Miami is one of the most progressive cities in America, and it steadily grows at a rapid rate. According to the official Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau (www.miamiandbeaches.com), there were 15.7 million visitors in 2016, a substantial increase from the 13.9 in 2012. Emerging neighborhoods like Downtown Miami, South of Fifth, and Wynwood are now fixtures, and there are excellent new spots all over Miami that contribute to the excitement and allure of this gay-friendly city.
Originally built in the 1920s as an artist’s colony, Espanola Way is a vibrant hub of thriving, alfresco restaurants and cafés, flooded nightly with locals, including many hand-holding gay couples (it’s central to gay establishments). To preserve the history, aesthetic and integrity of Espanola Way, the City of Miami Beach completed a $2.5 million revitalization project unveiled in May, a much-needed facelift that didn’t compromise the lively atmosphere. Espanola Way is home to some of the most eclectic restaurants in Miami (like Cuban restaurant Havana 1957 and Pane e Vino, where staff cut pasta right in the storefront window). The newest restaurant, Mare Mio (447 Espanola Way, Tel: 305-397-8950. www.maremiorestaurant.com) has been a welcome addition with its excellent, fresh seafood. The intimate, no-frills spot with indoor and outdoor seating is helmed by Claudio Giordano, a restaurant industry veteran who launched local haunts La Bussola and Claudius. At Mare Mio, diners can personally select fresh, daily catch from a display and order it steamed, grilled, sashimi, or fried.
Espanola Way is geared to attract more traffic with renovations of The Clay and two new hotels, including El Paseo Hotel (405 Espanola Way, Tel: 855-417-8483. www.elpaseohotel.com). Open less than a year, the Spanish-French Revival, 71-room property skews budget-friendly and feels residential, spanning seven “villas” with intimate courtyards along El Paseo. All sun-drenched suites are equipped with French balconies overlooking the vibrant street, styled with modern furnishings like colorful pillows and retro-Miami prints with simple touches for flair (including Spanish quotes painted onto the wall). Employees put a lot of pride in the hotel—figuratively, too, as 80 percent of staff identify as LGBT. While the hotel is bare-boned (there’s no pool, elevator, restaurant, or fitness center), guests have beach club access that includes towels and lounge chairs. El Paseo is also the only hotel in Miami to loan Snapchat Spectacles. Via Bluetooth, guests can pair the sunglasses to their Snapchat with the touch of a button.
Guests looking to splurge can stay at The Betsy South Beach (1440 Ocean Drive, Tel: 305-531-6100. www.thebetsyhotel.com), a AAA-Four Diamond hotel originally built in 1942 by famed L. Murray Dixon (the architect responsible for art deco classics like The Raleigh and The Tides). Located in South Beach, The Betsy is the most luxurious hotel on iconic Ocean Drive, offering a high degree of comfort with exceptional service. In January 2017, just in time for its 75th anniversary celebration, the hotel unveiled a groundbreaking, multi-million renovation and expansion that included the takeover of Carlton Hotel on Collins Avenue next door. The two buildings are connected by a visually crafted egg art installation. The expansion doubled the room inventory (now 128 rooms), and guests can choose between the original Colonial Wing with lobby, LT Steak & Seafood, and ground pool oasis, or yhe new Art Deco Wing with modern rooms with balconies. The new wing features a gorgeous library, conservatory, fitness center, and rooftop pool that, amazingly, is a bridge that connects the two buildings.
Farther up the white-sand beach, Loews Miami Beach Hotel (1601 Collins Avenue, Tel: 877-876-7871. www.loewsmiamibeach.com) did an impressive job with its whopping, $50 million renovation. Return visitors will discover a brand-new experience, including a modern poolscape, upgraded rooms, and a swank and stunning lobby that no longer feels dated. Guests will find nothing has changed at Exhale Spa, and this is a good thing. Exhale is one of the best spa sanctuaries in the city with steam, sauna, whirlpool, and top therapists. For another excellent destination spa, I recommend heading 30 minutes north to Turnberry Isle, a five-star property that recently unveiled a 20,000-square-foot ames Spa & Wellness (19999 West Country Club Drive, Tel: 305-932-6200. www.amewellness.com). The separate men/women’s facilities include a unique Himalayan Salt Room (instead of a sauna), where guests can feel purified and rejuvenated from deep exhalations. Among dozens of pampering treatments, the Amethyst Himalayan Massage takes place on a bed of quartz sand, which is known to withdraw impurities and heal. The experience is worth the commute, especially if you make it a whole evening with dinner at Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steaks, a steakhouse with some of the city’s finest cuts and unsuspecting quirks (instead of a basket of bread, guests receive an assortment of seasoned French fries with house-made dipping sauces).
