washingtonpost.com
Greetings From South Beach
Wish You Weren't Here!

By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 14, 2001

The rest of Miami may have accepted the arrival of Sunday morning, but the Crobar crowd was clinging to Saturday night. Out front, a queue of indefatigable partygoers, still bouncing in place to the beat of the previous club on the circuit, was nudging the velvet rope for a taste of the action. Inside, hard-driving dancers were grooving to a high-blast techno sound. Hey, wasn't that guy over there, with the Jean-Claude Van Damme pecs and Ricky Martin legs, the hunk from the beach? And weren't those the two blondes who'd peeled off their bikini tops with puckish abandon?

No, the Buffed and the Beautiful have not abandoned South Beach.

Sure, this sun-splattered corner of paradise has taken some blows. The Material Girl, a longtime fixture, betrayed the hedonists she helped lure to these parts for a post-SoBe phase of wifedom and motherhood. Mega-hotels like Marriott and Ritz-Carlton, sniffing gold on these shores, have elbowed in alongside the pastel art deco properties that give this small enclave its color and tropical charm. Outlets for T.G.I. Friday's, the Gap and other chains have followed, bringing their generic look of Anywhere, USA.

Flashy models who once prowled Ocean Drive -- SoBe's main drag -- as if it were some kind of catwalk are playing it cooler. "They used to jump at invitations to parties," said Cheryl Andrews, a Miami publicist. "Now they want $100 an hour before they set foot in the door."

Worst of all, suburban yuppies are trying desperately to get a piece of this scene. They arrive from places like Teaneck, N.J., for the weekend, hoping for a peek at a Hollywood starlet, a bite or two of anything fusion, a sip of something bubbly or some other symbol of New Millennium hipdom.

Despite all that, I discovered on my own recent visit, the glittery ensemble of gays, supermodels and actors who put this enclave of South Florida on the map of fabulous people is keeping the party lights burning. And yes, it's possible for visitors to edge in on their action.

Okay, there's a catch. Five years ago, when I first arrived in SoBe, the trail of the trendy was easy to track. It started with pisco sours at the Delano Hotel bar, led straight to a spicy lobster dinner at Yuca, and eventually ended at the Strand, where the place would rock to house music till everyone would nod off in mid-dance. But since then, such places have all but surrendered to the influx of yuppies.

These days, you've got to work a little harder to find the cutting-edge scene.

The Hotel

Deciding where to stay is crucial. For one thing, many hotel lobbies double as bars or clubs that attract a local following. And concierges also dole out complimentary passes and tips about the hottest clubs. Problem is, the arrival of the new breed of deep-pocketed tourists has made chic but affordable pads tough to find, particularly in high season.

I opted for the Townhouse, a funky new low-rise designed by Jonathan Morr, creator of the popular Bond Street restaurant in New York. Styled for a hip young clientele, this is the kind of place where everything from lobby sofas to beds is covered in snow-white fabric, a row of apple-red bicycles is parked in the lobby and the chic-Spartan guest rooms come equipped with condoms and beach balls.

It's one of a string of new hotels such as the Hotel or the Wave that accent playfulness over glamour. There are board games in the lobby for rainy days, a sushi bar downstairs and a sprawling roof for sunbathing.

"We're trying to create a basic, fun place with a beachy feel, away from the glitter and fuss at some other places," Morr told me during a chat in the lobby. "Isn't that what a weekend at the beach should be about?"

Maybe. The location, on 20th Street just off Collins Avenue, suited me fine. It was only a block from the beach, and a few blocks away from the attractive but busy strip of neon-lit art deco hotels and bars along Ocean Drive between Fifth and 15th. But after three days, the Townhouse struck me as most suitable for twentysomethings trying to re-create the fraternity experience. Still, it beat hanging with the suburbanites at the Delano.

The Gym

"Are you done with those barbells?"

"Huh?"

"Do you mind if I get a set in?"

"Huh?"

"Hey, didn't I see you at Twist last night?"

Blank look.

The setting was Idol's Gym, a sprawling workout space off Lincoln Road, popular among locals. While visiting yuppies hang out at the hotel pool or snarf ice cream at the News, the beloved cafe where Gianni Versace ate his last breakfast, SoBe regulars retreat to iron-pumping stations.

In this stronghold of body worshipers, a daily workout is more crucial than a morning cup of coffee. A gym regular back home, I decided to cough up the $25 charge for a three-day Idol's pass. While clearly not a conversation venue, the place has its points. It is a fabulous perch for people-watching. And it prepared me for my foray to SoBe's answer to Paris's Eiffel Tower or London's Big Ben . . .

