The renaissance of South Beach started in the early '90s and is still continuing as classic cuisine gives in to modern temptation by inevitably fusing with more chic, nouveau developments created by faithful followers and devotees of the Food Network school of cooking. The ultimate result has spawned dozens of first-rate restaurants. In fact, big-name restaurants from across the country have capitalized on South Beach's international appeal and have continued to open branches here with great success. A few old standbys remain from the Miami Vice days, but the flock of newcomers dominates the scene, with places going in and out of style as quickly as the tides.
On South Beach, new restaurants are opening and closing as frequently as Emeril says "Bam!" Even in an economic downturn. And, ironically, most are upscale. As it's impossible to list them all, I recommend strolling and browsing. Most restaurants post a copy of their menu outside. With very few exceptions, the places on Ocean Drive are crowded with tourists and priced accordingly. You'll do better to venture a little farther onto the pedestrian-friendly streets just west of Ocean Drive.
Inexpensive -- Don't miss the South Beach branch of the Gold Coast's fun and tasty Taverna Opa (36-40 Ocean Dr., 1 block south of 1st St.; tel. 305/673-6730) in South Beach.
Miami Beach to North Miami
The area north of the Art Deco District -- from about 21st Street to 163rd Street -- had its heyday in the 1950s when huge hotels and gambling halls blocked the view of the ocean. Now, many of the old hotels have been converted into condos or budget lodgings, and the bayfront mansions have been renovated by and for wealthy entrepreneurs, families, and speculators. The area has many more residents, albeit seasonal, than visitors. On the culinary front, the result is a handful of superexpensive, traditional restaurants as well as a number of value-oriented spots.
North Miami Beach
Although there aren't many hotels in North Dade, the population in the winter months explodes due to the onslaught of seasonal residents from the Northeast. A number of exclusive condominiums and country clubs (including William's Island and Turnberry) breed a demanding clientele, many of whom dine out nightly. That's good news for visitors, who can find superior service and cuisine at value prices.
Downtown Miami is a large sprawling area divided by the Brickell Bridge into two distinct areas: Brickell Avenue and the bayfront area near Biscayne Boulevard. You shouldn't walk from one to the other -- it's quite a distance and unsafe at night. Convenient Metromover stops do adjoin the areas, so for a quarter, it's better to hop on the scenic sky tram (closed after midnight). Thanks to the urban renaissance taking place in downtown, a lot more hip, chichi, and bona fide foodie-caliber restaurants are starting to pop up. The Shops at Midtown Miami, 3401 N. Miami Ave. (tel. 305/573-3371; www.shopmidtownmiami.com), for instance, is the quintessence of urban revival, featuring anchor stores like Target and Marshall's and some really good restaurants including a branch of NYC's mod Mexican spot Mercadito and Sushi Samba's hipper sister, the tapas-oriented Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill. That said, while it's safe(ish) to walk the Shops at Midtown, surrounding areas not so much. Perhaps one day soon, it'll be safe to walk through the city at night from one hot spot to the next. Wishful thinking, perhaps, but then again, South Beach used to be unsafe as well.
The main artery of Little Havana is a busy commercial strip called SW Eighth Street, or Calle Ocho. Auto-body shops, cigar factories, and furniture stores line this street, and on every corner there seems to be a pass-through window serving superstrong Cuban coffee and snacks. In addition, many of the Cuban, Dominican, Nicaraguan, Peruvian, and other Latin American immigrants have opened full-scale restaurants ranging from intimate candlelit establishments to bustling stand-up lunch counters.
Key Biscayne has some of the world's nicest beaches, hotels, and parks, yet it is not known for great food. Locals, or "Key rats" as they're known, tend to go off-island for meals or takeout, but here are some of the best on-the-island choices.
Coconut Grove was long known as the artists' haven of Miami, but the rush of developers trying to cash in on the laid-back charm of this old settlement has turned it into something of an overgrown mall. Still, there are several great dining spots both in and out of the confines of Mayfair or CocoWalk.
Getting Back Into the Grove -- Aging hippies may recall Coconut Grove as a hub of all things peace and love. When the '60s ended, the beatniks made The Grove a retro-fab kind of town. Then came the '80s, and the Grove was as dead as Joplin and Hendrix. The '90s saw a resurgence with CocoWalk, whose sole purpose was to attract tourists, locals, and college students to its open-air debauchery, which went bankrupt in 2009 but still continues with Fat Tuesday's (tel. 305/534-1328) and Hooters (tel. 305/442-7283). Cafe Tu Tu Tango changed things a bit with its then-unique tapas-only menu and excellent sangria, but it closed in 2008. So did Dan Marino's, a sports pub and grill owned by the former Miami Dolphin. Unbelievably, so did the Cheesecake Factory. Today, Hooters is alive and well, as is Fat Tuesday's and Cheesecake Factory. Joining the group is a Chili's (tel. 305/772-5472). It's nothing innovative or spectacular, but it may suit this town well, like an old Crosby, Stills & Nash song.
Coral Gables is a foodie's paradise -- a city in which you certainly won't go hungry. What Starbucks is to most major cities, excellent gourmet and ethnic restaurants are to Coral Gables, where there's a restaurant on every corner, and everywhere in between.
South Miami & West Miami
Though mostly residential, these areas nonetheless have several eating establishments worth the drive.