The Magic City - Miami Beach
When I saw that Starz had created a television series that takes place in Miami Beach back in the late 1950s called Magic City, I was thrilled. The series is showcasing some of the wonderful old hotels on Miami Beach and shows a glamorous side to Miami Beach that devotees of Burn Notice might not see. (Burn Notice is a modern day series which takes place in and around Miami Beach and can be seen on USA or reruns sometimes on CLOO.) Of course, it also shows the influence of the criminal element on the rising business of Miami Beach, but anyone familiar with the history of this City knows that Miami Beach was founded by gamblers, organized crime and profiteers. Who else would come here in the early 1900s before the advent of air conditioning?
I came to Miami Beach on vacation as a child in the early 1960s and remember the glamour surrounding the Jackie Gleason Theater/Show, the race track and the family owned hotels that dotted the Beach at that time. In 1973 I returned for a brief vacation, and of course nothing was the same. In 1983 I came to live and work in the Miami area, ultimately settling on Miami Beach where I have lived for the past 25 years, and I've watched Miami Beach transform itself during that time from a dirty, seedy community with beachfront hotels filled with $5 hookers and dime bag drug dealers and bolita runners to a vibrant, glamorous community which routinely plays host to movie stars, musicians, national political figures, and captains of industry in sunlit hotels and stately private homes; which hosts the Wine and Food Festival which draws foodies from all over the world; hosts Art Basel bringing in artists and art lovers from across the globe; and hosts The International Boat Show.
It has been quite a turnaround for a community whose streets 25 years ago would have been unsafe to walk even during the day.
What To Do?
The obvious lure of Miami Beach is its stretch of soft white sand, warm ocean breezes, moderate temperature of the ocean during most of the year, and the sun. You can spread your towel or fold-up aluminum beach chairs and luxuriate in these natural bounties or you can stay in a beachfront hotel which offers umbrellas and beach lounge chairs with drink service or a cabana. Both tourists are going to have the same experience of the sun, water, and ocean breeze.
But what about after you have exhausted yourself sunning on the beach and frolicking in the waves?
Slowly, nearly every top designer has established a presence on Miami Beach with little shops within walking distance of the waves. Armani, Kenneth Cole, Ralph Lauren, Urban Outfitters, Barneys and Zara are all now represented on Miami Beach within 2 blocks of Ocean Drive from 6th Street on the southern end to 17th on the northern end. You are a short drive from Bal Harbour Shops which have Neiman Marcus and Saks, as well as high end jewelry stores.
Emerging designers are also gravitating to Miami Beach and several seasons ago one of the finalists on Project Runway, Uli Herzner, was a Miami Beach resident. While she did not win, her fashions all reflected the wonderfully colorful/casual lifestyle that is the quintessential Miami Beach experience. She still lives and designs on Miami Beach - I saw her a couple of months back at Whole Foods shopping like a local.
After sun and fun, and shopping, take a stroll on the Lincoln Road Mall, which is now a pedestrian mall running east to west from Washington Avenue to Alton Road. There are loads of shops and restaurants although the days of funky antique shops are long gone.
The Wolfson Museum on Washington has rotating exhibits and there is usually something interesting relevant to the history of Miami Beach.
The Holocaust Memorial on the corner of Dade Boulevard and Meridian Avenue is deceptively beautiful and a powerful reminder to never forget the horrors of the Holocaust - as you work your way through the Memorial it feels like a punch in the gut because it's so serene, so peaceful, yet so filled with horror of what was but it's important to see it. Pictures will not suffice.
Miami Beach has probably the greatest collection of Art Deco hotels and buildings per square mile than any other place on the planet. There are walking tours, but even without a tour, a walk down Collins Avenue, Washington Avenue and the side streets will show great examples of the architectural style. If you see one that has a bar, pop in and have a drink and picture yourself there at the height of the Art Deco period. It won't be difficult, I promise.
Foodies have learned that Miami Beach is an amazing place to experience all sorts of foods and food styles. The Wine and Food Festival has simply elevated the "foodie" profile of Miami Beach.
Of course, nearly everyone has heard of Joe's Stone Crabs which occupies a spot on the southernmost tip of Miami Beach, south of the MacArthur Causeway (a man-made land bridge from mainland Miami to the barrier island which is Miami Beach). It opened in 1913 as a basic sandwich shop serving fresh fish sandwiches to working people but in 1921 the owner of Joe's and a local businessman discovered that the crabs which were plentiful in the bay were not only edible, but delicious and so a legend began. http://www.joesstonecrab.com/history/intro.html
The wait for a table at Joe's is likewise legendary so locals became accustomed to ordering and picking up food literally from the back door. In 1987, Joe's opened a small area for locals to have a more civilized way to get take-out, and they called it Joe's Take Away. If you want to eat at Joe's, go to the Take Away side and pick up dinner to eat back at your hotel or stay and eat at some of the bistro style tables on the Take Away side. I cannot understand why anyone would wait an hour or two just for a table for dinner on the restaurant side when the Take Away is the same food and so convenient.
