched together a look at the life and death of Tobacco Road.
Welcome to 1812 Avenue D
That was the original address of the building (now 626 S. Miami Avenue) where Tobacco Road resides today. No one knows the place's actual date of construction. It could be only 102 years old. Or 130. As current Road owner Patrick Gleber says: "When we first got the bar and we renovated the building, we found oak flooring in the foundation. It still had the bark on. And we had our carpenter, GC, there. He said, 'This stuff is turn-of-the-century stuff.' The building can be reliably traced back to the early 1910s. But GC swore the construction material was way older, because they stopped using those kinds of oak planks."
A postcard view of Avenue D.
Miami's Oldest Bar and the Arrival of Prohibition
A little known fact: Tobacco Road isn't actually over a century old. A bar by that name has not been operating at 1812 Avenue D or 626 S. Miami Avenue for the last hundred and a couple years. It's actually the place's permit to sell booze that's 102.
In 1912, our city's first cabaret license was issued. And today, Tobacco Road holds that license. This is what qualifies the Road as "Miami's Oldest Bar," even though a drinking establishment by that name wouldn't exist for another few decades.
Another little known fact: Miami voted to outlaw the sale and consumption of alcohol in 1913. (That's six years before the passage of U.S. prohibition with the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.) And by January 1914, Dade County was dry. Or at least the teetotalers said so. Because the truth was, behind closed doors, even church ladies and cops were pounding firewater like there was no tomorrow.
Mugshot of Al "Scarface" Capone, busted by the Miami Police Department.
A Speakeasy and Gambling Den
In the days before 626 S. Miami Avenue officially became Tobacco Road, it served as the storefront for Rosenquist Home Bakery, owned by a Swede named Gunnar C. Rosenquist. Between 1922 and 1936, the name of the bakery changed and changed back, but it's actual business apparently didn't. These were the days of Prohibition (repealed in 1933), and Rosenquist's joint is believed to have been a rollicking speakeasy, whorehouse, and gambling den, where notorious gangsters like Al Capone drank, caroused, and wagered it all behind the big, heavy door of that infamous second-floor saloon.
Via Billboard Magazine, January 1942
In January 1942, a small ad in Billboard Magazine announced the appearance of Ray Bourbon with Jack Burke at the piano, "now appearing at Charlie's Tobacco Road, Miami." For the unfamiliar, Ray was the biggest female impersonator of his generation, known for songs like "Mr. Wong Has Got the Biggest Tong in China," and Charlie's Tobacco Road is rumored to have been the biggest gay bar in mainland Miami.
Name Changes and Mortgage Payments
Throughout the '50s, '60s, and most of the '70s, the place was called The Chanticleer or The Shandiclere. It was a neighborhood restaurant and lounge where folks went for cold mugs of brew, tall shots of booze, good conversation, and "rendezvous."
Over the years, the bar changed hands a few times. And in 1977, a dude named Neil Katzman purchased the joint for cheap and changed the name back to Tobacco Road. Five years later, he sold it to three young dudes on the hustle. They were Patrick Gleber, Kevin Rusk, and Michael Latterner.
"When we bought the bar, we had three mortgages," says Gleber. "Because we bought it from Neil Katzman, who bought it from Morris Blake and Max Schoenfeld, who bought it from Emery Racine. So we paid Emery $302, we paid Morris and Max $503, and we paid Neil $1200. We paid those checks every month for about 12 years."
Photo by Marta Xochilt Perez
The Rebirth of Tobacco Road
In 1982, Gleber and crew took over Miami's Oldest Bar. And soon, there arrived a music booker named Mark Weiser, a band that'd eventually be called Iko Iko, and a boisterous scene of young professional party animals. They've never stopped going to the Road, but have turned into old people who still like to get drunk. They've raised their families with stories of the legends of blues music who they got to see live at their favorite bar. And those kids became patrons who've returned for every Marijuana rally, for every giant parking-lot tomato fight, for seven-stage music festivals.
It's where everybody -- tourists and locals, lawyers and crooks, hippies and hip-hoppers and metalheads -- can go to see the best bands in the city, eat the best burgers in the world, and cut into the best steaks on the planet.
Tobacco Road's second-floor saloon.
Photo by Jacob Katel
Death of the Road, or Is It?
As the march of so-called progress continues, it's no surprise that billions of dollars are at stake over the hightowers dominating Brickell's skyline. Selling Tobacco Road is an easy decision when someone's putting 12 and a half million dollars on your step. But though 626 S Miami Ave will soon be eaten by a tractor, Tobacco Road will rise again, surely on a patch of land shaped like a triangle, with hungry investors on a hustle for a comeup.
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