Miami food vendors

Miami’s South Beach Wine and Food Festival is an excellent event to add to your calendar, taking place every February.

Miami food vendors
Vendors generously serve flavorful tastes at colorful exhibits. (Photo by: Harrison Shiels)

Miami’s foodie frenzy is easily the most relaxed, fun, and diverse since it is situated right on the beach in between “Deco Drive” and the Atlantic Ocean.

Visitors to South Beach experience, at any time of day or night, a colorful carnival. A combination of natural beauty and decidedly unusual scenery basking in both the Florida sun on the beach and in the neon glow of Ocean Drive’s art deco, boutique hotels at the street-side cafes and nightclubs – where day drinking seems so simpatico with the scene.

I anticipated experiencing a couple of endless, epic days due to the timing of my weekend visit during the Food Network’s South Beach Wine and Food Festival – an annual showcase which resides in the celebrity culinary pantheon with similar events in Aspen and Pebble Beach each year. (I’ve been told Las Vegas fills out the finest food fest top-tier foursome, but I have never sampled the Glitter Gulch version.

I hear its venues are spread out and isolated by comparison.) Though the glamour at each these events is dished out in delicious dollops, Miami’s foodie frenzy is easily the most relaxed, fun, and diverse since it is situated right on the beach in between “Deco Drive” and the Atlantic Ocean. I, therefore, dipped in and out of all of it.

Miami beach festival week
Food and entertainment are what Miami Beach is all about – especially festival week! (Photo by: Harrison Shiels)

Morning in Miami

Former Miami mayor Manny Diaz, during a phone call a few days before I arrived, encouraged me to spend to spend some time on Miami’s mainland, too.

“I know that most tourists go to the beach. It’s the magnet. But truth be told there are a lot of great things happening in all of our neighborhoods,” Diaz told me. “In the Wynwood district there are hundreds of galleries and there are lots of young folks and people from all over the world. It’s pedestrian friendly, too and with our ‘Wynwood Walls’ you can see that some of the greatest mural artists in the world have done their work there. It’s a really cool place.”

That advice will be atop my list for my next visit (and there will be a next visit.) But as His Honor allowed, my morning did start on the beach – at sunrise – six stories below my room at the Cadillac Hotel and Beach Club. My stroll on the sand before first light revealed the day’s first curiosities, including some ocean olfactory sensations from a woman who sat in the sand in front of some sort of incense burner to welcome, if not worship, the rising sun.

In a more traditional scene, a father took a selfie with his child before the little boy urged him into the surf. “C’mon, dad…one…two…three!” he coaxed before jumping into the gentle waves headfirst. Father followed, dutifully diving, too. 

Miami beach sunrise
Sunrise at the beach is blissful before boisterous days! (Photo by: Harrison Shiels)

Poolside Positioning

With the sun safely above the eastern horizon I climbed up the boardwalk stairs and splashed down into the Cadillac Hotel’s big, warm pool to swim laps in order to build up some “calorie credits” for the adventures ahead. It was just after seven a.m., but Rina, the poolside attendant who had a greeting and smile as bright as that new sunrise, quickly made up a chase lounge for me nearest the pool steps. I was surprised how early she was on the job until, while swimming my laps, I saw what goes on just after dawn at a Miami Beach resort hotel pool: positioning. Breakfast can wait for the couples and families who crawled out of bed to head straight down to stake their poolside positions.

A potbellied father (mother must have been still slumbering since she surely was not making the hotel bed or pouring pancake batter at a luxury resort) led his three daughters in a line like little ducklings to the water. Dad and his bed-head hair were moving, not quickly, while his tiniest toddler was closest behind, skipping her way to their chaise lounge chairs. The second littlest girl was tumbling her way there under a mop of curls; while the oldest, at a much more serious age, minded her posture and swam alone at the far end of the pool.

Speaking of serious, a pair of first-time parents came next pushing a big stroller with a little boy, beach bag, and various layers of cover-ups and sunglasses. Rina was in for it this time because these parents picked out a chair after deliberating longer than most might take to select their child’s school district. Rina just smiled and I could hear her answering their questions about the expected position of the sun throughout the day…then she eventually set up a big umbrella for them anyway. It was the better part of an hour during my lap swimming before they finally settled in – just in time for the mother to go back upstairs and put a sweater on. I thought about my plans to experience the South Beach Wine and Food Festival that day as I looked at the child’s stroller and tried to imagine how many chicken fingers, Go-Gurts and Capri Sun drinks had been consumed and spilled on it. 

Cadillac Hotel and Beach Club
Cadillac Hotel and Beach Club’s warm, welcoming swimming pool. (Photo by: Harrison Shiels)

Where Do Celebrity Chefs Eat Lunch?

Once out of the pool and in motion, I paid a late-morning visit to my friends Brian Johnson and Ed Witte at the famed Joe’s Stone Crab Restaurant near the south end of Washington Street where tuxedoed waiters have been serving seafood and key lime pie to locals, tourists and high-powered glitterati for more than 100 years.

