MiamiWords Ellie Watts-Russell
Photography Tara Donne
Beachside cities have one major flaw – the beach. After you’ve wiggled your toes in the sea and knocked back a sundowner or two, anything more energetic than bagging a sun lounger can feel like hard work. Goodbye museum, goodbye cultural walking tour, goodbye opera house. Take Miami. South Beach to be exact, or SoBe to its friends, where convertibles cruise the art deco runway of Ocean Drive, towels line the beach like dominos, volleyball girls leap in very small bikinis, and when the sun finally melts behind a lounge bar, neon lights replace it. Who’d ever want to leave?
Not chef Douglas Rodriguez, who waved goodbye to New York’s hustle and small square footage to return to his Florida home town. “What can I say, I love the warmer weather and beach lifestyle,” he says, lifting his sunglasses and pointing to the cloudless sky. Considered by many to be the godfather of ‘nuevo Latino’ cuisine, Rodriguez is part of the famed Mango Gang, a group of chefs responsible for putting Miami on the food map in the 1980s with their Caribbean and Latin-influenced menus, sometimes called Floribbean. “Chef Norman Van Aken came up with the name,” he says, rolling his eyes. “It stuck.”
Three decades later Rodriguez acknowledges that tropical salsas seem somewhat passé. The only hint of it left on his menu at D.Rodriguez is a tuna ceviche with compressed watermelon. “Fruit and savoury is out,” he explains, “but back then putting mango on fish was quite creative. The thing about being a chef, it’s a process, you’ve got to keep evolving.”
No city knows more about evolution than Miami. Considered swampland until railway tycoon Henry Flagler expanded his tracks south in the 1890s, the city swiftly became a sun seeker’s paradise, booming well into the 1930s, when those famous pastel rows of geometric, streamline art deco hotels went up. Shaped by two waves of Cuban immigration, Miami has weathered world wars, hurricanes and cocaine cowboys. For a time her glamour waned as she slowed into being a retirement destination, before making a staggering comeback in the 80s when a little show called Miami Vice gave the city a hip new identity.
Miami’s art deco district is so well preserved visitors might be forgiven for imagining they’ll spot Crockett and Tubbs hightailing it past their cocktail lounge in a Ferrari Daytona. But don’t think the city is standing still – Miami has makeovers as often as a teenager swaps clothes. You just might have to leave the beach to see it.
In the last year alone, two buildings have given fans of minimalist architecture something to salivate over. At 1111 Lincoln Avenue, architects Herzog & de Meuron (whose credits include London’s Tate Modern) have crafted a seemingly side-less car park from concrete and glass. It’s worth climbing to the top for the view alone. A block north you’ll hit the iconic New World Centre, an orchestral academy and performance space by Frank Gehry that’s so crisp and white you’ll need shades. A short drive across the Julia Tuttle causeway, the road that links Miami Beach with the mainland, you’ll find arguably Miami’s hippest neighbourhood, Wynwood. This edgy, artsy district has been transformed into an explosive outdoor gallery of tiled Pacmen, cartoon dogs, and red and white Stalinesque murals by some of the world’s most prominent graffitists.
It’s not just ‘starchitects’ and street artists who have been updating Miami’s image. In his restaurant tucked in among the slick furniture showrooms of the Design District, chef Michael Schwartz is quietly detaching himself from the Floribbean tradition.“We love mangos and mango season is fantastic,” he says diplomatically, “but you can do a lot of obvious things. We like to look at ingredients in a different way.”
Schwartz’s buzz words are local, sustainable, and seasonal. At his restaurant, Michael’s Genuine Food and Drink, he employs a full-time forager to foster relationships with nearby farmers and source the best regional produce while they’re at their peak. “Farmers are good at growing stuff,” he explains, “but they are typically not good at selling.”
