Last time I drove in from Miami International Airport, it meant traveling in a bulletproof rental car with a loaded .45 in the glove compartment while keeping a gimlet eye on road signs to the beach or else risking going the way of those carjacked Germans and any other tourist who underestimated this city’s predatory nature. Six years ago, South Beach was the renovated Raleigh Hotel, a couple of dingy nightclubs, and a lot of Art Deco crack houses. All that has changed now – the crack houses are swank hotels again – but the amazing thing about this sandy stretch of landfill is that whether you were here five years or five months ago, everything seems new again. Everything except that frisson of danger, the thrill you get from visiting a boomtown on the frontier of hip and hype, where every block is under construction and the air has the clean smell of new – or freshly laundered – money. “This is the most unprecedented phenomenon in real estate in the last hundred years,” says SoHo developer Tony Goldman, who got in twelve years ago. Chris Paciello, one of the big club-owner prospectors, puts it more bluntly: “It’s like the Wild West.” There’s an ocean somewhere around here, too.
Like its history, the geography of cool in South Beach is in constant flux. The parameters are tiny – three avenues deep and barely a dozen streets long, an area no bigger than Chelsea. Everything is a $5 cab ride away. Ocean Drive, with its blaring Bleecker Street-style tourist traps and rubberneckers videotaping themselves in front of Versace’s house, is over. Collins, one back from the beachfront, is the new Ocean, dense with chic hotels like the Delano and retail meccas (Laundry Industry, Armani). Behind Collins is Washington, where Liquid and other clubs stop traffic every weekend. Lengthwise, the strip runs from 17th Street (the Raleigh) to 5th (China Grill). The wasteland south of 5th has just started to attract developers and already has a cutesy nickname, SoFi.
The exception to the Ocean Drive rule is the Tides, Chris Blackwell’s luxe beachfront property. With its imposing, high bleached façade, it looks more like a nursing home than like any of the retro-Deco hotels. The lobby and rooms have some of the same modern white-on-white Philippe Starckness as the Delano, but without the eccentric accessories.
When the bellman takes me up to the “Goldeneye” suite, I am both shaken and stirred by the expansive ocean view, the two baths, the jacuzzi on the balcony, the telescope by the window. The Goldeneye goes for $800 a night in season, but the regular $350 rooms have almost all the same amenities, minus the jacuzzi and extra bath. All have an ocean view. A horizontal mirror hung with a strategic view of the mahogany bed is more Austin Powers than 007, but why not? There is something voyeuristically shagadelic about South Beach. I immediately get down to work. Incredible how much detail one of these ‘scopes can pick up. All the casual toplessness on the beach must be a function of the Euro invasion. That one looks French, maybe Italian … After a few hours of grueling reportage, I realize I’m late for a drink at Red Square. Trends arrive a little late in these parts; the wacky Soviet nostalgia craze that swept Manhattan a few years ago is just catching on. In protest, I order a French vodka and wait for my local guides to make contact.
Hardly anybody’s here. Okay, 7:30 is early, especially in Miami, where savvy night creatures don’t dine before eleven or club before two. A few blinis later, Jacquelynn Powers, social columnist for Ocean Drive magazine, shows up, followed by Michael Landau, a compact repository of information and cheerfulness. Both are New Yorkers. Powers is 25, Landau 26. In the Logan’s Run world that is South Beach, nobody is over 30. We agree that Red Square is beat and head to Joia for dinner, where I receive my indoctrination in The Scene from Paciello. He, too, is a transplanted New Yorker: Brooklyn and Staten Island. Ethnically speaking, there are a lot more Tony Maneros than Tony Montanas in South Beach.
Now 26, Paciello started out as Ingrid Casares’s partner in the club Liquid. They’ve just opened Joia. We’re sitting in the back, the VIP zone. Paciello surveys the room. Sex, he explains, is the region’s natural resource (though others will tell you it’s the modeling and music industries), and your ability to enjoy or exude sex will pretty much define any lost weekend in South Beach.