Johnson, the general manager, has been with Joe’s for 40 of those years, and Witte inherited the maître d’ position nine years ago upon the passing of Dennis Sutton, who’d worked at Joe’s for 30 years. Joe’s does not take reservations, so the heart-skipping joy the sound of voice Witte’s voice calling their names over the loudspeaker brings to those waiting their turn for a table, many at the bar or in the open-air courtyard, is inestimable. “Goldberg…party of four. Goldberg…party of four.” Custom has it that after savoring the world’s most satisfying seafood experience the savviest diners show their appreciation to Witte and the staff via a “folded-currency handshake” …on their way out. 

Festival or not, one does not come to South Beach (or even Miami-Dade County) without kissing the ring, cracking a crab, and gliding a fork through a cold piece of secret recipe key lime pie. 

Joe’s seasonal feeding frenzy in its classical, comfortable, old Florida dining rooms serves traditional favorites to 2,000 diners each night, but it was calmer that day at lunchtime so Johnson took me on a stroll through the back of the house – which was operating like a factory but clean as a whistle. Over the sound and fury of kitchen staffers all in white hammering away – literally – to crack stone crab claws for hungry diners, we chatted for a bit with Andre Bienvenu, Joe’s executive chef for the past 18 years. He mentioned that a group of the Food Network celebrity chefs in town for the South Beach Wine and Food Festival came to Joe’s for lunch the previous day. Imagine cooking for a table which included Michael Symon, Giada De Laurentiis, Guy Fieri, Rachel Ray, Robert Irvine, and others?

“Chef Bobby Flay organizes the lunch every year. It’s very flattering because they only have one opportunity to take in a lunch together while they are working the festival…and they choose to meet here,” said Bienvenu.

The food industry nationwide pays homage to the allure and substance of Joe’s. Johnson told me a top chicken industry CEO regularly rides the Brightline train down from Palm Beach for meals at Joe’s and is enamored with the restaurant’s historic legacy.

“He told me he really wanted us to serve his Bell and Evans organic, farm-raised, antibiotic-free, air-chilled chicken at Joe’s,” Johnson explained. “I told him by tradition we insist on offering a fried ½ chicken item on the menu for only $6.95, and therefore we could not afford the chicken he wholesales. He answered, ‘But I’d really be proud to have my chicken in here. Let me figure something out.’”

So, Joe’s $6.95 fried chicken is the best quality fried chicken you’ll ever find at that price…in the world.

Johnson also introduced me to Jose Uchuya, who now manages Joe’s elaborate, next-door “Take Away” shop after decades in various capacities at Joe’s. Despite his long tenure and management position, and the fact his wife Jessica is a fifth-generation member of Joe’s founding Weiss family, the young cash register operator called Uchuya to attention when he was needed at the counter to fulfill a key lime pie order.

“Pepe!” she snapped. 

He quickly got the pie and smiled. “They call me ‘Pepe.’ And I do anything needed.”

Even Johnson refers to himself as Joe’s “chief cook and bottle washer,” and when I visited him on a Sunday, when the restaurant is closed until dinnertime, there he was in bleached-stained converse shoes and casual clothes overseeing deep cleaning and carrying a carton of fresh basil.

Joe's Stone Crab
Joe’s Stone Crab is a food industry institution as is its maître’d Ed Witte, seen here with Michael Patrick Shiels. (Photo by: Harrison Shiels)

The Grand Tasting’s Tent City

I then walked a block from Joe’s past the Nikki Beach nightclub and onto the sand to stroll north to the South Beach Wine and Food Festival’s Grand Tasting. I took in some of the scenery along the way. South Beach’s “day life” is what you’d expect on that strand of sand and surf. I saw everything from topless Europeans; to couples cooing on towels; to a bodybuilder doing handstands beside kids building sandcastles during my walk. Maybe my favorite mental snapshot was a young woman sitting alone on Miami Beach at midday reading a book called The Art of Not Giving a F*ck. It seemed to me, given the location and her relaxed posture, that she had a pretty good start on the book’s premise.

Eventually I saw what others might have mistaken to be a mirage – the temporary tent city set up for the South Beach Wine and Food Festival’s afternoon Grand Tasting. I showed my ticket and was immediately showered with bites, sips, and high-end trinkets, including a painted-logo wine glass on a ribbon to wear around your neck for hands-free bite sampling. And there was plenty of that at many elaborate food stations staged throughout a series of tents and open-air displays.     

In between the swigs and samples, I encountered large tented stages and video screens showing the live, non-stop cooking seminars and book-signings by the various celebrity chefs. Another tent featured a stage with synchronized dancing girls promoting an energy drink called “Bang!” Jägermeister Cold Brew has two types of models on display: spokesmodels pouring shots…and an orange sports car. The Silver Patron margaritas were nearby, as were exotic flavors of La Croix sparkling water for those who chose not to imbibe. For those who did there were plenty of winemakers on hand including reds from Israel.

