The hungry, new Little Havana
A pair of painted roosters perched by a Cuban restaurant near a “Welcome to Little Havana” sign peer at the new bar across Calle Ocho.
The neon “Yo [heart] Calle Ocho” sign has been there for years. But a new sight in this part of town is the craft beer bar beneath it and its 30-something owners: him in a thick, black beard and low-hanging jeans; her, his pregnant wife, with the arm tattoo.
Twenty feet away, next to a shop of Cuban souvenirs, a window sign in a store under construction reads “Opening Soon: Velvet Creme doughnuts.” A block down, an oyster bar with bivalves flown in from across the country is a month away from peeling the brown paper wrapper from its windows.
There’s more: A Thai restaurant among South Florida’s best (with a competitor coming soon); a gourmet chocolate shop with guava in its name; a three-and-half-star reviewed restaurant at the bleeding edge of this historic neighborhood; and an ice cream shop of Cuban flavors that has become a mainstay on these brightly colored blocks.
Welcome to the new Little Havana.
“It’s a magical place, a magical time for us,” said Azucar Ice Cream owner Suzanne Batlle. “It’s the right place at the right moment in time.”
Little Havana is no longer a string of run-down buildings and cigar shops, Cuban restaurants and botánicas. It has managed to draw a host of new businesses by young entrepreneurs — particularly in food and drink — without losing the historical look and feel that gives it its identity and draws tourists by the literal (double-decker) busload.
And it’s not out-of-towners but native Miamians helping to push Little Havana forward.
This was by design. Rather than allowing developers to raze whole blocks of Little Havana and rebuild it with high-rises and sleek storefronts, locals locked arms to protect the neighborhood’s history.
Leading the effort is Miami native Bill Fuller, 39, who snatched up swaths of property in the heart of Little Havana’s revival, between 15th and 17th avenues, and started the restoration with his Ball & Chain nightclub. Instead of renting to national chains or retail stores, he started to build a neighborhood, choosing independent businesses and renovating buildings the way Tony Goldman did in Wynwood and South Beach on a smaller scale.
Nothing says “transition complete” like craft beer and doughnuts, and Little Havana is getting both.
David and Cici Rodriguez’s Union Beer Store is awaiting only its final beer and wine license to open next door to El Cristo Cuban restaurant in the next two weeks, a juxtaposition of new and old ideals. The husband and wife were born and reared in Miami and wanted to open their craft beer bar in a part of town that had history, where they could spread their love of artisanal beers and try to convert the Heineken- and Corona-loving crowd.
They built out the bar but kept a local watering hole feel, down to a huge mural of a whale (craft beer lovers call rare beers whales) by local artist Krave, whose studio is on Southwest 12th Avenue in Little Havana.
“I love that they’re keeping what Little Havana is and infusing it with some cool new concepts,” said David Rodriguez, son of Cuban parents who helped start the popular Wynwood craft beer bar and restaurant Kush.
“There aren’t a lot of places in Miami left that have this authentic vibe,” Cici Rodriguez added.
Authenticity is why Velvet Creme Doughnuts, which had a storefront on Southwest Eighth Street from 1947 to 2000, decided on the heart of Little Havana for its first new brick-and-mortar store. The last one was demolished to make way for a Nissan dealership on Eighth Street, and the company was closed for a while in 2008.
“For our first store, we had to put it back where it was,” said Robert Taylor, a Miami native and retired Miami Beach Police detective who took over the business from his brother-in-law. “This is our town. Everybody knows us here. We just love Eighth Street.”
Credit Fuller for leading by example.
He and partners Zack Bush, 39, and brother Ben, 40 — also Miami natives and lifelong friends — renovated Ball & Chain, a bar and music venue that hosted the likes of Billie Holiday and Chet Baker in the ’50s. They restored the building, with its Art Deco lines, into a modern interpretation, with live music inside and in the courtyard out back. They are renovating the building next door into The Domino Social Club. And Fuller, with his real estate partner Martin Pinilla, 40, and their Barlington Group, are repurposing an apartment building behind the club into the Tower Hotel. Both will open in late 2017.
Fuller hand-picked tenants to surround him. Where there was once a used-car dealership, he built a space for an art gallery, Futurama. And the alley between them became an occasional beer garden pop-up for another Little Havana newcomer, Miami Smokers, who set up their urban smokehouse (thick bacon and cured meats) just blocks away on Southwest 27th Avenue, at the edge of Little Havana’s unofficial border.
He leased space that was once the site of the nation’s first Navarro Pharmacy (at one time, the largest Latino-owned drugstore in the country) to Azucar’s Batlle, who was his mortgage broker before she left banking to start her ice cream shop. Where else could traditional flavors such as guava and cream cheese grab a foothold but in Miami’s quintessentially Cuban part of town?
Now, nearly three million people a year visit Little Havana, according to the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. But it’s Miamians who are rediscovering Little Havana. Historian and tour guide Paul George, who lives in the neighborhood, recently took a group of 40 Kendall women to Ball & Chain and the surrounding businesses.
“You could see it in their eyes that they couldn’t believe what they were seeing,” he said. “It’s an absolute revelation for them.”
That interest has opened the door to more niche and diverse restaurants.
“We did a lot of ground work for these types of places, and we’re so happy to have them because it makes us more interesting,” Batlle said.
Just a few doors down, North Miami Beach native Jordan Marano and Christian Poltczyk, chefs together at Rosa Mexicano, partnered in Ella’s Oyster Bar, where they’ll feature oysters from Kumamoto to Blue Point and a ceviche bar, with a selection of craft beer. The restaurant is slated to open by March and give Little Havana another new option.
Marano has gotten in the car and timed the drive for locals: His restaurant is 4 minutes from Brickell, 3 from I-95, 12 from Coral Gables and 11 from Coconut Grove. Little Havana is at the center of the Miami he wants to feed.
“This area is so real to me. That’s what I love about it,” Marano says as he stands in the dust-covered restaurant-in-progress. “This is what we know. This is the city we want to speak to.”
Calle Ocho has become a magnet, competition be damned.
Even though Mr. Yum is still thriving and Lung Yai Thai has become a destination restaurant for everyone from tourists to locals, Niti Masintapan is opening his second ramen and Pan-Asian GoBistro within blocks of both later this year.
Why? Raised in Miami after his family emigrated from Thailand, a graduate of the University of Miami, where else would the young man who says he’s “305 till I die” want to open his first Miami-Dade outpost?
“There’s real history here. You can’t make that up,” Masintapan said. “Little Havana, Eighth Street, how much more Miami can you get?”
What’s New on Calle Ocho
Several new restaurants have opened or are planning to open in Little Havana in the next few weeks, joining several newer restaurants. Here’s a look at some popular spots and upcoming places:
Cardon y El Tirano restaurant (3.5 stars, Excellent, Miami Herald)
3411 SW Eighth St., Miami
Doce Provisions restaurant (2.5 stars, Good, Miami Herald)
541 SW 12th Ave., Miami
Guayaba y Chocolate chocolate shop
1603 SW Eighth St., Miami
Lung Yai Thai
731 SW Eighth St., Miami
Miami Smokers smoke house and restaurant
306 NW 27th Ave., Miami
Union Beer Store craft beer bar
1547 SW Eighth St., Miami
Ball & Chain nightclub and bar
1513 SW Eighth St., Miami
Azucar Ice Cream
1503 SW Eighth St., Miami
Coming in early 2017
Ella’s Oyster Bar
1615 SW Eighth St., Miami
Velvet Creme Doughnuts
1555 SW Eighth St., Miami
John LaMarket gourmet hamburgers
1551 SW Eighth St., Miami