Grillfish on the corner of Collins Avenue and Espanola serves an impressive variety of fresh fish and you can have your fish prepared in a number of different ways depending upon your personal tastes. http://www.grillfish.com/menu.lasso?k=dinner
Lime Fresh Mexican Grill on Alton Road just south of 15th Street lives up to its name with the freshest Mexican food possible. While small, the food is worth the fact that sometimes there is a line out the door to order and find a seat.
Chinese food should be better represented on South Beach, but the only restaurant in this category that never disappointed was China Grill which recently closed to relocate into downtown Miami, leaving Miami Beach without an interesting Chinese food restaurant.
You can eat inexpensively at Whole Foods on Alton at 10th Street; The Fresh Market tucked away a few blocks west of Alton Road and just north of Dade Boulevard; or the local Publix markets by buying prepared foods and taking them back to your hotel or to the beach.
Big Pink serves old-timey diner food and although the service can be indifferent and the place is usually packed for lunch, and on weekends for breakfast, the food does not disappoint. It is on Collins, but all the way south to nearly the end of Collins. They deliver, but much of the joy of this place is the in-restaurant experience of the place. You never know who might be seated next to you close enough to literally rub elbows.
Of course we have the requisite steak houses, ours being The Forge on 41st Street and Smith and Wollensky's on the southernmost tip of Miami Beach at Government Cut. If you go to Smith and Wollensky, make a reservation for close to sunset and ask for a table next to the window. The cruise ships pass by the back of the restaurant as they leave Government Cut headed out to sea. New entries into this category are Red, The Steakhouse; Prime 112 (owned by the same restaurant group that owns Big Pink); BLT; and The Meat Market all of which have received high ratings by Zagat.
Yardbird Southern Table and Bar
One of the newest, and least likely, cuisines to come to South Beach, is Southern comfort food now served at Yardbird Southern Table & Bar which has opened in the last year at the corner of Lennox Avenue and 16th Street, one block east of Alton Road. Think gourmet fried chicken and fried green tomatoes. The head chef is Jeff McInnis, a Top Chef contestant.
Osteria del Teatro
Finally, and my personal favorite category, is Italian food. This category seems counter-intuitive for a beach destination but Osteria del Teatro on the corner of Washington Avenue and Espanola Way (one block east of Grillfish) has been at the same location for more than 20 years. The food never disappoints but don't expect pasta with a heavy marinara sauce or pizza - this is not that place. Pappardelle with crabmeat in a pink vodka sauce or clams in a light saffron sauce are more in keeping with their menu. It's very small, but the staff treat you like wealthy relatives coming for a visit. Locals know if you go early, they have a prix fixe selection of pasta, a salad and a glass of wine for a very reasonable price. And their Tiramisu is heavenly.
The other Italian restaurant that is worth checking out, Casa Tua, is a hidden gem, and tough to find. You need reservations and directions because you'll drive right past it and never see it. It is walking distance from most of the larger hotels on Miami Beach located on the north end of Ocean Drive at 1700 James Avenue (this is primarily a residential neighborhood with a handful of mom and pop little hotels). A meal here is not cheap, but expect the unexpected from the food to their impressive wine list.
Come Visit The Magic City
Miami Beach is not that sleepy retirement community often depicted. It is vibrant, exciting, and fun. You can have a low key vacation here, or you can have a fast-paced, raucous time. It's all here: beaches, restaurants, shops, museums, art, music, nightclubs, and beautiful architecture. There is plenty to do that won't force you to mortgage your first-born, but there is also plenty to do if you want to go first class.
It costs nothing to walk into the Delano Hotel, and you don't have to spend a fortune on dinner there to enjoy it. Go to the bar and have a drink. Stop by the National or the Raleigh to see incredible examples of Deco luxury swimming pools. Order a drink, act like you belong, and don't cause a problem. And tip well if you are going to forgo the expensive meals and order an appetizer and drink at the bar. The waiters and bartenders are happy to have you there so long as you are spending money and not causing a problem. Miami Beach has a reputation for being a "live and let live" community, and locals honor that philosophy in their dealings with tourists, celebrity or not. http://www.miamibeach411.com/news/hotel-pools
There is a reason that musicians come here to record, movies and television shows are filmed here, and the wealthy and powerful want to have homes or second homes here. So the next time you are thinking about a vacation, check out Miami Beach. You'll be pleasantly surprised.