The Beach

Usually an easy mix of gay men and lesbians, Cuban Americans, retirees from up North and other characters, South Beach regulars divide up when they head for the water. Gays have claimed the stretch just in front of 12th Street. Straights veer off in both directions. I walked back and forth for a while, finally settling on my red blanket somewhere in the middle.

It was a veritable beauty pageant: hunky men with steely hard chests, washboard abs and muscular legs. Women with surreal bosoms and finely carved hips. A few went topless, while others wore bright-colored bikinis. The odd couple with children also romped about here and there, but nothing to get riled about.

Some ran to the water and rushed back to dry off. Some listened to music, sipped Diet Cokes or ran with kites up and down the soft sand. Some sought refuge under bright blue or green umbrellas while others closed their eyes and soaked in the sun.

Not a soul, including yours truly, dared read a book.

The Food

Dining on the right food in the right spot is also critical. With all due respects to refugees from Castro's Cuba and their offspring -- big-time players in these parts -- munching on yuca con chicharron and other island specialties gets old really fast. Eating at Puerto Sagua, the Cuban diner recommended as a must in many guidebooks, is tantamount to wearing plaid Bermuda shorts. Don't ask why. Just don't do it.

No, what's happening in SoBe now is old-fashioned American diner food: big slabs of meatloaf and mashed potatoes, apple pie à la mode, spaghetti, eggs over easy and the like.

One of my favorite places featuring such fare is Big Pink, a sparkling diner with a stainless steel look and oversize TVs just crying out for "I Love Lucy" reruns. Once I plopped down at the bar, I had no choice but to order a juicy grilled-chicken sandwich and plate of fries.

For a hot date, Mark's South Beach, the dark dining room at the Hotel Nash, provides the perfect romantic setting. The food -- a mixture of zany creations like grilled conch brushed with rum and vanilla and standbys like rack of lamb -- is superb.

The Garb

What to wear? Tiaras and feather boas are way out. Okay, Dennis Rodman still sashays around in them. During my stay, the former NBA rebounder and flamboyant bad boy held a news conference to promote his new Web site. But only a handful of reporters showed up, another sign that Rodman's sell-by date is past.

What's in? By day, men are sporting Hawaiian or Caribbean short-sleeved shirts in brash colors. For women, bikinis and snazzy beach wraps are cool. At night, dark colors that accent body curves are way in. Fashion-conscious women don sheer or lace tops or sleek black dresses, while men wear dark-colored, body-hugging shirts and slacks. Don't own such garb? Try Funky Sexy, an aptly named boutique on Lincoln Road.

The Clubs

Knowing what spot to hit, and when, can get a bit tricky. For one thing, nightspots seem to open and close by the month. To add to the confusion, certain haunts cater to gays, while others draw a largely straight crowd and a third group swings back and forth.

On my first night out, curiosity led me to a couple of high-profile newcomers. Lincoln Road's Touch South Beach, decorated with a lush cluster of palm trees, seemed a seductive setting for a pre-dinner cocktail. The Samba Room, designed to resemble a club in pre-Castro Cuba, served tasty Cuba libres accented by a salsa band in the background. Despite its central location on Collins Avenue, however, it was a bit sedate for a Saturday night.

Like most SoBe regulars, I've learned to keep my nightlife simple. For a before-dinner kir or after-dinner cosmopolitan, Nikki Beach Club, on the quiet south end of Ocean Drive, is my sure thing. The lights are low but the mood upbeat. On this visit, however, I headed for Crobar, a mega dance club in an old playhouse on Washington Avenue, with a sound system rated among the best on the East Coast. The piercing music, all techno all the time, made the night lively but rendered conversation nearly impossible. The clientele varies according to day of the week. While most nights draw a raucous mixed crowd, Sundays are reserved for gay men and lesbians. On this Saturday, it seemed to have attracted a crowd from all sectors, including the hard bodies from the beach. After dancing my legs off, I went up to the balcony to watch the crowd.

Blue, a few blocks away from Crobar on Espanola Way, is where I usually like to end the evening. An intimate bar with authentic glitter, frequently featuring live music, this place lends itself to a bit of chatter here, a little model-watching there. It's a good place to mingle.

But I confess that on my last night in SoBe, when Blue was too packed, I headed to the Delano and made my way to the bar.

Before stepping inside, I donned the shades I keep in a side pocket for just such occasions. I sat there for the longest while, sipping my pisco sour and watching the crowd. Despite the gaggle of suburban yuppies loitering about, the place still had that SoBe dazzle.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company