Miami Nice – Miami Spice

“In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer”
– Albert Camus playwright and author 1913-1960

Growing up in the snow belt of Upstate New York, my love of cold and winter weather was confined to perhaps the first few years of my life. Those early Currier & Ives print winters of my childhood, I enjoyed, I suppose as we built enormous snow forts and ice-skated on naturally frozen ponds behind my house. The hot chocolate that was required to thaw us out in front of the family flagstone fireplace was sugar fuel to memories of a happy childhood. But not for long.

The summers were muggy, hot and short. Winter weather began just after Halloween and continued well into Spring with many an Easter morning spent bundled up to go to church. The first daffodils I ever saw pushed themselves up through white snow. One winter, our school bus stop was moved and we had to wait outside, sitting on 6 feet high snow piles, on dark winter mornings. Suddenly in a freezing blast, the deception was up. No longer was I snow jobbed into thinking that winter was fun.

My rescue came when my paternal grandparents moved to Florida. Florida, that big beautiful state named for the Spanish word meaning “covered with flowers.” Postcards would arrive, showing palm trees, pristine sandy beaches and running pink flamingos. The messages were always the same; “It’s so warm here, the Rochester cold seems a million miles away,” or ” We had dinner on a terrace along the ocean, last night, wish you were here.” So did I!

Anticipation of our Spring break vacations became reason enough to face the cold winter mornings of January and February. The first time I stepped off that plane into blinding sunshine and breathed in the warm, salty air fragrant with magnolias, I was hooked. We stowed away heavy coats and changed into shorts before we left the Miami airport.

Grandparents gone, luckily my parents continued the tradition by spending winters stacked in high-rise condos. No matter how poor I was from my early career in New York City, I managed to scrape enough together to get away from the grey snow and slush of the frigid Big Apple and join the sunning senior citizen set.

As an adult now, when the first snow starts to fly, my mantra kicks in strong and loud, “I wanna go to Miami.” Thank God for visionaries John Collins and Carl Fisher, who in the early 1900’s turned a swamp covered with mangroves, that ran parallel to the mainland, into the beach, we know and love today.

Collins, a New Jersey horticulturist, had invested in a coconut plantation that was attempted on the scattered, overgrown sand bars. After surveying the land he discovered that rabbits had overrun the tender coconut palm plants and mangrove roots had choked out any hope of a productive plantation. But he still envisioned agricultural promise and in 1909, at the age 71, he acquired 1675 acres of the marshy peninsula. Soon, avocados, Irish potatoes, Cavendish bananas, and other tropical fruits and vegetables thrived in the middle of the jungle, all through the winter.

Along came Indianapolis automobile mogul Carl Fisher who realizing the potential for real estate development, dredged, filled, mapped and landscaped the watery soil and transformed it from swampland to boomtown. What was dug up from the bay alongside Miami proper became the land that the new city, Miami Beach, would be built on.

As the roads and railroads of the north etched their way into the south, Florida became the winter playground of the rich. Vanderbilt’s private train would transport lucky frozen New Yorkers to Palm Beach, 240 miles north of the young city of Miami. Little by little, beach-by-beach, the “swells” of the north were lured to the shores of the south. Plans were made to extend the railroad lines all the way to Key West.

In 1915 Miami Beach was incorporated as a town of it’s own. Early real estate companies advertised “Pure air, unexcelled climate,” and promised free china and glassware to all who attended the land auctions. Soon northern vacationers were building winter residences and the beach was off and running.

By the 1920’s, hotels were springing up to house the eager sunbirds. Carl Fisher’s Roman Pools and Casino boasted diving exhibitions, alligator wrestling matches and beauty contests, to attract the winter-weary travelers. Already Miami Beach was developing a reputation for lose morals as America’s winter playground. A minister was quoted in The New York Times in 1925; “If anyone wants to go to hell in a hurry there are greased banks aplenty in Miami”.

The post depression 1930’s saw a country starving to get away and leave their troubles behind. From 1930-1940, over 50 hotels designed in the fashionable streamlined, Art Deco design, sprung up on Miami Beach. Irving Berlin wrote, “Moon over Miami” and America’s love affair with the tropical city began.

Following the wealthy residents were, Hollywood types, gamblers, gangsters, mobsters and other colorful personalities that gave Miami Beach a glamorous notoriety. Al Capone built an estate on Palm Island. Damon Runyon, notable syndicated newspaper columnist, filed his column from Miami during the winter months with no shortage of scandal and intrigue to cover.

The 1940’s and 50’s saw continued growth and popularity of what was now an established tourist destination. During the Second World War, Miami Beach became the training camp for thousands of soldiers who practiced maneuvers on the golden beaches and slept in the temporarily stripped down luxurious hotels.

