How Mango’s Tropical Cafe Became South Beach's Iconic Party Destination

Mango's Tropical Cafe reopens this week after a yearlong hiatus.
Mango's Tropical Cafe reopens this week after a yearlong hiatus. Photo courtesy of Mango's Tropical Cafe
You’ll know it when you see it — or even hear it. From the parrots perched on tourists’ shoulders at the entrance to the colorfully decked-out bar-top dancers to the vibrant wall murals and the thrumming reggaeton beats, anyone who’s visited South Beach has, at the very least, walked past Mango’s Tropical Cafe.

Famed for its exotic tropical atmosphere, extravagant dinner shows, and lively salsa lessons, Mango’s reopened last week after a yearlong closure due to COVID-19, resuming its daily dance shows that feature Cuban conga, Brazilian samba, and other Latin-inspired numbers.

Coincidentally, Mango’s also celebrates a significant milestone this spring: its 30th anniversary.

Few recall that Mango’s owner David Wallack originally opened the Eastern Sun, a holistic, adult living facility and hospice, where the nightclub now stands.

Wallack’s parents, Irving and Florence Wallack, owned the Park Sea and Surf Sea Hotels at 900 Ocean Dr. Born in 1948, he grew up folding towels for guests at the budget accommodations — a mix of road-trippers, Cuban families on summer break, and wintering snowbirds.

But he had no intention of taking over the family business. After flunking out of the University of South Florida twice and then trying his hand at real estate, he wound up earning a political science degree at the University of Miami and moving on to UM’s law school. A job clerking for a law firm led to insights into adult congregate living facilities. It gave him an idea: The hotel business wasn’t so hot anymore — what if he could run an assisted-living home at his parents’ property? The timing was great — his father was ready to retire anyway, and his parents gave him their blessing.

“I began studying death-and-dying work,” Wallack told New Times’ Jessica Lipscomb back in 2016. “I was very much getting into Eastern philosophy and holistic health, so we created the Eastern Sun, which was the first holistic healthcare facility for the elderly.”

At a time when the strip was largely abandoned, his facility was at capacity and turning a profit. “I thought that would be my whole life, really,” Wallack said.

But all around him, the pastel paradise that was South Beach had begun to crumble as the drug trade moved in and the Mariel boatlift, filled with Fidel Castro’s castoffs, landed, sometimes literally, on its shores. Eastern Sun residents were so panicked after one break-in that Wallack agreed to install a gate at the front of the building that remains today.

“I cried, actually, when the gates went up,” Wallack told Lipscomb. “There was shooting in the street. The police went in four-car convoys. Police didn’t go alone. Those days were the days of darkness.”

Toward the end of the 1980s, though, the figurative sun reappeared.

New York developer Tony Goldman came to town and began buying up abandoned properties. Thanks to the tireless work of preservationist Barbara Capitman, the Art Deco District had found a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and the city had expanded sidewalks and rezoned the area to a mixed-use entertainment district.

Inspired by the success of Goldman and the developer’s friend and business partner Mark Soyka, who opened the News Cafe in 1988, Wallack again shifted gears.

He’d gotten into the habit of going for long morning swims just off the beach. Sometime around 1990, midway through one of those swims, he had an epiphany.

“I was headed south and swimming along, swimming along, swimming along, when I thought, ‘Mango’s Tropical Cafe,’” he told Lipscomb. He envisioned a bar like one he’d seen in Negril, Jamaica, with live music and a vibe that welcomed everyone — something that wasn’t too “chichi.”
click to enlarge A churrasco steak at Mango's. - PHOTO COURTESY OF MANGO'S TROPICAL CAFE
A churrasco steak at Mango's.
Photo courtesy of Mango's Tropical Cafe
“All of a sudden these great minds and artists had come to Miami Beach,” Wallack says today. “Soon it was this club or that restaurant opening, going out of business as fast as they were going in. I would go to all of them, all while listening to Mark and Tony and their dreams for Ocean Drive. I was surrounded by exceptional artists, people who wanted to help shape Ocean Drive and create something new and different.”

Friends and family told him he was crazy to start a new business — especially coming out of the volatile market of the 1980s — but he refused to be dissuaded.

“At the time I was becoming notable in my field, but the idea kept coming back to me,” Wallack says. “Something was artistically gnawing at me. That’s when I really started thinking of doing a commercial redevelopment of my building.”

Wallack moved the hospice to another location and reconfigured what had been the Eastern Sun into a commercial space that accommodated four storefronts, several office spaces above, and an open patio at the center — the space where, on March 30, 1991, he opened Mango’s.

The club was true to Wallack’s initial vision: a humble Caribbean café serving Latin-themed fare and a bar where live bands performed rock and reggae. The establishment gained global fame when Cuban musician Miguel Cruz began to draw crowds with his Afro-Latin jazz. Shortly thereafter, a photo of three bartenders clad in leopard-print Spandex and dancing atop the bar to Cruz’s percussion became a symbol of South Beach — and established Mango’s as one of the world’s most telegenic nightclubs of the decade.

While most patrons continue to visit Mango's for the dancing, many also come for the food and drink. The Latin-inspired, Floribbean-themed fare is a mix of Caribbean and Mexican dishes alongside classic American staples. Mango’s is famous for its platter-size meals, including a churrasco steak topped with a garlic chimichurri sauce and served over white rice with black beans and sweet plantains; and chicken al ajillo, sautéed chicken breasts in a garlic, white wine, and lemon sauce, served with seasoned yellow rice, black beans, and sweet plantains.

To commemorate the restaurant's reopening, Mango's has added some new items, including a "Bistro Stacked Burger," a towering creation that can be ordered as a single, double, or triple and comes topped with cheddar cheese, crispy onion strings, pork-belly bacon, and bourbon barbecue sauce ($17 to $38). Other choices include Southern fried chicken with mashed potatoes, gravy, and a side of coleslaw ($19), and seafood paella for two ($62).

Perhaps best known are Mango's supersized, tropical-themed cocktails served in souvenir glasses, like a 15-ounce hurricane or mojito. Guests are also encouraged to upgrade any drink on the menu to a "grande" (a 45-ounce drink for a $25 upcharge) or pony up an extra $15 for a 32-ounce "jumbo" martini.

Along with riffs on mojitos and daiquiris, Mango's bartenders have created a number of specialty cocktails over the years. One recent addition, the "Bomb-Ba" martini ($19), is a combination of raspberry vodka, watermelon liqueur, sweet lemon juice, grenadine, and lemon soda, topped off with a smoke-filled fog bubble for a theatrical presentation.

Sums up Wallack, who expanded Mango's to open a second Orlando location in 2015: "To our loyal and wonderful guests, we appreciate your love and support through this challenging time, and we look forward to seeing you all again for many years to come."

Mango's Tropical Cafe. 900 Ocean Drive, Miami Beach; 305-673-4422; mangos.com. Open 4 p.m. to 5 a.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 5 a.m. Friday-Sunday.
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Nicole Danna is a Palm Beach County-based reporter who began covering the South Florida food scene for New Times in 2011. She also loves drinking beer and writing about the area's growing craft beer community.
Contact: Nicole Danna