Restaurant Impossible’s host Robert Irvine sat on a stool with a handheld microphone at the elaborate Coca-Cola display chatting with – and cajoling (playfully) – the crowd.

The chefs weren’t the only celebrities on hand. “Breaking Bad” co-stars Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul showed up to tout their Dos Hombres Mezcal Artesanal – which blended well with their television show’s south of the border cartel capers.  Otherwise it was a place for people to be photographed tasting their first Aperol Spritz or Belvedere Blackberry Collins – the vodka mixed with fresh lemon juice, ginger beer, and blackberry garnish. The Red Stripe Jamaican beer display presented an oversized red Adirondack chair for photo posing; Ms. Cheezious served an old-fashioned melt: Havarti cheese and bourbon infused honey on bitters buttered orange zest bread (say that three times fast!)

Robert Irvine Restaurant Impossible
Robert Irvine, television host of “Restaurant Impossible,” was very accessible. (Photo by: Harrison Shiels)

A Beach Ball and Burger Bash

The previous night the South Beach Wine and Food Festival displayed “gourmet diversity” by scheduling its “Burger Bash” contest on the beach at the same time as its top-end Wine Spectator “Best of the Best” event up the beach at the famed Fountainbleau Hotel.

Rachel Ray served as Burger Bash emcee. Lansing, Michigan-based Kewpee’s, a tiny, 97-year old family restaurant, pulled an upset with its olive burger and won the $2,500 first prize.

“I was beyond honored we were invited to be involved in this event. I didn’t realize at first how prestigious it was because we are a small ‘mom and pop’ shop from Lansing,” said Autumn Weston, this generation’s owner and manager of Kewpee’s. “We had the time of our lives there. It was the hardest work and most fun my sisters and I and Tammy, who has been with us for more than 30 years, ever had.”

The Wine Spectator “Best of the Best” was a very different affair – a glamorous upscale event without a burger to be found throughout the Fountainbleau, the star-studded, historic hotel with its famed “staircase to nowhere.” No, this strolling festival tasting event in the ballroom was instead all caviar, foie gras, lamb chops, sushi, lamb chops burrata and brie washed down with sips of Stags Leap, Far Niente, Caymus, The Calling and champagne prepared and poured at stands surrounding a jazz band and vocalist. The dessert room was full of tawny ports, flavored gelato, and decorative piles of rainbow macaroons.   

The yearly festival features many other events and themed parties.

Fountainbleau Best of the Best
The “Best of the Best” event at the famed Fountainbleau was sweet. (Photo by: Harrison Shiels)

Deco Drive Through Delicacies

It’s all eye candy on Ocean Drive near the grand tasting tent. During a break from the Grand Tasting Saturday afternoon I, with a stogie bought on the sidewalk, strolled “Deco Drive” taking in the human fireworks of colorful people speaking various languages in audacious clothing with parrots on their shoulders and roller skates on their feet. Wet Willie’s sells a frozen drink from a machine called “Call a Cab” (which I suppose should be updated to “Click up an Uber.”) Menu-clutching chicas called out to passersby inviting them in for Cuban cuisine, Arabian hookahs, and giant frozen daiquiris with longneck beer bottles stuck in them.

Just down from the former Versace mansion – now a boutique hotel called Villa Casa Casuarina, the open-air, poolside Clevelander bar is the most eclectic and stylish example of art deco design on Ocean Drive. It’s on the corner across from the funky, artsy Art Deco Gift Shop along the grassy Lummus Park next to the iconic Miami Beach time and temperature clock seen in so many social media selfies. The Clevelander is beside the Breakwater Hotel, a perfect example of classic beach boutique digs.

The two most colorful sidewalk bars on Ocean Drive are within blocks of each other: The Palace and Mango’s Cuban Café – and my Saturday afternoon walk was perfectly timed, by chance, to see them each in full force.

The Palace features joyful, extravagant drag shows right on the sidewalk as dancers delight those seated and those passing by based on the smiles and cheering I saw and heard as I stopped to watch two of the dancers in ball gowns (pardon the pun) and sometimes less in broad daylight. Before their dances, which sometimes include acrobatics, are over, they sashay through the crowd collecting tips and passing out kisses.

“I don’t even know what I just saw!” the very heterosexual man standing next to me exclaimed. “He was beautiful!”

Those who have seen the Robin Williams/Nathan Lane movie “Birdcage” have an idea of the mirth involved.

Mango’s Cuban Café, a couple blocks to the south, may be more conventional, but is also not for shrinking violets. An explosion of live music and bar-top salsa dancers shake and spin in skintight, tasteful costumes in a faux but lush tropical setting. Muy Caliente!

Bienvenido a Miami, indeed!

Palace Bar Miami drag
Palace Bar’s sidewalk drag show is a big hit with attendees and passersby; as are the more traditional dance shows at Mango’s Cuban Café. (Photo by: Harrison Shiels)

Contact Travel Writer Michael Patrick Shiels at [email protected] 

Michael Patrick Shiels

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