In 1954 the fabulous cresant shaped Fontainebleau Hotel opened and the shape and style of Miami hotels changed. The elegant lobby touted terrazzo floors, murals, billowing curtains and a “staircase to nowhere”, built for effect and good looks. Architect Morris Lapidus explained his lush design by saying” Sponge cake is sponge cake, the frosting sells the cake”.

Frank Sinatra and his cronies checked in and even the rat pack had a new playroom. In 1964 Jackie Gleason brought his entire cast and crew of his popular variety show to Miami Beach on a train and set up production. Every Sunday night, 40 million people watched the show that opened with an aerial shot of the gold coast and were welcome to “the sun and fun capital of the world.”

Miami Beach fell to hard times in the 1970’s and 80’s. A national recession and the flagging of the resort’s popularity prompted hotel owners to turn their once glamorous accommodations into lower priced apartments. As the hotels aged and fell into disrepair, so did their aged occupants. Bigger, more modern hotels opened in North Miami Beach and the original heart of the beach community started to crumble. The onetime glamorous playground became known as Varicose Beach, Senile City, God’s Waiting Room, and Mausoleum in the Sun, due to the large number of aged retirees that replaced the rich and famous.

In the mid-70’s a plan was drafted by the city of Miami, to level the entire Deco area and start from scratch. Luckily, due to the large number of retired inhabitants that would be displaced who populated the area, the demolition was delayed.

Then, a chance visit to the deteriorating community by a design writer and publicist named Barbara Baer Capitman changed everything. Baer Capitman and interior designer Leonard Horowitz were intrigued by what they saw. Both were looking for a cause and in the tattered, disintegrating facades of the once fabulous buildings, they found one. Like a former beauty, that was old and just needed some makeup and hair dye to feel young again, Miami Beach was ready for her makeover. Through the efforts of Baer Capitman, Horowitz and a dedicated group of antidevelopment environmentalists, the area was placed on The National Register of Historic Places in 1979. Everything old was safe again.

Not quite, but through determination and what many say stubbornness, Miami Beach slowly crept back. Even another TV show helped Americans regain a curiosity for the ice cream pastel painted city. “Miami Vice” featured opening shots of running flamingos and scenes shot along the slowly regentrified ocean boulevards.

Developers returned, scoring bargains for beachfront hotels. A move was made to make Miami Beach hip again. Fashion shoots showed tanned and scantily clad models lounging in the deco lobbies of the emerging renovated hotels and posing on the beaches. If the beautiful people loved Miami, why wouldn’t you? The beach was back!

Miami today is every bit as contemporary and changing as any other American city it’s size. The energy it derives from the steamy weather mixed with the strong Cuban culture influences, give it an edge that I find extra exciting. Even the brutal hurricane season of this summer, that threatened to cloud the image of the “Sunshine State”, was a forgotten memory three weeks later on a trip I made in mid-October. Of course further north and other areas of the state were in shambles, but Miami missed the bullet and went about its business doing what it does best, entertaining visitors.

The food scene is a melting pot of ethnic cuisines and “Floribbean” influences, with an accent on fresh seafood and warm weather dining. High-profile celebrity chefs run amok with local ingredients and vie for your dining dollar by continually upping the ante on creativity and food flair. Nationally publicized chefs such as Norman Van Aken, (Norman’s and Mundo) Allen Susser, (Chef Allen’s) Mark Millitello, (Mark’s South Beach) Douglas Rodriguez (Ola) and Michelle Bernstein (Azul) compete for a slice of the tourist dollar pie, with up market restaurants with uptown prices. Even Emeril Lagasse this year opened an outpost of his Cajun dynasty in the enormous Loew’s Hotel on 16th and Collins. Food is big business here and the trendiest food of the minute may be served in a dining room with vaulted ceilings, polished terrazzo floors and deco furnishings, restored to it’s 1930’s splendor.

During my biannual visits I divide my time and money between the newest hotspots, old favorites and neighborhood haunts. Each year I discover a new gem that immediately becomes an old favorite. Last January I happened into a jewel box of an Italian trattoria called Spiga. The beach restaurants all had waiting times so I headed one block west to Collins Avenue and was transported to Italy.

Spiga, which means “wheat” in Italian, boasts one of those classic menus where everything looks good and is familiar. It’s the Spiga presentation that sets the food spinning. I enjoyed salty bresaola curled around peppery arugula, scattered with Parmesan shavings and drizzled with truffle oil. A Caesar salad was appropriately unctuous with more-rather-than-less anchovies, to kick it up. My Linguine Vongole was ever so slightly oiled and garlicked to allow the sweet tiny clams to be the prominent flavor that shined through. Spiga celebrated its tenth anniversary this past winter and was thriving during my October visit at a time some consider pre-season. I was surprised to see a flan on the dessert menu and just had to try it to compare it to our New Mexican version.