In citrus season, Schwartz’s cobia (a tropical fish) crudo comes topped with shimmering half moons of blood orange. Piled high in his kitchen are grapefruits with thin pink skins, each the weight of a little bomb. A disarmingly simple plate of heirloom tomatoes with locally grown basil and smoked sea salt turns out to be more succulent than a ripe peach. While his restaurant is frequently patronised by visiting celebrities (including First Lady Michelle Obama), Schwartz is all about taking his campaign to the streets, spreading his message through school projects and cofounding the Roots in the City Farmers Market. The scheme currently doubles the value of government food stamps given to low-income families when they buy locally grown fruit and vegetables. As Schwartz points out, more than 65 per cent of Miami’s residents were born outside of the US, “places where they’re used to picking their own.”
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Little Havana, the vibrant heart of Miami’s Cuban community. At a busy roadside stall, El Palacio de los Jugos, huge smooth-skinned avocados are as plump as they are green. Housewives fill their baskets with the snout-shaped roots yuca and malanga, or squeeze knobbly tropical fruit the size of a football. Behind the counter bunches of plantain are sliced and fried into crispy chip curls, called mariquitas. And of course there’s the Cuban mainstay, pork, served as succulent chunks marinated in sour orange and served with dark spoonfuls of Moros y Cristianos (Moors and Christians, meaning black beans and rice).
Grace Della, a guide who leads culinary tours of South Beach and Little Havana, tentatively holds out a plateful of something pale, lumpy
and deep-fried. Huevas de pargo.
“When Cubans think they are getting sick they get that,” Della says, holding her nose. “The eggs from red snapper, good for immunity.” To wash away the faintly metallic aftertaste she lines up a row of technicolour juices: white sugar cane, orange mamey fruit, milky guanabana.
While Little Italys and Chinatowns can often feel like urban theme parks, there is nothing inauthentic about Little Havana. Following the sound of gentle clacking will lead you to Maximo Gomez Park, better known locally as Domino Park, where silver-haired gentlemen wearing fedoras come to indulge in their native country’s favourite pastime. A hand-painted sign summarises the rules in Spanish: no swearing, no firearms, no gambling and strictly over-55s only. On 8th Street, cigar plumes swirl from the shop fronts (this is the place to buy your hand-rolled smokes) and inside the El Pub cafe old timers prop up the Formica counter, talking Castro and politics over thimbles of café Cubano. For the uninitiated, this sweet power hit is how Cubans take their coffee, an espresso brewed over sugar and shared between friends.
Miami’s later influx of immigrants from South America also had a hand in shaping the culinary landscape. Colombian-born Sam Gorenstein, chef de cuisine at South Beach restaurant BLT Steak, moved to Miami when he was 14. At the Casablanca Fish Market, a family-run outfit beside the Miami River, Gorenstein squats so he’s eye height with a snapper. He fans open its red gills and nods in approval. “In Colombia, as long as you have good fish and it’s super fresh, all you need is simple seasoning and that’s it.”
A spread of local catches reclines on the ice: mahi-mahi, stone crab and long kingfish with sharp, forked tails and pearl bellies. The decapitated head of a black grouper looks understandably grumpy. Gorenstein points out his favourite, a hog snapper with a distinct pout and a sophisticated palate. “These fish, they only eat lobsters and shrimp, their flesh is a beautiful white and really soft. It really does taste a bit of lobster; they’re great for ceviche.”
It’s mid-morning now, time for Gorenstein to hotfoot it to the restaurant. He offers a lift back to Miami Beach, where Ocean Drive has the familiarity of a music video on a loop – volleyballs still bouncing, sunbathers sunning, convertibles cruising. In the port, Goliathan ships anchor to unload their cargo of tourists. The very lucky ones have left their swimming costumes at home.
BLT Steak 1440 Ocean Drive; +1 305 673 0044. The menu at BLT Steak changes daily depending on the fresh local produce available.
Chalan on the Beach 1580 Washington Avenue; +1 305 532 8880. This reasonably priced Peruvian ceviche joint serves its marinated seafood in just three delightfully simple ways: plain, medium or hot. The suspiro a la Limeña dessert (which loosely translates as ‘a Lima woman’s sigh’) is a sticky a pot of caramel and meringue that is intended to make you do just that.
