By Rebecca Kleinman
More than four decades ago, when South Miami was still cow pastures, Bill Bowers, the octogenarian captain behind Captain’s Tavern, got his hands on an old U.S. post office for a mere $1 a square foot. A New England transplant who had worked on fishing docks as a boy, he dreamed of parlaying his love of the ocean into a restaurant that celebrated the bounties of the sea. He spent a year transforming his newfound space into a tavern with nautical décor he affectionately dubbed “early depression”—which has not since changed—and the rest is Miami history.
Having started with just a couple of seafood specialties, today Captain’s Tavern is known to serve not only the city’s freshest seafood but also its widest variety. On any given day, there may be 10 different oyster specialties available and an extensive selection of fish. “Now sea bass and such is more expensive than steak,” says Bowers, who leafs through his phone book of fishing contacts for daily catches of hogfish, yellowtail and red and black grouper, depending on the season. He unloads them all in big numbers to multigenerational families, adding, “We must go through 1,200 pounds of salmon and 3,000 oysters per week.” He concedes there is one new addition to the old tavern: a sushi bar, at the behest of his grandchildren and their contemporaries. (9621 South Dixie Highway, Miami; 305-666-5979.)
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Before Miami was inundated with steakhouses, French and Italian eateries ruled the roost. So when Christy’s, the city’s famously plush and elegant meat emporium, was born in the late 1970s, it quickly became the go-to spot for special occasions, business dinners and newly minted yuppies. It became so beloved that when the restaurant underwent a makeover in 2007, patrons protested when they heard a rumor that new, more modern seating was to be installed. Instead, “They insisted we refurbish the original, vintage office chairs made of hulking wood and leather, because they’re so comfortable,” says Chris Klaic, one of the partners behind the restaurant.
What patrons did approve was the addition of a piano bar where today guests can sit and order appetizers while taking in live jazz tunes. Another update that didn’t quite work: after trying to expand the menu’s salad selection, the restaurant gave up; diners were only interested in its decadent Caesar, whose secret recipe has been made-to-order by the same server for 20 years. Also worth noting is the shrimp cocktail, which is so colossal, the joke goes, it must be on steroids, and the baked Alaska flambéed tableside—a true Miami show. (3101 Ponce De Leon Boulevard, Coral Gables; 305-446-1400)
Everyone’s a VIP at Romeo’s Café, which hung its sign on Coral Way in 1998. Chef owner Romeo Majano visits each table, and not just at meal’s end. From the moment guests enter he’s fishing for information—preferences, allergies, is a beaming beau about to pop the question? Then Majano heads back into the kitchen, where he envelopes homemade pumpkin tortellini in sage butter and simmers rabbit stock for a fettuccini recipe with more steps than Julia Child would dare attempt. “Our prix fixe menu offers four or six courses, but no one orders the smaller one,” says Majano, who made the cut for Best Chefs America’s 2013 edition. “Many diners come in by word of mouth and share how they found us.” If you’re a dessert lover pining for the past, forget settling for throwbacks like molten chocolate cake; a lighter predecessor—the soufflé!—survives here instead. (2257 SW 22nd Street, Miami; 305-859-2228)
Old-school Miamians may remember Jeffrey Landsman as the proprietor of Jeffrey’s on Miami Beach. But it was a dozen years ago that he crossed the bay to open his real dream spot, the Magnum Lounge, a New York-style piano bar that manages to be upscale yet low key, serving continental cuisine-meets-comfort food like chicken pot pie as creamy French casserole topped with puffed pastry. Veal and duck pate made by Landsman himself, who has the ratios down pat and trusts no one else with the task, is listed on the menu alongside his mother’s famous fried chicken (it’s been hailed the best in Miami!) and his father’s even more famous cheesecake. “A sweet’s the crowning touch to a great meal,” he says, keeping the dessert cart tradition alive and well. “They’re difficult to maneuver around the dining room, but people’s eyes light up when they see all those cakes, pies and real whipped cream.” (709 NE 79th Street, Miami; 305-757-3368)
Fox’s Sherron Inn
Appropriately housed in a dark den—its sole tiny window is never open during service hours—Fox’s Sherron Inn is not even close to being a fancy locale. Still, it’s a legendary place to rub elbows with legal eagles and UM hipsters while knocking back seriously stiff martinis and Manhattans shaken and stirred by Margo Love, the place’s bartending fixture of 28 years.
Founded in 1946 by Betty Fox, the restaurant and package store was purchased by a new owner from another longtime owner, George Andrews, a former pilot who attracted an airline crew customer base in the Eastern and Pan Am heydays. “One of the stipulations in the deal was the red fox painting had to stay,” says current manager Ricardo Gutierrez of the original item that survived a fire and multiple renovations. Branching out from its signature prime rib and pan-fried yellowtail snapper dinners, Fox’s has recently been experimenting with more contemporary eats, like pork belly sliders and craft beer. At least “we’re not talking kale and quinoa yet!” Gutierrez says. (6030 S Dixie Highway, South Miami; 305-661-9201)