Somebody at our table says South Beach is like the Love Boat. There are the regulars, and every week you get guest stars. No serious royalty on hand tonight, though Ingrid’s pal Madonna is a likely future sighting. Among the luminaries, the editor of a local glossy magazine sits surrounded by models, or model wannabes. The unshaven rag-headed guy with them? “That’s his pimp,” Paciello says matter-of-factly, adding, “It’s very forgiving down here.”
A wall of Latino muscle stands between the entrance to Liquid and the sea of desperate humanity begging to get inside. Liquid is 23,000 square feet of chest-pounding techno, hip-hop, and loungecore. Liza Minnelli has likened it to Studio 54 because of the VIP bar’s glass-walled view of the dance floor. Downstairs, in the mellower Liquid Lounge, club kids give way to club adults. Liquid will open a New York edition in the Flatiron district this year, if the neighbors allow it. I couldn’t get out fast enough.
In Landau’s black Land Rover, we make our way across town to Jimmy’z, which is on 41st Street but still considered part of the South Beach circuit. Everybody calls Jimmy’z “Regine’s,” after the legendary disco doyenne who took it over six months ago. It’s members-only, but Landau has a “founders card,” and any resourceful concierge should be able to get you in. With its disco balls and pure-seventies soundtrack, Regine’s is a time warp favored by Eurotrash and Miami money. “This is a place for people who want to be pampered,” says Shareef Malnik, Regine’s partner. At 38, Malnik is one of the grand old men of the beach. “The mayor,” his friend Paciello calls him, an interesting piece of local color, not merely because his real name happens to be Mark. (He changed it for his second wife, an Arab princess.) The suave, pencil-mustached young swell took over the family-owned restaurant, the Forge, and turned it around from a tired institution into a hot spot as popular with Michael Douglas as with Michael Jordan, not to mention the women drawn by such men. “There’s, like, so much plastic surgery going on in there,” says Jacquelynn Powers of the Forge on its hot night, Wednesday. “You’ve never seen so many fake breasts in your life.”
At the moment, no breasts are on display because, at 2 a.m., the Forge is empty and dark. We sneak in through the “secret” hallway that adjoins Regine’s and Malnik’s restaurant. He flips on a few lights to show off his ornate, high-ceilinged main dining room. Without much prompting, he offers a tour of the wine cellar, where a bottle of 1822 Château Lafite-Rothschild lies quietly awaiting the big-time oenophile willing to part with $150,000. Tragically, Malnik can’t find his key, so we don’t actually get to see the antique bordeaux. He apologetically offers a few X-rated tales of friends who have enjoyed the privacy of the cellar for purposes other than wine-tasting.
Al Capone called South Beach “the sunny Italy of the New World.” He sat out the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre here. This was a guy who understood the need for stress management. I resolve to take his cue. When my companion for the weekend arrives from New York, we make for the sea, a hundred yards in front of the Tides’ front door. I crack open Miami Beach: A History, by Howard Kleinberg: “Motion pictures were being filmed amid the coconut trees of the young city and seaplanes carrying tourists were a regular sight flying overhead and landing in the ocean.” That was 75 years ago. No more seaplanes, but motion pictures have returned – Cameron Diaz, Matt Dillon, and Ben Stiller are shooting one at the moment – and Miami Beach is still as young as it was then. It’s just been around longer.
And it keeps reinventing itself. Take Lincoln Road. A pedestrian thoroughfare just this side of 17th Street, Lincoln was rejuvenated when a couple of millionaire arts patrons shepherded some real estate into the hands of local artists, who paved the way for the gentrified mall of coffee houses, restaurants, and galleries it is today. There’s a Lucky Cheng’s but no Starbucks or Gap. We walk by Michael Caine’s South Beach Brasserie, opting for a newer eatery at the other end of the beach: Big Pink.
It’s a large, Jetsons-style diner on Collins’s new frontier south of 5th. the outside tables at Big Pink are populated by affectless refugees from the fashion fringe. The “TV dinner” on the menu sounds too gross, but the polenta fries are addictive and the orange-and-beet salad is a juicy confection of citrus and savory. The place belongs to Myles Chefetz, who made Nemo one of the few successful combinations of scene and cuisine on the beach. After a pit stop at the new Cynthia Rowley store on 8th Street, we make our way back to the Tides to dress – or, as is the custom in these parts, undress – for dinner at Nemo.