Chef Saele Cantori’s rendition was dense and eggy with a wonderful hit of amaretto that I later found came from the inclusion of crushed amaretti cookies. I licked the plate. (See recipe)

The next night I checked out the new kid on the block. Located slightly north of the center of the beach activity, Talula was created through the culmination of two established Miami chefs that married in life and married in the kitchen. Andrea Curto and Frank Randazzo take their respective talents and have created a menu that captures current food trends but sets the flavors on their ear. I had heard of Curto when she was featured along with local boy Joseph Wrede on the cover of Food & Wine Magazine as top ten best chefs in America 2000.

The Geronimo-esque menu features foods and tastes from around the globe including a lip-smacking Grilled Shrimp Tamale with Fava Beans, Roasted Poblano Chiles and a Teardrop Tomato Vinaigrette (see recipe). Encased in a cornhusk like her New Mexican cousin, this tamale was made rich and buttery with the inclusion of cream in the masa mixture and not steamed but served as a sort of uptown grit with the smoky grilled shrimp tumbling out of it. Another plate, licked clean. A delicate pan seared lemon sole, kept my palate off-balance with a bed of braised fennel & smoked tomato stew and a crown of preserved lemon and caper relish. I discovered new and wonderful combinations of flavors that shouted “talent” from the plate.

My Cuban friends insisted that I visit Versailles Restaurant in Little Havana on Calle Ocho. It’s the Cuban culture’s showpiece restaurant and has been around since 1972. Loud, brightly lit and bustling with large tables of Cuban families, Versailles is the perfect place for out-of-towners to catch a glimpse of local flavor. I did some serious carb-loading with authentic Ham Croquettes, melt-in-your-mouth fried plantains, black beans and rice with Vaca Frita, a Cuban counterpart to our Ropa Vieja. The atmosphere alone is worth the gentle price of a meal.

No visit to Little Havana would be complete without a stop at “Hoy Como Ayer”, a requisitely dark, smoky and altogether genuine Cuban Nightclub right out of “The Mambo Kings”. Friday nights, late, and Cuban dynamo Albita takes the room hostage with her rousing music that kept the audience leaping to their feet in spontaneous dancing fits. All sung in Spanish, Albita’s passion is comprehensible whether you are bi-lingual or not. The cold of my youth and Rochester, New York, seemed a million miles and cultures away.

Cuban music fans should check out one of the two locations of Gloria and Emilio Estefan’s Bongo’s Cuban Cafe. The authentic Cuban menu is served in a boppy party atmosphere. The famous couple does patronize their own business; I ran into them coming out of the beach location, one night on my way back to my hotel. It was a kick, having met them and cooked for them in summer 2003 in Taos, to stop for a quick chat.

Mornings I was woke up with and refueled from, thick and sweet Cuban Coffee from the counter at Puerto Sagua. The best breakfasts are served in neighborhood diners and this local haunt is plopped down right in the middle of all the fabulousness. Breakfast on the beach can be expensive so save your bucks for dinner and join cops, transvestites, waiters and teamsters at Puerto Sagua and feel like a Miami Beach resident.

Another Miami Beach institution is Joe’s Stone Crab, perhaps the last restaurant in America where you can still smoke at the table. For 92 years the draw here have been the stone crabs that are served simply steamed, chilled and sided by a variety of sauces. Most popular is the zippy Mustard Sauce. How the crab makes it to your table is as interesting as the tradition of eating them at Joes. When the crabs are caught only one leg is allowed to be removed. The then amputee is returned to the ocean to regrow his leg for next year’s catch. The legal catching season is from mid-May to Mid-October, so once the season ends, Joe’s is on hiatus. There are a few meat dishes and famous crab cakes and classic side dishes such as Cole slaw, hashed browns and creamed spinach, but the claws are the main attraction. There are no reservations and although it’s a huge restaurant, waits can be lengthy. The price of the claws are steep but considering the crab’s sacrifice, worth it. Don’t miss the no-surprises but sumptuous Key Lime Pie and excellent service.

Sunday brunch took me to the most elegant beachfront deco hotel, The Tides; a stones throw from the famous Versace mansion. The restaurant, 1220, spills out of the lobby onto a gorgeous cream and white terrace that is the perfect spot for people watching and afternoon wasting. The lobby is so lovingly restored you half expect Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers to stroll past in white tie and tails and silver gown. All you-can-eat buffets can be bleak and expensive in some tourist towns but the polished silver and linen draped table of brunchy stuff here sets a new standard in self serve knoshing. The smoked salmon and gravlax display alone, was reason enough to forgo wearing a thong the next day on the beach. The hot food was nice and hot without being dried out and limp and the eggs benedict, which on most buffets tout hockey puck hard yolks, were runny and yummy. This is a classy joint so the 45.00 cost, that includes a glass of Champagne or Mimosa, is good-value for such quality and style.

