Wood Tavern Owner's Bizerq Breathes New Life Into Former Soho Lounge Space

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Walking up the familiar stairwell of what was once Soho Lounge, there are now the sounds of hammers and electrical saws. Reaching the building's second level, it looks like Bizerq -- the newest nightclub in mainland Miami -- has a long way to go.

To say the space is in the white box stage would be generous. There's exposed framing, plumbing, and wiring everywhere. The concrete floors are cracked, making it a precarious journey as the tour continues.

But in two weeks time, according to Cesar Morales, the 36-year-old proprietor of Wood Tavern, the venue will be ready.

See also: Wood Tavern Owner Cesar Morales Leases Former Soho Lounge Space in Design District

If it were anyone else saying so, I'd be doubtful. But even as its three-year anniversary looms, Wood Tavern remains Wynwood's most popular spot. What debuted as a chic and artistic take on the small, corner bar, quickly saw itself transformed into the neighborhood's front door. It now welcomes locals and curious tourists alike, having tripled in size since opening in 2011.

"It was never intended to be as physically large as it is now," Morales says. "I asked the landlord if I could take over my two parking spaces behind the building to do an outside patio. When I did that, as soon as it happened, people gravitated toward the outside."

Wood has thrived mainly due to Morales quick thinking. He eventually leased out his neighbors' parking spaces as the need for more real estate arose. But he also used the space he had wisely. Since food options were scarce in the arts district, he added a taco stand so patrons wouldn't have to leave the area to get a quick bite. Summer thunderstorms prompted the addition of an awning for the outside patio area. And to keep people spread out, he constructed a DJ booth in the far back so there wouldn't be any dead space.

The bar has also led to the Wood Tavern Group of establishments, which now includes Benchwarmers, a sports bar. And this week, with Bizerq, Morales will bring his popular give-the-people-what-they-want business savvy to Miami's nightclub scene, taking over the space formerly occupied by the storied Soho Lounge.

Why Bizerq? "It's that moment in the night when people go berserk," Morales explains.

See also: Wynwood's Five Best Bars

Sitting on NE 36th Street on the edge of the Design District and facing the gleaming Midtown towers, the venue was home to Soho from 2002 to 2007. During that time, it served as a beacon for Miami's counterculture club scene, energized by popular nights like Revolver and Spider-Pussy. It was managed by Jay and Jessica O'Brien, the husband-and-wife duo behind another legendary indie spot, Club 5922, now the location of BT's Gentlemen's Club.

"Soho was an amazing venue at the time," says Sweat Records owner Lauren Reskin, who used to DJ as part of Revolver on Fridays and throw her own party, Vice, on Saturdays. "It gave legitimacy to Miami's indie music scene. It was a cool, versatile space with many rooms."

But as its popularity grew, so did egos, as well as competition from other nightclubs. Its marquee night, Revolver, left for the newly opened Pawn Shop Lounge in 2004, while venues like the District, I/O Lounge, PS14, and Studio A sought to attract the same demographic. By the time Soho closed quietly in 2007, few seemed to notice or care.

These days, though, it's quite possible that many are tingling with Soho nostalgia. However, Bizerq will bear little resemblance to its space's former tenant. In fact, it's best to arrive with no expectations of revival at all.

"I hope people realize I'm not trying to copy what Soho Lounge did," Morales says. "I hope I can ride the curiosity of people who are interested in the space, but I just don't want to set any false expectations."

In fact, the only area that Soho regulars will recognize is the iconic upstairs loft, and even then, it remains familiar only in terms of layout. The stage is gone, replaced by an expansive bar, and an enormous DJ booth occupies the far end. Meanwhile, the downstairs room that Soho also inhabited is taken up by Benchwarmers and additional retail space.

"It will be interesting to see how people react to the space," Morales says. "I'm always looking for dead space that's not being used and fine tuning things even after we open."

Eager to show off one of Bizerq's most state-of-the-art features, the owner slips into the DJ booth to crank up the volume dial. The music carries wonderfully across the space, thanks to the club's Void Audio system, which hits you from all sides. Traveling through the room, the sound quality remains crisp.

Eventually, a worker lets Morales know that the bass blew out the stairwell lights. He takes it in stride, saying he'll just have to find a bulb with a filament that can withstand the rumble.

Next, the tour leads us to the east side of building where the venue's hip-hop room will housed. The old Soho stage space will be dedicated to dance music. But both areas are connected by a corridor, in which unfinished bathrooms can be found. The solution seems ideal because, if for whatever reason, one room isn't needed, it can be easily roped off to give the club a more intimate vibe.

See also: Downtown Miami's Five Best Dance Clubs

Beyond the hip-hop room, there is an old storage area where chairs, tables, and knickknacks that belonged to Soho's proprietors have collected what seems like a century's worth of dust. Morales says, in the future, he'll fix it up to serve as a small live-music space for local bands and touring acts.

"But I'm not going to bring big names that are going to cost a fortune to book," Morales insists. "I want to keep the door cost manageable."

He also reveals plans to have a regular rotation of local DJs, with special visiting acts only a couple times a month. The maximum cover charge hasn't been set, but expect it to be well below $20. There will reasonable drink prices and no bottle service. This is what people have come to expect from the Wood Tavern brand, Morales suggests -- a fun night out without having to break the bank.

Even so, in order for a nightlife spot to be successful, it needs a stellar booker: Bardot has David Sinopoli, Grand Central has Jake Jefferson and Aramis Lorie, Electric Pickle has Diego Martinelli. A club simply must have a person with the connections and know-how to lure acts that people will pay to see. For Bizerq, Morales has hired DJ Ynot as the venue's "musical curator," because he realizes that "every good venue needs someone full-time doing bookings."

But beyond that, Morales has decided to avoid, for now, outside promoters, preferring to have everything done in-house. And in keeping with Wood's modus operandi, he's always listening to what people have to say, particularly on social media.

In fact, leading up to Bizerq's opening, he's been polling his audience on a number of subjects, from what kind of club nights they'd like to see to cover charge and music selection.

"Social media keeps me connected to my customers," Morales says. "I don't want to hire some kid with headphones in his ears all day to do that for me."

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Bizerq's Grand Opening. Friday, August 29. Bizerq, 175 NE 36th St., Miami. Visit facebook.com/BizerqMiami.

Follow Crossfade on Facebook and Twitter @Crossfade_SFL.

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