It's midnight on a sultry Saturday, and the SoBe scene is at full throttle. No one is mamboing on the tables yet, but the sidewalk cafes lining Ocean Drive are standing-room-only (though hardly anyone is standing still).
There's certainly no room to dance on the sidewalk, which has been clogged since noon with a steady stream of Hollywood film crews, Don Johnson look-alikes, tattooed drag queens and Gen-X supermodels 'blading to their next fashion shoot. Not to mention hordes of trend-seeking tourists fleeing icy springs in hometowns from Boston to Berlin.
We'd watched the daytime action from Allioli, the breezy terrace restaurant at Gloria Estefan's Cardozo Hotel. Now we're working our way southwest for a late bite at China Grill, where there have been rumored Madonna sightings. We're skeptical, however, since the singer has lately been preoccupied 10 blocks north at the surreal new Delano hotel, where she's co-owner of its hot and happening Blue Door restaurant.
But like most South Beach stargazers, we're easy. If we don't catch Madonna, maybe we'll see Michael Caine, Sly Stallone or any of the countless other celebs who frequent funky-chic South Beach--currently the coolest hot spot in the Western Hemisphere.
It's been alternately labeled America's Riviera, the Latin Hollywood and Soho in the Sun. But any way you view it, it's a nonstop daily party stretching for about 20 historic, picturesque blocks facing one of the most beloved beaches on the Atlantic Coast.
One celebrity after another has found a second career as a restaurant or club owner (Oprah Winfrey and Denzel Washington are among the latest said to be scouting properties), and newly restored hotels seem to open every week.
A couple dozen of these whimsical Art Deco confections stretch out along Ocean Drive between Fifth and 15th streets like scoops of mango, pistachio and raspberry gelato trimmed with swirls of whipped cream. Vintage '50s convertibles with soaring tail fins are often parked out front, added by film crews shooting any of a gazillion commercials and movies. (Recent projects have included "Striptease" with Demi Moore, "Blood and Wine" with Jack Nicholson and Michael Caine, "Birds of a Feather" with Robin Williams and Gene Hackman and "Two Much" with Daryl Hannah, Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas. The Deco renaissance is increasingly spreading west from palm-lined Ocean Drive to Collins and Washington avenues, the two parallel main drags of Miami Beach. Hot spots (and high-rises) are also opening in the mainly residential area south of Fifth Street--naturally dubbed SoFi--where, until recently, the only reason to visit was for a seasonal gorge at the Miami Beach institution Joe's Stone Crab.
SoBe's second wave of development is now mushrooming around uptown Lincoln Road, once known as the Fifth Avenue of the South. "The Road," which runs from the Atlantic Ocean to Biscayne Bay, between 16th and 17th streets, declined along with the rest of South Beach in the '60s and '70s after glitzy resorts such as the Fontainebleau drew tourists farther north along the seven-mile barrier island. Now The Road's eight-block pedestrian mall is once again attracting some of SoBe's classiest boutiques, restaurants and galleries.
While Ocean Drive cafes provide some of the best venues for people-watching, serious foodies generally acknowledge that some of the most prime grazing is on Collins, Washington and Lincoln. Among restaurants frequently cited for their cuisine--as well as for the celebs eating it--are China Grill, Pacific Time, Lure and Nemo.
When you tire of jicama and lemon grass, you'll meet pleasant surprises at some of the down-home Cuban eateries tucked here and there, especially along Washington and on Espanola Way. Washington--also the address of many of the hottest late-night dance clubs, such as Glam Slam, Bar None, Liquid and Follia--also has a number of terrific little restaurants that the limelight hasn't yet found.
With such emphasis on night life, the days understandably start late in SoBe. After breakfast, visitors can hit the beach (topless, of course), go biking or 'blading on the paved promenade, or take a guided tour of some Art Deco landmarks or a boat ride to see scores of celebrity homes on the small islands that dot Biscayne Bay--which separates the city of Miami Beach from the mainland city of Miami.