EAST Miami (788 Brickell Plaza, Tel: 305-712-7000. www.east-miami.com) is Miami’s most dazzling new property to debut in the past year. Opened May 2016, the five-star, 40-floor hotel (from Swire Properties) did not pinch pennies. Resort-style facilities include a gorgeous, 20,000square-foot outdoor pool oasis with hot tubs, a stylish rooftop bar, Sugar, serving sushi and craft cocktails (and boasting breathtaking views) and Parador La Huella, a popular Uruguayan restaurant that made its US debut with a kitchen designed by LA’s notable Studio Collective. There are 352 guest rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows/balconies, though the 89 high-end residence suites are the accommodations to book; they’re equipped with multiple balconies, separate living areas, and full kitchens. East Miami is part of the new Brickell City Centre (701 South Miami Avenue, Tel: 786-292-2887. www.brickellcitycentre.com), a $1 billion, nine-acre mixed-use center with designer boutiques and trendy restaurants. The real highlight is the commanding “the future is now” architecture, including a progressive Climate Ribbon installation that provides innovative climate control. It’s a destination unto itself with forward-thinking design (from texture to geometric patterns), as well as creative use of outdoor space. Even if you’re not looking to shop, Brickell is a burgeoning area, and Brickell City Centre has become a flagship for the emerging neighborhood.
In Downtown Miami, ME Miami (1100 Biscayne Boulevard, Tel: 786-577-9700. www.melia.com) officially opened last summer. The first US hotel for the gay-friendly, international Meliá brand feels residential and intimate with 129 rooms, though it may deceptively seem larger in scale as it’s part of a residential tower complex. This actually works to the guest’s advantage: the fitness center is massive for a Miami hotel, there are two outdoor pools, and it’s extremely pet-friendly. In fact, pets get the star treatment here with myriad amenities and tons of grassy areas on site. Museum lovers will appreciate the location of ME Miami, directly across the street from Perez Arts Museum and the new Frost Science Museum (1101 Biscayne Boulevard, Tel: 305-434-9600. www.frostscience.org), which opened in May. The immense, three-building complex spanning five levels immerse visitors in fascinating science-themed exhibits, which includes innovative, interactive features exploring animals and space, a laser show and, unarguably its best component, a 250-seat, domed planetarium. The visual joyride is a masterpiece (it puts imax to shame) with two current shows: Dynamic Earth and Asteroid: Mission Extreme. On the top, al fresco level, a saltwater Gulf Stream Tank exhibits live animals, including rays, sharks, and alligators. On my visit, I couldn’t help but think Frost was like Harry Potter novels. While the museum is geared toward kids (the majority of visitors), it’s fascinating for adults, who may actually appreciate it more.
The most impressive, glamorous, and luxury-drenched hotel opening in the past year is Four Seasons Surf Club (9101 Collins Avenue, Tel: 305-381-3333. www.fourseasons.com/surfside) in Surfside (20 minutes north of South Beach). An upscale hideaway near the Bal Harbour shops, Four Seasons Surf Club has all the bells and whistles you’d anticipate from a five-star property, but it delivers beyond already high expectations. Legendary architect Richard Meier re-imagined the core of the property, the historic, 1930s-opened The Surf Club, a former magnet to the rich and famous, like Elizabeth Taylor, Tennessee Williams, and Winston Churchill. Well preserved are the grandiose look and feel of the original clubhouse with soaring ceilings, archways, art deco lighting, gorgeous leafy, palms, and tons of white marble, evoking timeless elegance and Golden Age glamour; the hotel is unarguably a destination unto itself. Backbending service, plenty of privacy and high-end amenities ensure guests can expect a level of privilege that’s rare in Miami. The hotel has only 77 rooms and suites, so it feels exclusive. Gourmets will flock to Le Sirenuse restaurant, the second location for lthe egendary Amalfi Coast institution. The Champagne bar with custom furnishings and tall palms is flooded with sunlight by day and sensual lighting by night, providing the perfect setting for a romantic meal in Miami.
As Miami continues to flourish, change can be bittersweet, notably with The Palace Bar (1052 Ocean Drive, Tel: 305-531-7234. www.palacesouthbeach.com). The legendary, gay bar institution on Ocean Drive (famous for drag shows) shuttered for the summer after 29 long years (a developer bought the building for $15.2 million, implementing a new direction). But the show’s not over for The Palace, whose slogan is “Every queen needs a palace.” To the joy of thousands of fans, The Palace Bar reopened in November, just two blocks from its original location in a bigger, badder and gayer space! While many may miss the former stomping ground, the all-new Palace Bar has a large outdoor terrace, a roomier dance floor, and walls that open up (for that trademark, South Beach ocean breeze), offering a more significant sense of place— and, of course, all the same wild antics, drag shows and fun-filled, late-night action.