David’s Cafe 1058 Collins Avenue; +1 305 534 8736. A no-frills Cuban restaurant right on Miami Beach with a hole-in-the-wall counter that peddles huge Cubano sandwiches round the clock.
The Dynamo Food Factory & Café 1001 Washington Avenue; +1 305 535 1457. A bookish retreat from the beach, this tranquil daytime coffee and cupcake stop is hidden inside the Wolfsonian Museum’s gift shop.
El Pub 1548 SW 8th Street; +1 305 642 9942. A retro diner in the heart of Little Havana where the 83-year-old Cuban proprietor and local celebrity Heliodoro Coro can often be found at the coffee counter.
El Palacio de los Jugos 5721 W Flagler Street; +1 305 264 4557. This juice palace sells more than pressed guanabana and tropical shakes. With both pork and seafood counters, the bustling market is an iconic meeting point for the surrounding Latino community.
Gastropod Various location. Chef Jeremiah has transformed a vintage 1962 Airstream motor home into a gourmet meals on wheels. Miami’s most innovative arrival in the increasingly popular food truck scene, instead
of burgers and fries think confit chicken on French toast.
Joe’s Stone Crab 11 Washington Avenue; +1 305 673 0365. This oak-panelled restaurant has been a Miami stalwart since opening in 1913 as a small lunch counter. If you’re short of time, the self-service cafe next door has conch fritters, lobster rolls and, of course, succulent crabs, all ready to go.
La Sandwicherie 229 14th Street; +1 305 532 8934. Seating at this French sandwich bar is en plein air. A gentle mist sprinkling down from the green awning keeps customers cool while they snack on prosciutto and mozzarella baguettes, and sip Miami Sunset smoothies.
Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink 130 NE 40th Street; +1 305 573 5550. Tables are hard to come by at Michael Schwartz’s hip bistro, a celebrity hangout where the mantra is sustainable local produce, exquisitely prepared, in the heart of the gentrified design district.
Milani Gelateria 436 Espanola Way; +1 305 532 8562. Don’t be put off by the clinical interior; the gelato spinning in the futuristic chrome display wheel is staggeringly good. And best of all, it’s all made entirely from scratch on site using locally sourced ingredients.
Pubbelly 1418 20th Street; +1 305 532 755. The brick walls and low lighting give this Asian-inspired gastropub a distinctly New York vibe. A newcomer to Miami Beach, the restaurant’s pork belly slider, which zings with kimchee,
has already made Pubbelly a favourite hangout for local chefs.
Puerto Sagua Restaurant 700 Collins Avenue; +1 305 673 1115. An authentic Cuban cafe, popular with both locals and cocktail-lounge hoppers. The formica counter is the perfect spot for a cafe Cubano and a slice of tres leches.
Sustain Restaurant 3252 NE 1st Avenue; +1 305 424 9079. Upscale organic dining in the emerging Midtown district. The restaurant’s slick interior is sculpted from recycled aluminium and reclaimed wood. The signature
50 Mile Salad only includes ingredients that can be found within 50 miles of the kitchen door.
Versailles Restaurant 3555 SW 8th Street; +1 305 444 0240. Mirrored walls and glittering chandeliers are about the only things this rather misleadingly titled restaurant has in common with the 17th-century French château. In fact, it is home to every imaginable form of Cuban fare, and a longstanding favourite of local Cuban migrant families.
The Bar & Courtyard at The Setai 2001 Collins Avenue; +1 305 520 6700. From its Japanese water garden to the bar encrusted with mother-of-pearl, The Setai manages to be both chic and zen in equal measure. Asian-influenced cocktails speared with fragrant shards of lemongrass are as elegant as they are delicious.
The Florida Room at the Delano 1685 Collins Avenue; +1 305 672 2000. Lenny Kravitz and Jamie Foxx have both tickled the ivories of the Florida Room’s grand piano, and if you can make it past the white ropes and bouncers, this speakeasy is the place to see and be seen. Big-name DJs keep the scantily clad partiers happy till the early hours.
Mac’s Club Deuce 222 14th Street; +1 305 531 6200. A raucous dive bar with a rocking jukebox that makes for a pleasant change from the glitzy Collins Avenue lounges.