Tourists can find the usual array of T-shirts and have their picture taken with an iguana. But overall the Deco district is a bastion of good taste, with virtually no hokey attractions. You can even browse in two museums, the Bass and the new Wolfsonian.
What's more elusive is the simple life. There are sybaritic backyard pools at the Delano, the neighboring Raleigh and on the other end of the beach at La Voile Rouge. But you wouldn't want to be caught at any of them on a bad hair day. SoBe is for 1990s cellular-phone-and-beeper-style escapism--and its multitude of fans wouldn't have it any other way.
Favorite hot spots change faster than Madonna's dance partners, and club theme nights create an ever-shifting party scene. But here are some sure bets from Miami Herald "Queen of the Night" columnist Tara Solomon.
China Grill, 404 Washington Ave., expensive, high-energy spinoff of the New York favorite, serving exceptional "world cuisine" to affluent young patrons equipped with such trendy necessities as a sterling silver cigar-cutters. (305) 534-2211.
Nemo, 100 Collins Ave., indoor/outdoor eatery started by New York restaurateur Myles Chefetz (Country Club in Manhattan, Conscience Point in Southampton, Long Island) and chef Michael Schwartz, acclaimed for his holistic fusion cuisine. (305) 532-4550.
Max's South Beach, 764 Washington Ave., low-key, cozy atmosphere and inspired American cooking by celebrity chef/proprietor Kerry Simon. (305) 532-0070.
The Blue Door, 1685 Collins Ave. (in the Delano hotel), you might have to wait a month for a reservation, but almost everybody you see will be famous in some realm--even if you don't recognize anyone. (305) 674-6400.
Liquid, 1439 Washington Ave., No. 1 dance club of the moment, part-owned by Ingrid Casaris, confidante to the glamour set (Madonna recently threw her brother's birthday party here), chicly dark and very New York. (305) 532-9154.
Bar None, 411 Washington Ave. (across the street from China Grill), Oliver Stone is part-owner of this spot, which is not a traditional dance club (though everyone dances) and Sly Stallone hangs some of his artwork here. (305) 672-9252.
Glam Slam, 1235 Washington Ave., owned by the entertainer formerly known as Prince, who sometimes performs there; crowds often include famous rap artists and sports stars as well as other celebs who come to dance--especially at the Monday night Fat Black Pussycat disco soiree (enter for that through the alley). (305) 672-2770.
Follia, 929 Washington Ave., hot new restaurant-piano bar-dance club with Versace-upholstered couches and a huge disco party every Tuesday. (305) 674-9299.
La Voile Rouge Hotel & Beach Club, 455 Ocean Drive; at this exclusive Euro-jet-set sister to the La Voile Rouge complex in St. Tropez, the Thursday night soiree gradually moves from the restaurant (an offshoot of Manhattan's Bice) to the disco. (305) 535-0099.
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Other Hot Hotels in SoBe
Here are 11 of the dozens of stylishly restored Art Deco District hotels in the South Beach area of Miami Beach, Fla. Rates are for double occupancy and high season (usually November through May).
Astor: 956 Washington Ave.; telephone (800) 270-4981. This sleek rehab last month threw a giant bash to open its Astor Place restaurant. The 42 rooms and suites are as beige as the Delano is white, lending an aura of quiet elegance. Gardenia hedges surround a Mediterranean tile patio with a pool and waterfall. Rates: $120 to $450.
Pelican: 826 Ocean Drive; tel. (800) 7-PELICAN. This eccentric hotel with 25 themed rooms ("Halfway to Hollywood," "Me Tarzan, You Vain") has engaged many celebs since it opened in May. Yoko Ono stayed in the penthouse (which has a nine-screen video wall and a hot-tub-sized aquarium), but it was booked when John F. Kennedy Jr. called, so he had to settle for a suite with James Bond overtones. The Pelican Cafe serves "world cuisine." Rates: $160 to $2,000.
