Florida, I’m sorry.
Please take no personal offense at the following comments. It’s just that Florida has its share of derogatory descriptions:
“God’s waiting room.”
“A wonderful place to enjoy some pain pills or die of old age. And vice versa.”
“No one is actually FROM Florida. They just die in Florida.”
So the state probably doesn’t need me to weigh in with my personal opinions (although, obviously, I will). The first few times there, it really felt like a continuous shopping or strip mall interrupted only by freestanding chain restaurants—on the East coast, anyway. Miami, one of the motherships, felt a little too much like Vegas filled with tacky tourists and clothes, thumping music and tons of conventions.
But when it’s January and you live in Minnesota, there is no high horse on which to sit and judge or criticize Florida. So Miami becomes an easy go to place extending a business trip or just for a weekend to bring some level of humidity back to our flaking skin and static-ridden hair.
I can’t call Miami a two-day town. Primarily because it’s not really a town. It’s more a collection of areas (these are our subjective, not-what-you’d-call-technical descriptions):
Downtown: near Brickell, aka some business and shopping. Brickell is continuing to grow and develop and the offerings and hotels are vastly improving.
Wynwood: The up-and-coming hip area, which is getting better and better with unique stores and restaurants. Although, at about 10:00 on a Friday night you’ll be the oldest one on the street (no matter how young you think you are).
Arts/Design District: This was Wynwood before Wynwood. It’s more gentrified now with major brands, studios, etc.
The sections of Miami Beach: The northern section, which is a little no man’s land (and quieter), the 16thStreet/Lincoln Road South Beach mid-section, which is a tourist haven, and Art Deco South Beach, which is more of a tourist hell, with the quirkier deco style added inthat has been somewhat preserved into a much more interesting vibe.
Without further editorializing, here’s a simple list of ideas and recommendations for hotels and restaurants if you, like me, just wanna be warm for an extended trip or weekend—but also maybe want to find where the quality is hiding.
Miami Beach Hotels:
Yes, it’s basically a version of Vegas with some water. It’s a long line of front-facing hotels that range from huge to boutique to quirky. As in every tourist city, if you’re brand-loyal to a specific chain, Miami won’t disappoint. They’re all here.
The Villa, Casa Casauarina: Was also called the Villa at Barton G, and it’s the old Versace mansion in the heart of South Beach, aka over-the-top, ornate, headache-inducing luxury. But it’s small (an advantage in Miami Beach) and uber expensive.
The Tides: The front deck area is some of the craziest people watching in Miami. But it’s a smaller, high-touch boutique property in South Beach “Deco-land.”
The Four Seasons: Four Seasons. Enough said. Bigger, but consistently Four Seasons. It is on the “mainland” with views back at Miami Beach and close to Fisher Island. A little quieter, more dignified location.
Mandarin Oriental: Speaking of dignified location, the Mandarin Oriental is on Brickell Key (just a little off the mainland and closer to the Four Seasons.) It has great strategic views in all directions and in a quiet land by itself, without the craziness of Miami Beach.
Hip and Happening Luxury:
The Edition: It’s fairly new, and although the Edition is a growing Marriott boutique-y, higher-end chain, the new-construction building was created thoughtfully and creatively. The location is also pretty central, and it has a Jean-Georges restaurant (along with bowling alley, club, etc.).
1 Hotel: The South Beach place to be, but it’s also huge.
Faena: It’s the new kid, transplanted from its (much better) roots in Buenos Aires.
The Fontainebleau: It’s gigantic. The music in the lobby is constantly thumping. But if you book a room in the renovated original building (Chateau/Versailles) with an oceanfront balcony, it’s a little oasis. It’s also a good bet if you have kids. Michael Mina rules the restaurants, and StripSteak is considered one of the better bets in the area. Note: There is no level of personal service (or service at all?) in a hotel this size, but the restaurants are an exception.