Skybar at the Shore Club 1901 Collins Avenue; +1 305 695 3100. Beyond floating white curtains, the Shore Club’s open-air bar has a Bedouin feel and candle-lit beds.
The Stage 170 NE 38th Street; +1 305 576 9577. Once the huge garage doors are rolled up, this is the place to catch live music in the Design District.
Ted’s Hideaway 124 2nd Street; +1 305 532 9869. A laid-back joint with a pool table and no dress code.
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden 10901 Old Cutler Road; +1 305 667 1651. Fairchild’s 83 verdant acres make a shady change from the bright dazzle of Miami Beach. Stroll past tropical plants, exotic fruit trees, a butterfly garden, oh, and a six-and-a-half-foot statue of a monkey – part of Fairchild’s acclaimed outdoor art gallery.
Miami Culinary Tours 1000 5th Street; +1 855 642 3663. These excellent foodie tours of Miami Beach and Little Havana offer a whistle-stop guide to the best of the city’s eateries, taking in everything from gourmet restaurants to holes in the wall. The well-versed guides also throw in plenty of interesting cultural and historical facts while you’re snacking on your mariquitas (plantain chips).
New World Centre 500 17th Street; +1 305 673 3330. Designed by ‘starchitect’ Frank Gehry, by day the New World Centre is a brand new campus for an orchestral academy. At night the dazzling white façade transforms into a vast projection wall, bringing free outdoor concerts, video art and film to the masses.
Roots in the City Farmers’ Market NW 2nd Avenue & 10th Street (Wednesdays, 11.30am–5pm), and NW 3rd Avenue & 16th Street (Thursdays, noon–4pm). Pick up your collard greens and heirloom tomatoes at this great not-for-profit community market where most of the huge range of organic produce is grown in nearby inner-city gardens.
Wolfsonian Museum 1001 Washington Avenue; +1 305 531 1001. Design lovers will be at home among this quirky museum’s collection of art deco artefacts, world’s fair memorabilia and transportation collectables (including a Leicester Square tube sign). It’s also home to America’s largest collection of political propaganda – ‘work means victory’! Unless you’re on holiday.
Wynwood Walls 2528 NW 2nd Avenue. International graffitists have transformed this edgy downtown area into a giant art canvas. From brick walls to shop fronts, surfaces of every kind are covered with the work of street artists such as Shepard Fairey and French mosaic maestro Invader.
Casablanca Fish Market 404 NW North River Drive; +1 305 371 4107. On the banks of the Miami River, this family-run fish market has been netting and selling fish to restaurants and locals or more than 20 years. The range
is diverse and always super-fresh.
Cuba Tobacco Cigar Company 1528 SW 8th Street; +1 305 649 2717. The silver-haired gentleman quietly puffing away outside this cigar shop is proprietor Don Pedro Bello Snr. Inside the shop his son, Pedro Bello Jnr, oversees a team of master rollers who deftly twist tobacco leaves (grown from Cuban seeds in the Dominican Republic) into the city’s best cigars.
Lincoln Road Outdoor Market 800–1000 Lincoln Road; antiquecollectiblemarket.com. Every second Sunday, bric-a-brac hunters throng to Miami’s main shopping road to rifle through antiques and cruise ship memorabilia. This is the place to find vintage sunglasses, swimming costumes and local craft as well as fresh fruit and veg.
Miami Design District NE 2nd Avenue and 39th Street; +1 305 531 8700. Whether it’s an Alvar Aalto stool you hanker after or a sleek Philippe Starck chair, you’ll find it in Miami’s increasingly polished design district.
The Betsy 1440 Ocean Drive; +1 305 531 6100. Amid all the art deco on Ocean Drive you can’t miss the stunning Betsy, with columns gracing her portico entrance and plantation-style shuttered windows that overlook the beach. This boutique hotel is steeped in old-fashioned Florida charm. Despite the busy oceanfront location, its whitewashed bedrooms are blissfully serene.
For more information on Miami, visit the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau website. In the UK, free visitor guides can also be requested by calling 020 7978 5233.