There’s no middle ground when it comes to bottle service. You either thrive on it — scouring nightclubs for a table to latch onto — pool money with friends, or swipe a credit card to afford it because it's peak Miami.
But the concept of paying an exorbitant sum for the privilege of imbibing in public with people of questionable loyalty sounds ridiculous because it is. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be open to better options.
As you sidle up to the counter at Airport Café & Liquors on NW 36th Street, shelves loaded with every manner of alcohol rise more than ten feet high.
Jet engines roar outside as tables fill with airport staff, airplane maintenance workers, and a group of Atlas Air employees sporting matching cerulean polo shirts.
A request for a $45 oblong bottle of bourbon is answered with the spirit and a tallboy loaded with ice and a stirrer. Hardly anyone besides the waitress bats an eye. A "corkage" charge for an average-size 750-milliliter bottle is a mere $6. Soon, an order for a steak sandwich topped with maduros and potato sticks arrives, and you’re off to the races.
"People are sitting down, enjoying themselves, and pouring and pouring, and all of a sudden they’re singing karaoke,” says Reuben Ruiz, who appeared on a Food Network reality show and, along with relatives, bought the place about three-and-a-half years ago.
The 29-year-old also puts some interesting spins on what is mostly traditional Cuban cafeteria food. Some days, he offers a mango barbecue pulled chicken sandwich with sweet potatoes, mozzarella and pepper jack cheese, fried pickles, and a roasted mushroom spread on seven-grain panini. Other days, beer-and-guava-braised ribs are served alongside roasted potatoes strewn with bacon and sautéed onion ($12.99).
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Still, the opportunity to play your own bartender is what gives the café much of its allure. The place has the same liquor license as nightclubs like South Beach’s Mokai and any restaurant that can sell you a bottle of wine. There are more than 400 businesses in Miami-Dade County with a similar license, according to the Florida Department of Business & Professional Regulations, but few choose to use it like Ruiz.
"Our bunch is rowdy, but they’re well behaved," he says. On a weekday before July 4, he advises a pair of regulars to "be safe, don’t get too fucked up" during the upcoming holiday. He’s got the chops to say it, considering some of the characters who've passed through the café's doors in recent years.
"We had one guy just standing in the parking lot," he says. "He was so drunk he was standing perfectly still and then fell down."