From the Ocean Drive sidewalk, the Tides Hotel looks the way it always does: stately, sedate, reserved. Inside the lobby activities also progress in the usual way. A guest or two checks in. Some folks eat dinner. A few people sip martinis at the bar. The atmosphere is quiet and subdued, a little on the unapproachable elegant side.
You'd never guess a wild party was raging on the second floor, poolside, with two bars, appetizers from 1220, and a lot of Beach posers, er, regulars. Unless, of course, you'd been invited and told how to access the now-weekly fete, which is called Tides Tuesdays and tagged "Let's Make Love at the Tides," via the "private" alleyway entrance between Twelfth and Thirteenth streets.
In other words to get in, you have to go to the back of the hotel, trek through a smelly, puddle-ridden alley where the garbage bins are kept, climb a set of cement steps, and eventually emerge on the pool deck where drunken marauders sprawl over lounge chairs with martinis in hand. Where's the love in that?
While I might not see the charm of sinking my Manolo Blahniks (okay, my Keds) into the muck and mire of days-old refuse before making a grand entrance into a restaurant, club, or lounge, others apparently do. The private back-door entrance, popular on the Beach about eight years ago, when party promoters required attendees to utter secret passwords before being allowed in, has been slyly making a comeback. And whereas in other decades the rear was befittingly reserved for celebrities and gangsters (who these days often are one and the same) to be smuggled in without attracting the attention of the little people, now those very diminutives can feel superior to the peons who actually try to walk in through the front door. How übergauche.
Naturally a back door, which almost always leads to the kitchen and bathroom facilities, has its advantages. Chefs can receive deliveries through them or slip out for a smoke. Patrons can escape a fire if necessary, or dodge a check and discharge themselves of potential dishwashing duties. But customers who want to feel more than a little special -- and isn't that all of us? -- have begun to locate these doors to use not as quick exits but as personal entranceways. And we only tell our very best friends, the ones who like to play all the angles in the game of grandiosity, where the rabbit holes are located. Even if these elitist routes aren't quite valid.
"We get people knocking on the kitchen door all the time," J.D. Harris, coexecutive chef of Rumi, confides. "We send them around to the front."
Other restaurants don't mind customers as self-consciously illicit as Al Capone. At Touch, in fact, more patrons should be using the alley entrance, because that's where they have valet parking. The back door there originally was meant for everyone, whether peon or persona of import. "But a lot of people like to sneak in because it's less congested," notes Terry Zarikian, who reps Touch and the soon-to-debut Kiss, which will launch in November. "It became a secret little thing."
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Perhaps the most significant back door to open lately is Magnum, a restaurant on the 79th Street Causeway. Indeed this place is so back-door it doesn't have a front door, and I mean that literally. You can only get to Magnum (owned by Jeffrey's proprietors Jeffrey Landsman and Kurt Schmidt) through the parking lot behind the restaurant, which itself is just off a truncated alley that looks particularly intimidating at night -- hence the security guard at the driveway into the lot who will direct you where to park and reassure you that he'll be watching your car. 'Course he's got a tip jar out there with him, so you can pretty much assume your belongings will be a lot safer with a little insurance of the folding kind.
Magnum's underground appeal doesn't stop at the back door but continues into the lounge, an oval bar occupied by mostly gay couples. Beyond the bar the through-a-looking-glass-darkly dining room houses a jazz singer accompanied by a pianist. You couldn't get more speakeasy if you tried. Not that you'd know (much like the feeling you get staring at the Tides) that anything at all is happening behind a backlit, seemingly abandoned façade.
Speaking of speakeasies, Les Deux Fontaines on Ocean Drive has one christened just that: the Speakeasy Bar. And speaking of insider trading, the Gaucho Room's e-mail invite to its "Olive It Up!" cocktail hour, complete with jazz, exhorts recipients to "Tell your favorite people" -- or at least those who know that this season, black is the new black. And speaking of avant-garde foyers, the forthcoming Oxygen in Coconut Grove's Streets of Mayfair will feature an outside elevator aglow like a model who's aware that everyone in the world is watching (even when they aren't) as she lowers into a lounge.
Still, what may be most interesting about our open-secret hurtle into hedonism is its relation to wartime, when restaurants used blackout curtains to prevent the light from seeping onto the sidewalk and attracting bombers. Drastic times call for drastic measures, they say. I say make 'em measures of whiskey. Subterfuge may certainly replace sincerity, much as it did back in the days during and following World War I (prohibition). It may well be that when we now approach the bouncer (read: host) of a restaurant, we'll be required to utter the appropriate code. I suggest we all immediately adopt the phrase "The chef is in the kitchen." That way we'll be able to recognize one another and immediately pinpoint the spies who are trying to infiltrate our hangouts through -- ridiculously enough -- the front door.