Welcome to Miami…Thank You for Coming. Thankfully, No One Has Stopped the Carnival.
Nobody likes to see a toothless tiger or a declawed lion, and so it was with trepidation that I returned to the human carnival known as Miami’s South Beach. As someone who needs a regular SoBe fix I was fearful I would find “Deco Drive” depleted and defeated during the pandemic with darkened neon and dampened spirits.
But I remember on several occasions seeing a subdued Sinatra sing off a teleprompter by necessity, and just being in the room with “Ol’ Blue Eyes was still, “Frankly,” a thrill, so I took a Delta flight down to Miami and set out on a sunny Sunday morning to renew acquaintances.
From a Cadillac to a Bicycle
The last hotel I stayed in before the pandemic quarantines in March of 2020 was the Cadillac Hotel and Beach Club, a stylish Autograph Collection boutique property on Collins Avenue, so it seemed proper to make my Miami return there. It pairs its upscale, art deco design with a European flavor, literally, since its foodservice and restaurant, Donna Mare, are operated by Chef Manuel Mattei from Northern Italy’s Lombardy Region of Milan and Lake Como fame.
The Cadillac Hotel’s bar and lounge is so snazzy it gets a cadre of locals for craft cocktails and conversation.
I awakened to natural light by letting the morning’s first rays flood my east-facing, beachfront, eighth-floor room. I stumbled from the sheets to my balcony where I sat to see the sunrise over the resort’s swimming poolside cabanas and two inactive luxury cruise ships moored offshore.
They floated under an Atlantic sky that went from dark to deep blue before a palette of purple, pink, and finally orange before a cloudless aquamarine sky set in for the day.
After some laps in the Cadillac Hotel’s long, warm pool, I rewarded myself with a cappuccino and “sunshine bowl” of mango, pineapple, strawberry, organic yogurt, granola, chia, and honey in Donna Mare’s street-side patio.
Both the breakfast and aquatic exercise gave me the energy to hop on one of the bicycles the hotel makes available right at the top of the front steps. I pedaled away the calories on an all-day expedition that started south on busy Collins Ave. but quickly diverted onto the paved pathway for bikers, joggers, walkers and rollerbladers that stretches through the scenery between the backs of the hotels and the ocean all the way down to its’ end at First Street Beach.
Traditional Restaurant Improvises and Adapts
Cappuccino and chia will only take a stomach so far, so when three miles on the bicycle put me in the vicinity of 108-year-old Joe’s Stone Crab Restaurant, I put the kickstand decidedly down.
Joe’s is a tuxedoed, white table-clothed, iconic institution – a tourist attraction where diners can check out celebrities cracking crab claws. Part of the reason for Joe’s longevity is in its ability to maintain its historic feel while innovating, which I noticed when pedaling up on Collins at South Pointe from behind its Washington Ave. valet entrance, was still happening.
I laid eyes on “Joe’s Backyard” – a tented dining room for those who prefer an open-air setting and to accommodate customers due to the temporary limited, spaced, indoor dining. I admired the manner in which the new outdoor area with its little touches was presented with the same dignity and welcoming elegance the main restaurant experience has always offered.
Weathering and Welcoming – Joe’s Cares and Creates
Joe’s, even as a seasonal eatery, is the annually the highest-grossing independent restaurant in America and it remains essentially a family business. Founder Joe Weiss’ great Stephen Sawitz and his mother Jo Ann Bass, along with general manager Brian Johnson, have, with care and creativity, preserved the Joe’s juggernaut. Recognizing Joe’s leadership role in the local community Johnson has mobilized the claws for charitable efforts including personally delivering meals to front-line health care workers.
In addition to Joe’s Backyard, for the first time, Joe’s is taking some online reservations but traditional walk-ups are still welcomed. Joe’s famed maître d Ed Witte, in typical times, manages to seat 500 diners at a time four times a night, so Johnson and his team have thoughtful stenciled spacing spots on the sidewalk six-feet apart to steer potential cues of customers.
While Witte is usually the front-line star of the show, at present those entering now first encounter a similarly tuxedoed new greeter at Joe’s: the man at the front door providing each guest entering with a squeeze of sanitizer. The reason he does it is obviously a downer, but he applied it on my hands with good cheer, a greeting and a definite smile under his mask.
Cheers to Joe’s
I was in early for lunch – 11:30 a.m., and so was seated immediately inside – which was my preference – because to me going to Joe’s is like going home. I felt guilty, under the circumstances, taking a table as a solo, but Leighton, my waiter, would hear none of it and treated me with a skilled, sincere tableside manner performance of both enthusiasm and efficiency.
I commenced the meal with my usual celebratory split of champagne.