By Sunday night, three local foodies had recommended I try out a brightly painted Haitian Restaurant called Tap Tap. Having overdone the buffet visits at brunch, I was happy to eat late and indulge in a menu whose flavors were as vivid as the colors on the walls. Tap Tap, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this past August, is decorated in Day-Glo murals of Haitian Islanders in various poses at work and play. Here is a menu where nothing was familiar but everything enticed me. Chef James Hinefield’s Conch Fritters, Spinach in Coconut Sauce, Stewed Goat and Spaghetti with Herring all intrigued me. I settled on the crunchy fritters with a delicious, creamy chile & cilantro dipping sauce and a whole Red Snapper steamed in a lime and coconut sauce. Two bites and I knew where the name of the restaurant originated; Haitian flavors go Tap Tap on your taste buds.

If I’m dining off the beach and anywhere near the trendy café-laden Lincoln Road, it’s always a tradition now to skip dessert and take a stroll for a gelato from Gelateria Parmalat. Lincoln Road, that heads west away from the beach, was once the 5th Avenue of Miami shopping and now has been transformed into a restaurant, cafe and boutique Mecca. The happy staff at the Gelateria are eager to offer samples of the many flavors on display, try four or five at least, before making your decision. My choice is always a conventional surprise to me. I can never get past the giandua- chocolate hazelnut option.

My apartment-like suite at Casa Grande, right on the beach, was large and comfortable. Reminiscent of a European Boutique hotel, the 35-room accommodation is a welcomed alternative to the older hotels where the rooms are sized at 1930’s proportions. There’s a full kitchen, should you want to save some wallet and cook in one night. Also take advantage of the Florida oranges scattered in bowls around the hotel; there’s a nifty orange juicer in your kitchen for a glass of Florida sunshine every morning.

Other places I like to stay include The Park Central at 640 Ocean Drive, who’s renovation in 1987 by developer Tony Goldman, signaled the start of the revamping of Miami Beach. Goldman’s last Miami venture, the transformation of the historic Tiffany into The Hotel, with interiors by designer Todd Oldham, is nothing less than sexy. The rooftop pool is reason enough to check in to this classy joint as well as the incredible in house restaurant “Wish” that boasts global cuisine served around a gurgling fountain in the side courtyard.

Spend an afternoon and take in all of the hotel lobbies in the deco area. Each one will surprise you and remind you what an important contribution the preservation of this unique architectural era was to the twentieth century and beyond. I wonder if my lure here isn’t some past-life remembrance of a life gone by or just a yearning to be tall and slim, with hair slicked back, looking marvelous in tuxedo and tails.

To capture a real appreciation of the Deco period, attend the annual Art Deco Weekend, this winter held January 14-16, 2005. Each year the theme of the focus of the event changes, but there are always related lectures, display and walking tours that celebrate Miami Beach’s glorious past. Details of the weekend and listing of special events are available on the Miami Design Preservation League sponsored website:

I hate to leave Miami. As you are loading your luggage into a taxi headed for the airport, new arrivals are pulling up, pale skinned and heavy dressed. Their heads are full of the promise of sizzling days, fantastic meals and hot nights ahead. As the captain puts on the fasten seatbelt sign and announces our decent into the Albuquerque area, I close my eyes and imagine flamingos running, palm trees swaying, strong hot Cuban Coffee and remember all the new culinary acquaintances I have made in Old Miami Beach. See you next year.

I finished now my lament,
Now is the winter of our discontent.

Where to eat, stay and play

Spiga Ristorante Italiano
1228 Collins Avenue
Miami Beach

Talula Restaurant & Bar
210 23rd Street
Miami Beach

Versailles Restaurant
3555 SW 8th Street

Hoy Como Ayer
2212 SW 8th Street
Miami, Florida 33135

Bongo’s Cuban Café
601 Biscayne Blvd

SOBE Bongo’s Cuban Café
820 Ocean Drive
Miami Beach

Puerto Sagua
700 Collins Avenue
Miami Beach

Joe’s Stone Crab Restaurant
11 Washington Avenue
Miami Beach, Florida 33139

The Tides
1220 Ocean Drive

Tap Tap Haitian Restaurant
819 Fifth Street
Miami Beach
To read about Tap Tap go to:

Casa Grande Suites
834 Ocean Drive
Miami Beach

The Park Central
640 Ocean Drive
Miami Beach

The Hotel
801 Collins Avenue
Miami Beach

Miami Design Preservation League- Art Deco Weekend- January 14-16 2005
1001 Ocean Drive
Miami Beach

Chef Johnny VeeMiami Nice – Miami Spice