Congratulations. You have survived another summer in New York.
You dealt with oppressive heat, earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornados. You lived through the Upper East Side sex predator, the Lower East Side bar closings and the Long Island serial killer. That kind of accomplishment calls for a celebration. But based on the events of the past three months, you might decide to celebrate somewhere else for a little while.
That’s ok. New York will understand, as long as you don’t stray too far away. Fortunately, there is a place only a couple hours away that will let you get out of New York nightlife without really leaving New York nightlife.
Welcome to South Beach.
The Sound and the Crowd
The first things you will notice after you drop off your bags and head out are the people, the weather and the music. There are only four types of people in South Beach; Latin expats, Europeans on holiday, crunk kids from the South and other New Yorkers. The weather fluctuates between sticky hot or comfortably cool and can change at a moment’s notice. The combination of these four groups and the temperature blends gives the crowds a unique style and feeling.
The result is something that is wild and sophisticated, stylish and slutty, exotic and banal all at the same time. Like New York, each group settles into their own nightlife niches, with cross pollination happening on the fringes of each group. Unlike New York, the percentage of buttafaces and bikinis worn off the beach is much higher there than here.
The default music genre in South Beach is house. You will hear it blasting into the streets from clothing stores, cigar shops and restaurants. You’ll hear it when you wake up for lunch, when you’re walking along Lincoln Road at night or falling asleep in a cab on the way back to your hotel. Even if you like house, the nonstop assault can be a little much. Thankfully, South Beach has variety if you know where to look. Afro Cuban bands play at places like Jazid. There is live jazz at spots like the Van Dyke. Hip hop is a mainstay at venues like Mansion and Set and is continuously blasted out of rented sports cars that the amateurs use to cruise around in. South Beach might not have the music diversity and density as New York, but it does have more than enough to set the mood and keep you moving.
Places to Go, Things to Do
When you go out in South Beach, you will find quite a few similarities between their nightlife and the one you are used to. You will also find there are some things that South Beach just pulls off better than NYC.
New York venues have sister spots here including Plunge, Living Room, Nikki Beach and the Playwrights Bar. Many operators from New York branch out to open venues here just like they do in Las Vegas or Los Angles. Rooftop bars like the Clevelander and outdoor bars like the one at the Shore Club are more inviting than many of their counterparts in New York because the beach and tropical nature of the area are better suited for outdoor drinking than the cobblestone streets of Meatpacking or our often cramped skylines.
If you are in the mood for a mojito or a caipirinha (and who isn’t?) you don’t have to go to a special cocktail lounge to get one in South Beach. The bartenders are much more willing to make them there than in New York if only because most of our bartenders don’t have time to muddle when the bar is packed four deep with bridge and tunnel kids.
Word to the Wise
There are only three warnings that a nightlife native needs when going to South Beach.
First, while the service is universally good, be prepared to pay an automatic 18% tip everywhere you go.
Second, the main area of South Beach is from 1st Street to Lincoln Road and by and large covers three avenues; Washington, Collins and Ocean Drive. Once you leave those areas you will venture into the districts of low rise apartment buildings and efficiencies of local residents. They can feel isolated and unsafe late at night, so it is a good idea to avoid that area if you can, especially when you are intoxicated.
Finally, it pays to avoid Ocean Drive. There isn’t anything wrong with a strip of bars, restaurants and hotels right across the street from a (sometimes topless) beach, but it’s similar to venues in Times Square or the Vegas strip. The competition between venues for tourists and patrons is so high that the whole experience can be draining for a native. It just might be better to go off the beaten track a little.
Let’s Get Specific
I made several stops on my last visit to South Beach and I have full reviews for all of them on my Yelp page, (gamalhennessy.yelp.com) but here is a preview to wrap things up here.
Hotel Essex is a recommended place to stay. It is clean, stylish, centrally located and offers access to the member’s only rooftop of the Clevelander Hotel, so it’s like staying at the Clevelander without the price or the drama.
The Van Dyke had good music but poor service.
Skip the sports bar and the pool bar at the Clevelander and head straight for the rooftop bar which is a much better in terms of service, scenery and good looking people.
The Shore Club is a spot you don’t want to miss, especially if you like drinking mojitos under a palm tree.
The Tides Bar has great cocktails, but it is smaller than a New York studio apartment. Take your drink outside and watch the waves of humanity walk by.
In terms of restaurants, the food at Eden was good. The food at Grazie is better. Doruku is the best place for happy hour, even if you don’t have much experience with sake. Wine Bar is definitely off the beaten track, but not really worth the trip. The Front Porch Café might have the worst service on the East Coast and the food isn’t much better.
Honorable mention has to be given to the Erotic Museum which is much better than our Museum of Sex, the Howard Feld Art Gallery for offering free wine and body painted models and I heart liquor for being one of the best liquor stores outside of Manhattan.
As the weather gets colder and memories of your New York summer begin to fade, you are going to look for a warm place to escape to. South Beach offers the right combination of unique and familiar to satisfy the New York native. Go before we get another week of hurricanes, earthquakes and tornados.