“Every time I come to Joe’s it’s a celebration,” I explained to Leighton while lifting my flute of sparkling Moet in toast. Crab bisque; a crab cake appetizer; and a half-order of hashed brown potatoes followed. Don’t worry, I didn’t forget the customary and cherished key lime pie: I decided to consume that celebrated confection next door at Joe’s Stone Crab Take Away, the gorgeous gourmet store where you order from the counter and can then eat on-premise if you prefer.
People were eating at first-come, first-served at sidewalk tables, patio tables, indoor dining tables and a horseshoe-shaped, marble bar. A masked man named Manny was handing out towelettes and keeping the tables and chairs as clean as a whistle. He was the kind of guy who whistled while he worked – figurately: friendly and fun. The Miami Dolphins were playing on the television so we made banter about the game and I noticed a table of four toting luggage.
“You’d be surprised how many vacationers want to squeeze in one last visit to Joe’s before they head to the airport,” Manny said. “Sometimes we get so many bags we have to store them in the private room for people.”
Shopping and Shipping at Joe’s
Joe’s Take Away has souvenir items, logoed apparel, cookbooks, and other treats including entire key lime pies. Jose Uchuya operates Joe’s Take Away and he was moving like a spinning top answering the phone, and handing out orders right next to a glass-front counter through which people can see and hear the crab claws being hammered and cracked. Unflappable Uchuya, known as “Pepe,” oversees an operation that overnights ordered packaged meals and pies throughout the United States and Puerto Rico every day.
“Welcome back,” Uchuya called over to me in between calls before he slid over to the drink station to serve a swell.
“I’ve never seen you so busy, Pepe!”
“Be sure to tell Brian,” he joked.
In a pandemic preference era of carry out, Joe’s was already perfectly prepared to provide.
Day Drinking on Deco Drive
My next stop was the sizzling stretch of Ocean Drive sometimes called “Deco Drive,” the street between the beach and a strip of boutique hotels, bars, restaurants, and shops populated by sidewalk verandas serving margaritas so large they have beer bottles and test-tube tequila chilling in them; cigar-selling senoritas with large…smiles; and the sounds of loud Latin and halting hip-hop music scoring the surreal scene.
Thankfully no one had stopped the carnival. South Beach was still as reassuringly strange as ever. In fact, Ocean Drive was closed to the usual traffic of exotic luxury cars and jacked-up or low riding muscle cars – or the occasional out of place mini-vans – that typically cruise past the Clevelander, News Café, Wet Willies, the Versace Mansion, Breakwater Hotel, and other classic spots for sipping and sightseeing on the strip.
One current casualty is Mango’s Cuban Café which even from the sidewalk, for 29 years, is typically fun out front with salsa dancers, live music, parrots on shoulders and a vibrant rainforest setting. At present, Mango’s is not only temporarily closed but literally shuttered with the entire front entrance covered by a wood barrier.
“We shall reopen to sing, dance, and entertain again when we are permitted to do so…” a posted sign reads. The eventual return of Mango’s is a relief because, to me, with its swirling painted walls, neon accents, bands, bar-top dancers and lollipop drinks, it is as important to South Beach as Joe’s…in its own way.
Convenient and Complimentary Entertainment
If you plan to spend the day gawking and walking the street closure makes cycling up or strolling up and down amidst the drinkers and bikini-clad crowd especially easy and people-watching without parking perfect.
And people-watching there was, to be sure. I will share some snapshots with you:
-The Palace continues its jaw-dropping, smile-inducing tradition of dancers in drag gyrating and cartwheeling through the crowd on its sidewalk stage. It’s sassy and bawdy and pure South Beach.
-I sat on the stone wall lining Lummus Park between the beach and Ocean Drive right near the landmark South Beach Clock Tower bearing the time and temperature many tourists take selfies in front of. There are clean, accessible public restrooms behind the adjacent Art Deco Gift Shop, so a lot of people pass by there.
The foot traffic was a treasure for an old man with gray dreadlocks who’d decided that day to dress as a pirate, sit on the wall and startle passers-by with loud pirate cries of “Arrghh!” In between sips of liquor from a bagged booty bottle the pirate also growled, depending on who passed, an off-color compliment or cajoling comment. Most women screamed, laughed, or took his zaniness in stride and kept on striding.
At the shoreline I spotted another dreadlocked person, this time a woman, dancing languidly knee-deep in the splashing surf while a friend of hers took pictures and videos of her. She seemed stylish with her long, animal print cover-up dipping into the saltwater sea.
Eventually, I noticed the black shirt and shorts she wore under the coverup, exposed in the front, had a message. The shirt read, in white letters, “I “words “F*ck” and “Off.”
-A much more welcoming tone was struck by the sweet woman who stood on Ocean Drive in front of a Mexican restaurant called Jalapeno. The outdoor, street-side seating was surrounded by purple lights and the woman’s attitude was just as colorful. Instead of coaxing people to come in for a drink or check out the menu (as many of the greeters on Ocean Drive are paid to to), she simply chose to call out to all the passersby by saying: “Welcome to Miami Beach. Thank you for coming!”