Dining in Miami never fails to impress me, especially with new restaurants that dare to be inventive. The dining scene is so competitive; it was hard for me to choose among at least 15 new and notable restaurants that opened since my last visit a year ago. I have no regrets dining at KYU (251 NW 25th Street, Tel: 786-577-0150. www.kyumiami.com), and it was the first time I traveled to Wynwood not for art. The dimly lit space is unabashedly industrial with high ceilings, blonde tables, stone walls, and artfully exposed everything (pipes, poles, duct vents). There’s an eco-vibe with plotted micro-greens on every table, and stacks of firewood used for the wood-fired oven, while handsome, hipster-ish waiters buzz around in white aprons and baseball caps. I can’t imagine KYU anywhere but Wynwood. While it’s yet another “Asian” restaurant in Miami where there’s no Asian chefs in the kitchen, I realize the team is not going for authenticity. They’re aiming for progressive Asian in an honorable, creative way. Dishes felt prepared with reverence, as if chef Michael Lewis (who worked at high-end Zuma and nine years with Jean-Georges Vongerichten) wanted to show how time spent traversing Asian countries truly inspired him. Shareable plates range from crispy hamachi to juicy, perfectly brined and seasoned fried chicken, but the stone-fried rice is the highlight, cooked in a hot stone bowl with a crisp, crunch, and sweetness from herbal tea sauce and king crab.
In downtown, I had dinner at Pubbelly Station (121 Southeast 1st Street, Tel: 305-420-2205. www.pbstation.com) inside the new boutique Langford Hotel (known for its stylish rooftop that seduces locals). Opened last April, the restaurant is the latest offering from local restaurant heroes Pubbelly Boys, who have developed a cult following with foodies. More high end, Pubbelly Station is a far departure from what they’re known for, inside a space that feels like a train station inside a bank (no, really…they merge the train station concept with the building’s history as a former 1920’s bank. Think subway tiles, clocks, arches and mirrors). Executive chef and James Beard Award Best Chef– nominee Jose Mendin took the framework of an American chophouse and elevated the hell out of it with some French technique and Miami styling. Sure, the menu offers steaks but also grilled head-on shrimp with bacon sofrito, Atlantic cod, and a truly decadent French onion soup-slash-braised short rib dumplings piled with melted gruyère cheese and brioche croutons.
There’s been a lot of action in the emerging South of Fifth neighborhood (on the southern border of South Beach), with three notable restaurants I had the pleasure to dine at. Great Mexican food in Miami is not a thing, though Lolo’s Surf Cantina (161 Ocean Drive, Tel: 305-735-6973. www.loloscantina.com) is defying expectations. It’s an impressive, casual spot for authentic, street food-inspired Mexican fare created by executive chef Richard Ampudia.
Rather than embracing a traditional Mexican design, the contemporary space feels like a retro surf shack with Mexican-themed art deco posters, checkered floors and a framed, wall-size poster of a torero’s backside. It’s fun and hip, and the dishes truly hit the right spots. The guacamole is the freshest I’ve had in Miami (diners can add grasshopper or rock shrimp), and the grilled corn with chili powder and lime was sweet and crunchy. Naturally, you can’t leave without having a plate of tacos, from rib eye and carnitas to pescado and vegetarian. The menu also offers bonemarrow chalupa with salsa macha and a Mayan pumpkin seed dip, if you want to go the nontraditional route.
Lobster Bar (404 Washington Avenue, Tel: 305-377-2675. www.buckheadrestaurants.com) has big shoes to fill considering it took over China Grill, an institution for almost two decades. Thankfully, it’s on the right track. Open since April, Lobster Bar is a glam space with tiled ceilings, vested waitstaff, and an understated, art deco feel, somewhat refined but not stuffy. It’s a magnet to affluent locals who appreciate fine dining, and they certainly get dressed to the nines here. Executive chef Arturo Paz formerly helmed Cleo, which is one of my favorite Miami restaurants, so my expectations were high. He didn’t disappoint. There’s a number of upmarket dishes, like wild ahi tuna tartar that serves as a bed for dollops of rich caviar, and A-5 Miyazaki 100 percent Wagyu Kobe beef filet mignon (the only place in Miami to serve this), though lobster obviously dominates the menu, sourced from international purveyors, all arriving fresh and, for the most part, alive. I opted for lobster pasta, where fresh gitara pasta was mixed with tomato lobster sauce, served with lobster chunks. The plate was garnished with an actual lobster head and tail that truly gave an aura of sophistication.
Upland Miami (49 Collins Avenue, Tel: 305-602-9998. www.uplandmiami.com), a spinoff of celebrity chef Stephen Starr’s Upland in NYC, is ambitious with truly good vibes. Helmed by Justin Smillie, Upland is the most “hipster” in this area, with design features that prove a lot of thought was given to the aesthetics. Entire walls are lined with illuminated jars of preserved lemons or artichoke. The menu comprises rustic and seasonal Californian-inspired fare, but I found Mexican influences in the brunch menu, which featured chilaquiles with baked tortillas, skirt steak, and cotija. The waiter recommended the little gem salad with avocado, cucumber, ricotta salada and walnut vinaigrette. They came out Asian style, so I ate them with my hands the way you would with lettuce-wrapped bulgogi, and it hit all the right spots.
With impressive new and renovated luxury hotels, new world-class museums, an edgy culinary movement, and a stronger LGBTQ scene, Miami is a city that never fails to inspire. In fact, with every visit, I’m finding it harder to carve out time for the beach. Every year, gay travelers have more reasons to explore (and rediscover) the city that’s constantly reinventing itself and creating new standout businesses. At the pace Miami is growing, I know there will be more-luxury hotels, restaurants, and attractions to explore on my next visit.