Waldorf Towers: 860 Ocean Drive; tel. (800) 933-BEACH. This 1937 landmark was the first of the major Ocean Drive makeovers, opening in 1986 with 45 rooms and suites. SoBe's first fashion shoot also was there (Calvin Klein's ground-breaking Obsession ad). It's noisy, but there's an appealingly funky Floribbean feel. The Compass Cafe provides a fine people-watching perch, and the basement Compass Market is a well-stocked convenience store. Rates: $109 to $199.
Park Central: 640 Ocean Drive; tel. (800) 727-5236. Clark Gable and Carole Lombard once lounged on the terrace here (the Park Central was combined with the adjoining Imperial by visionary New York real estate and restaurant mogul Tony Goldman). Recent guests have included vampire queen Anne Rice, who stayed in Room 608 while writing "Tale of the Body Thief" (the main character also used the hotel as his base). The Casablanca restaurant and Park Central Lounge meet drinking and dining needs. An old poster in the elevator touts initial rates of $1 a night; the 112 rooms and eight suites now run $125 to $225.
Ocean Front: 1230-38 Ocean Drive; tel. (305) 672-2579. This French-owned lodging with the feel of a country manor reportedly is Cher's favorite hotel in SoBe. The 27 rooms are decorated with a Mediterranean theme. Les Deux Fontaines Restaurant & Cafe is considered to be delightful as well. Rates: $155 to $425.
Cardozo: 1300 Ocean Drive; tel. (800) 782-6500. This monument to the deco genre is named for one of the key Supreme Court justices of the New Deal era, Benjamin Cardozo. It is also where Frank Sinatra filmed "A Hole in the Head." Owner Gloria Estefan has redone the 42 rooms in vibrant colors. Allioli restaurant offers prime people-watching. Rates $120 to $385.
Casa Grande: 834 Ocean Drive; tel. (800) OUTPOST. This is the most elegant of five SoBe properties managed by Art Deco Hotels, a division of the Island Outpost group (owned by Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records). The Casa combines amenities of a top European-style business hotel with the atmosphere of a luxurious oceanfront residence, and attracts a hip-but-pampered film and fashion crowd. The 38 deluxe suites include custom-made Indonesian mahogany and teak furniture; the intimate lobby boasts antique columns from Rajasthan. The spacious suites have state-of-the-art kitchens and CD/stereo/radio systems (the voice mail, however, seemed to have a significant time lag--critical if you're waiting for a call from Oliver Stone). The building's main floor houses the Fashion Cafe and a couple of boutiques. Rates: $185 to $1,000.
Leslie: 1244 Ocean Drive; tel. (800) OUTPOST. The 43 rooms (four of them oceanfront suites) in this Island Outpost property were designed to "celebrate an uninhibited Florida whimsy," with such details as multicolored bureau knobs. The Leslie Cafe is popular with people watchers. Rates: $135 to $275.
Marlin: 1200 Collins Ave.; tel. (800) OUTPOST. A block from the ocean, Island Outpost's star-studded Marlin has hosted names like Melissa Etheridge and Nine Inch Nails (there's a world-renowned recording studio on site). Each of the 12 suites creates its own funky-chic tropical world, complete with original Caribbean art. Shabeen Cookshack is noted for spicy island dishes. Rates: $200 to $325 year round.
Colony: 736 Ocean Drive; tel. (800) 226-5669. One of the first Ocean Drive rehabs to glorify its lobby as a restaurant (the Colony Bistro), the hotel also has one of the drive's most photographed facades--especially at night, when its name glows in neon. There are 36 updated rooms. Rates: $125 to $200.
Impala: 1228 Collins Ave.; tel. (800) 646-7252. This European-style boutique hotel is one of SoBe's nicest small properties (17 rooms) despite a nothing location. Staffers go to great lengths (once arranging an ostrich-meat barbecue) but were too discreet to confirm (or deny) a rumor that Antonio Banderas was a recent guest. Rates: $189 to $369.
For more information: Florida Division of Tourism, 126 W. Van Buren St., Tallahassee 32399, (904) 487-1462.