SLS: Also a chain, but the terrace and back area are a secluded little oasis. José Andrés’ Bazaar is consistently good, and is a special treat for breakfast or dinner. (Note: there’s a new SLS in Brickell with a José Andrés restaurant, Bazaar Mar, if you’re looking to stay downtown instead.)
Carillon: A resort a little further north designed to stay there and do spa treatments. Quiet, with a lot less or no thumping. (Maybe I should have started a thump meter?)
Smaller, and pretty cool:
Other than the Tides, here are some honorable mentions:
Casa Claridge’s: A little more modest in design and price.
The Raleigh: Cool because it retained some deco bones.
Too cool for school:
But the people watching is always interesting…
Delano: A little older, but still staying high on the hip list
Viceroy: A little newer, and like Viceroy it’s designed with a bit more style than substance, but always provides a scene.
The Mondrian: a big, classic boutique hotel, but this one is facing the Biscayne Bay side (not the Atlantic).
Setai: It’s aging now, but used to be the place of cool, hip Zen in the common areas.
Because they were too much of a scene and the details weren’t so great, we didn’t love:
The Standard (it’s also set a bit further away from Miami Beach, but still has a cool waterfront location)
Restaurants close to Miami Beach fall into categories by location. If you’re staying in Miami Beach and want to go over the causeway into Wynwood or MiMo for dinner, be advised that 7 miles can take 45 minutes. So try to find places ganged together so you’re not driving multiple nights in a row.
The Name Chef movement:
Everyone chef with a name (I refuse to use the term “celebrity chef”) has found his or her way to Miami. Just like Vegas, the hotels use these chef- named restaurants as part of their destination appeal. You’ll find nearly everyone here, from Daniel Boulud (JW Marriott) to Jean Georges (The Edition) to Stephen Starr (Aloft and recently Stephen Starr’s NYC transplant Upland moved into a independent spot way south) to Andrew Carmellini (the W) to Michael Mina (Fontainebleau) to Jose Andres (SLS) to Gaston Acurio (Mandarin Oriental). They’re all offshoots of their respective motherships, but most are executed pretty well. These are easy choices, especially if you haven’t eaten at the original, but they don’t provide any local character of flavor—see below for some options that do.
Michael’s Genuine: It’s an always-crowded crowd pleaser. This is a Michael Schwartz restaurant that opened in this area before it was a good idea. (He now also has a close-by restaurant to Michael’s called Cypress Tavern.)
Alter: One of the more creative restaurants in Miami. The chef is a transplant (but like I said, who isn’t?) with serious street cred. They just added the outdoor Bar Alter, which is a must do for a drink.
Sugarcane: This place is huge and the menu is huge, but it’s pretty fun and the outdoor patio is unparalleled.
Blue Collar: a fun little restaurant with a hint of 70’s vibe and comfort food.
Vagabond: a fairly new one in a renovated hotel that is and was formerly a classic motel. The food is actually pretty good, and the design is mid-century modern Palm Springs meets Miami Beach. Even better, the outdoor space is seamless.
Miami Beach (ish) area:
Yardbird (above): The 50 Eggs restaurant group does a great job creating quality spots that people actually like to go back to again and again. Yardbird is their fried chicken star. Order it all. You’ll feel sick, but it’s worth it.
Macchialina: This restaurant is a rustic little Italian gem that makes you feel more like you’re in New York than Miami.
27 Restaurant and Bar: These guys are attempting a more authentic Miami restaurant, meaning a melting pot of cuisines and cultures from South American to Caribbean. It’s got a cool residential feel.
In addition to 27, don’t miss Broken Shaker, the Freehand’s hotel bar. Probably one of the coolest outdoor hotel bars you’ll see. It’s got an authentic vibe, and it’s the best place to get away from the standard thumping music in EVERY hotel.
Pubbelly: It’s now sort of a chain with a few locations, but this little “Asian gastro pub” has great food and the chef has been a James Beard semifinalist multiple times.
Joe’s Stone Crab: If you like the idea of the menu at Joe’s, but not the idea that it’s chain with locations everywhere, try the Miami Beach location. It’s the original.