BEST REASON TO STAY IN MIAMI FOR THE SUMMER

Sultry nights

Summer in Miami can make you want to hole up like northerners do during deepest, darkest winter. We race between the cool comfort and the deep freeze of office buildings, malls, and restaurants. We shun our barbecues and stoves (who wants to stand over a hot piece of metal?) and our patios (too many mosquitoes). We curse those monsoon downpours that always seem to catch us when we're wearing good shoes and forgot an umbrella. Yet once the sun goes down, the heat and humidity that torture us in daylight meld to create a softness in the air that positively caresses the skin as you glide through the night.

As anyone who has schlepped from parking lot to parking lot on a "historical tour" of the city knows, history in Miami is written by the pavers. The Olympia Theater at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts is a stunning exception. A show-stopper since opening as a silent movie palace in 1926, the theater was rescued from an asphalt fate by Maurice Gusman, who donated the palace to the City of Miami in 1975. Nearly 30 years later the simulated night sky atop the Moorish arches and turrets had lost much of its brilliance; the once twinkling stars had dimmed. Then a concerted effort by the county Department of Cultural Affairs and the Miami Parking Authority (which runs the theater) brightened up the place last year with a $2.1 million restoration. Additional work will be required to update the Gusman as a fully functioning, modern performing arts facility. But for now the theater's cloud-casting lantern is spinning again and a proud stuffed peacock is perched upon a Moorish balcony, a rare symbol of the Magic City's architectural memory.

Anyone who thought Nat Chediak's career was over when he and the Miami International Film Festival parted ways hadn't been following his career closely enough. An historian of Latin jazz and a music producer (and film producer, with associate-producer credits on Fernando Trueba's homage to Latin jazz musicians, Calle 54), Chediak won a Latin Grammy last fall for producing the Bebo Valdes Trio's CD El arte del sabor. That album went on to win Chediak his second regular Grammy in February. And just weeks before the big Grammy awards show, he returned to the stage at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, this time to present Spanish singer Martirio to a wildly enthusiastic crowd. While we wish him well in the studio, the fruits of which anyone anywhere can enjoy, we are selfishly hoping to see more live performances courtesy of Nat Chediak, presenter.

Spangler is a blue-eyed, ruddy-cheeked 26-year-old with an old man's voice and a talent for the well-turned phrase. He spends his afternoons and evenings attending the most obscure functions, from little girls primping at a hair salon to rabbis blessing a restaurant to a drag-queen diva primping for a night on the town -- in short, the thousand little moments that come and go unnoticed every day in the Magic City. At its best Spangler's prose divines unadorned human motives from piles of random detail, provoking in the reader a moment of recognition. Here's an example from one story: "Like a batter in the major leagues, a restaurant hostess in Miami Beach meets failure early and often. She chooses her pitch: a young couple, good looking and tan, tourists perhaps. She squares herself to the plate: wide smile with white teeth, good eye contact. She swings. 'Hi, how are you tonight? Would you like to see our menu?' They smile in acknowledgment but do not break stride. She misses."

Every day from 3:30 to 5:00 p.m. everybody eats. No sermons. No complicated rules like the Salvation Army and some church soup kitchens hit you with. Donny Esmond is a man you can talk to: "If a guy makes a real effort, we see he's trying, we can help him get back on his feet. But if you're just hungry? Come on over anyway." We can unequivocally recommend the chicken noodle and organic vegetable soup. And the fried-chicken dinner? Delicious.

Since 1989 the Krishnas have been serving up excellent vegetarian grub to anybody who walks into their Coconut Grove garden. The dal and rice are plentiful, and the perfumed curries are sweetened with coconut. No matter how broke you may be or how defeated you may feel, the food and atmosphere at Govinda's will make you feel better -- no strings attached. Really. Have no fear, there is no drumming or cymbal-playing here. Instead the lonesome wanderer is nourished in a peaceful dining room with servings fit for a god. Donations are accepted, of course, and there is a dinner club for those who can afford a five-dollar meal. Those donations, in turn, help buy food for the poor and homeless. The temple provides about 100 meals each day to the homeless through its Food for Life program.

These are arguably the least congested toll booths on the turnpike's Homestead extension. Easily readable signs direct motorists to four SunPass lanes, four exact-change lanes, and eight change-provided lanes. The 75-cent toll also buys you a nice glimpse into the overdeveloped western fringes of Miami-Dade County, with cloned single-family houses to the east and explosive rock-mining operations to the west.

One can easily debate the wisdom of our city fathers having turned over a waterfront park to a mall developer who populated the place with chain restaurants and stores you can find most anywhere. But such concerns don't appear to trouble the brows of the hordes who routinely descend on Bayside every weekend and who look like they're having a whale of a good time. The worst offense associated with a tourist trap is the feeling you're being ripped off. In fact Bayside is home to some dining and drinking establishments that are not extortionately priced (there are even deals to be had at lunchtime) and have the advantage of decidedly pleasant views of the marina, the port, and the bay from the many outdoor terraces. Just be forewarned: Nights when a game or concert is on at the American Airlines Arena, parking rates skyrocket at Bayside's garage and nearby lots, and the resulting traffic jam on Biscayne Boulevard can make you question why you ever bothered to abandon the comfort of your couch.

Located at the more sedate, northern end of this beachfront strip, the Front Porch dishes up fair-priced, hearty portions from morn' till night. The best seats in the house are, as the name would suggest, on the front porch, where the scenery stretches from Lummus Park to the dunes to the Atlantic. Or lower your gaze slightly to watch the parade of pedestrians without anyone sashaying into your salad. Weekday breakfasts or late lunches are blessedly peaceful, but expect a wait on the weekend as locals line up for the bounteous brunch. And with a full bar, it's also an ideal spot to quench your post-beach thirst with a cocktail in a casual but civilized environment.

Just north of the SW 152nd Street exit from the Florida Turnpike, a pink-and-white checkered building with a 50-foot-tall rook's tower provides an odd counterpoint to the endless suburban sprawl of strip malls and cookie-cutter housing developments. The building houses the corporate headquarters of Excalibur Electronics (makers of electronic novelties) and the World Chess Hall of Fame & Sidney Samole Chess Museum. The museum, official hall of fame for the United States Chess Federation and the World Chess Federation, was founded in Miami by Shane Samole, whose father Sid in the Seventies created the first electronic chess game after watching Spock play chess against a computer during a Star Trek episode. The building's medieval theme continues outside, where a giant sword embedded in a boulder stands sentry at the front door, and inside, where suits of armor and stone façades set the aesthetic parameters. There are no audio recordings of Bobby Fischer ranting about the U.N. (although you can see Fischer's old competition table) but there are plenty of other tidbits to chew on. According to a chess timeline (weirdly set in a very dim hallway with pinpoint lights set like stars in the ceiling and ethereal music coming from unseen speakers), the word "checkmate" comes from the Persian "Shah mat," meaning "the king is at a loss," and the bishops seen in modern chess sets were elephants in the original version, which first appeared around 600 A.D. (medieval Europeans, most of whom had never seen an elephant, changed the piece to something they were a little more familiar with). You won't run into large crowds at the museum unless they're hosting a tournament, although Milena Migliorelli, in charge of PR, says they have a following among diehard chessheads: "People are always surprised we're here, although we do advertise in Chess Life."

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®