We’ve been invited to a party for High Voltage, an alarmingly cheerful trainer to the stars, in Nemo’s pretty front courtyard, which sits under the protective sprawl of an 80-year-old pigeon plum tree. Frightened by Ms. Voltage’s high-impact energy level, we retreat indoors to the soft yellow light of the illuminated ostrich eggs on the bar. “I felt there was a big void down here,” Chefetz says. “The focus was all on hype. There weren’t really a lot of food services. Prices were high, with a lot of attitude but no hospitality.”
We end up sitting at a small table, away from La Voltage and her entourage, with Robert and Tanya Strong. They arrived from Dallas in September to open White, a salon in a beautiful little coral house on Collins formerly occupied by Oribe. “The service here sucks!” Robert laments. As if on cue, our busboy tries for the second time to remove Tanya’s dinner plate prematurely. When one of us politely complains, the busboy-model turns on his heel and stage-whispers, “Whatever!” After dinner, we head outside for a cab and see an EMS truck and police car across the street. A woman is down, stabbed by a mugger, a sobering reminder that South Beach is wild in good ways and bad.
To recover from the trauma of the previous night – the stabbing, the busboy – we spend the next day drying out on Fisher Island (see sidebar) and the evening at Tantra, a sort of theme restaurant for the erotic gourmand. There’s a grass floor – real grass, like, growing in the earth – and fiber-optic “stars” in the ceiling. A photographer named Evi table-hops with a camera, offering kinky photo shoots in a back room stocked with costumes – and a bed.
“There are only two activities that use all your senses at once: eating and making love,” says co-owner Tim Hogle, who has been practicing dentistry and meditation for twenty years. “So we wanted to combine them.” From 26-year-old chef Michael Jacobs’s oyster appetizer to the flawlessly cooked steak and truffle mashed potatoes, this is the culinary climax of the trip, and a tough act to follow. A quick drink at the Delano doesn’t live up: The lobby has a cheesy, touristy vibe. (I know I am one, but I don’t want to be reminded of it.) Lucky 13, a dark, multiroom dance club-lounge in the basement of the Shelbourne, isn’t much better. I sense a Causeway element, the local equivalent of Bridge & Tunnel, maybe sniffing around for a brush with co-owner Traci Lords. Chaos, a brand-new New York import with separate civilian and VIP entrances, is supposedly jammed much of the week: Tonight it’s empty and smells vaguely of vomit.
I’d been told that all roads lead to Groove Jet, the latest of the late-night scenes, and it does not disappoint. Next to a gas station in the middle of nowhere, Groove is the flagship club from the people who brought you Jet Lounge and all the other assorted Manhattan and Hampton Jets. Sunday at Groove is the Church, a weekly party for “gravers” – Goth rave kids in flowing black Lestat getups and Elizabethan collars, exuding deep melancholia. Their enthusiasm, visible under even the most wan and pallid visage, is catching. The music, which the D.J. tells me is “classic alternative,” is Sex Pistols, R.E.M., extremely danceable. If you have a Goth fetish, or even if you don’t, this may be the most fun you can have without actually being dead.
For my last night, I move to the Hotel Astor, an immaculate hideaway tucked all the way back on Washington. You can see why celebs would dig this place. It’s cool, efficient, inconspicuous but not too. I have a drink with Karim Masri, the urbane 25-year-old owner. By the pool outside the hotel’s superb restaurant, this scion of an extremely wealthy Lebanese family tells me how “this young entrepreneurial culture doesn’t exist anywhere else except Seattle and Silicon valley, only here it’s not tech-based, it’s real-estate-based.” He reduced the number of rooms by a third and made them jewel boxes of earth-toned Deco-contempo design (at $295 for a junior suite, it’s also cheaper than the Delano). “Everything’s on dimmer,” he adds, proud of the mood lighting his guests can enjoy. After four days with all your lights on, there are no more soothing words.