In the 1950s, my beautiful Italian grandparents threw glamorous Mad Men-esque parties in Miami. Somewhere in the middle of all the cocktail imbibing, cigar smoking, and red lipstick, my mom and her sisters were born.
My grandfather’s work history always seemed a bit dubious, but after taking a tour of South Beach’s famous Art Deco District, I may have a better idea of what he was actually doing. As my tour guide, Christine, explained, “part of [Miami's] prosperity has always come from illicit activity.” If I found out my grandpa Gino was the ringleader of a gambling ring, it would hardly be a surprise.
After the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926, only one wooden structure on South Beach remained standing (which now happens to house popular steakhouse Prime 112). When architects, having learned their lesson, started designing around concrete, the Art Deco style took off running, giving the city a new identity fit for the high-gloss glitz of the ’50s and ’60s. But, as I learned on my tour, the bright pastels we associate with Art Deco Miami are actually relatively new, painted in the 1980s when the city was experiencing some of its darkest days.
“In the ’70s and ’80s, South Beach was a total dump with abandoned hotels,” Christine said. By the end of 1981, things had gotten so bad that Time magazine declared the city a murder capital, splashing the words “Paradise Lost?” across an image of South Florida on the issue’s cover.
Miami’s transformation between then and now is nothing short of extraordinary. The city has returned to its mid-century glory days–the life of the vibrant, multi-cultural party.
The exterior of my hotel, The Delano (as in Franklin Delano), is pure Art Deco glam, but its interior has been completely reimagined and modernized by French designer Philippe Starck. In the ethereal lobby that smells of lemongrass and green tea, massive white columns lead the way past a cool sushi bar to a showy pool, but I am more interested in what is happening outside. I hop on one of the hotel’s bikes and head down Ocean Drive in the morning to try to beat the heat.
But no visit to Miami is complete without getting a taste of of the city’s dynamic Cuban culture in Little Havana (though it can be overrun with tour buses). I chose a walking tour, where I was reminded of the vital role people from other places have played in Miami’s long and storied history. “If it wasn’t for immigration, not only from Cuba, but also from places like Nicaragua and Honduras, Miami would have a fast declining population,” my guide said.
Along the way, I discovered two new favorites: Cuban espresso and pure sugarcane juice made at Los Pinarenos Fruteria, family-owned for nearly 50 years (make sure to pet the pig lounging in the parking lot behind the shop). Though the city’s ever-present construction cranes have yet to find their way to Little Havana, the area is poised to be next on the list after the successful revitalization of Miami’s downtown. But for now, there’s still $10 tango on Tuesday nights at Cuba Ocho and heaping medianoches (a close cousin to the Cuban sandwich) and fried plantains on offer at street-side stalls up and down Calle Ocho.
Though there is no shortage of restaurants transplanted from New York, L.A., and London (Lure Fishbar, db Bistro Moderne, and Cecconi’s, to name a few)–which didn’t help alleviate my fear that all cities are going to eventually blend together–I avoided them all on this trip.
Almost all locals in Miami come from somewhere else, so it’s no wonder its culinary scene reflects its status as a global melting pot. When I think back on my trip, I will think of the pressed Cuban sandwich I had at El Palacio de los Jugos far from the tourist crowd, but also the amazing Thai at Khong River House, noodles at Gigi, steak frites at Michy’s, and creole shrimp at Little Haiti gem Chef Creole.
Back in South Beach, Joe’s Stone Crab, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2013, is just as vital to the heartbeat of Miami. After I stuffed myself with crab claws, hash browns with a sweet, caramelized crust, and key lime pie, I was ready to go back and eat it all again. This is a “last meal” kind of place. Open since 1913, there are usually long lines for dinner, but you can also go next door and grab some grub to go.
Later on Twitter, I was chatting about Joe’s with some of its biggest fans when one of them asked, “Did you know they just opened one in D.C.?” There it was again, the nagging fact that many establishments that do such a good job of reflecting their place of origin are expanding into other cities on the heels of their success. (Come to find out, there are locations in Vegas and Chicago, too.)
The Miami of today may not look like any place my grandparents would recognize–at least from the outside. But Magic City’s big heart and carousing spirit are here to stay.