It has survived Prohibition, the Depression, various hurricanes, an influx of crack houses and the emergence of South Beach as an international nightlife hot spot. Most impressively, it has thrived in a city where the live music scene can charitably be described as inconsistent.
2007 is the year Tobacco Road, Miami’s oldest bar, celebrated 95 years of debauchery, infamy and exceptional music with a two-day blowout bash featuring humorist Dave Barry’s band The Rock Bottom Remainders, The Spam Allstars, blues guitarist Monte Montgomery, Latin punk band Guajiro, roots-rockers the Dharma Bomb and many more acts. But the Road’s appeal has always transcended the music.
An anecdote from owner Patrick Gleber, who bought the bar 25 years ago when he was just 22 years old, fittingly sums up the character of the joint:
“Years ago, we had Jerry Berlin as a bartender — he was like the old Marlboro Man, like Jack Palance doing one-handed push-ups, ” he recalls in a mischievous tone. “He was about six-foot-six and would tell people with this gruff voice, ‘Don’t ask me for any girlie drinks — we don’t have a blender!’
“Well, one night he was working the front door, Cindy Crawford showed up with her entourage and he carded them all and charged them all five bucks. Cindy didn’t have her ID, so she said, ‘C’mon, I’m Cindy Crawford.’
“And Jerry goes, ‘Great, Cindy. You still need an ID.’ So she went out to her car and got her ID.”
The bar — which opened in 1912 as a bakery but was really a front for a speakeasy — counts at least one jaded South Beach club owner as a regular: Jay Wright, whose hipster pool hall Lost Weekend and stylish nightclub Blue give Española Way much of its character, loves the no-frills vibe of Tobacco Road.
“I like the congeniality, the people, the atmosphere . . . I’ve been coming here a long time, and now I’m a regular, at least twice a week.”
Today, the strip of South Miami Avenue where Tobacco Road sits is filled with pricey condos and chic restaurants. But in 1982, it was littered with crack houses. Pre-Miami Vice Miami was extremely tough, the crime capital of the world: Time magazine even headlined a cover story about it Paradise Lost.
So why would a 22-year-old kid buy a bar here? Real estate broker Michael Latterner was trying to sell a dozen properties for Neil Katzman, who was a Miami police officer, after the Road had been raided for drugs.
Latterner was able to sell 11 of them fairly quickly. But no one would bite on Tobacco Road.
So Latterner bought it himself and called Gleber, who managed a wine bar at The Falls at the time, to help him run it. If it seemed an iffy proposition, Gleber says, when he got there a few signs told him he was at the right place.
“First off, it was St. Patrick’s Day, ” he recalled. “We walked in and drank some beers, and when we walked out I found a rabbit’s foot in the gutter. Then, on the drive home, I was channel-surfing on my radio and Johnny Winter’s Tobacco Road came on. That was good enough for me.”
The area wasn’t easy to get used to.
“Early on, I can remember talking on the phone in the office, ” Gleber says, “and [co-owner] Kevin [Rusk] came running in and said there’s a guy at the front door with a butcher knife in his back. We open up the door and he’s crawling, like an inch every 10 seconds.”
Gleber says the violence in the area was routine — people getting shot, beaten, stabbed, pistol-whipped.
“I used to go to work with a roll of quarters in one pocket and brass knuckles in my other, ” he says. “Across the street was an apartment building with prostitutes hanging out the window, exposing themselves to our customers: ‘Hey, boy, come up here!’ It’s not like it is now — I mean, there’s a Starbucks down the street.”
Mark Weiser, manager of Iko-Iko — known back then as the Fat Chance Blues Band — helped revive the Road’s music scene and slowly reestablish it as a popular hangout for downtown professionals, often filling the club to its 301-person capacity.
‘BEST PEOPLE IN TOWN’
Graham Wood Drout, singer and songwriter for Iko-Iko, is effusive about his love for the Road.
“I’ve been there 25 years now, and to me, it was my livelihood, my life, an opportunity to work with the best people in town . . . I could have my pick of the best, ” he says.
With Weiser — known affectionately as Rip Van Weiser for his long white beard — on board, the Road started booking national acts such as blues legends John Hammond, the James Cotton Blues Band, David Bromberg and Sun Ra, who put on one of Gleber’s all-time favorite shows.
“Even if you party the night away on South Beach, you know on the way home you can stop at the Road and get cheap drinks, get something good to eat, sit down and listen to some good music, ” says Weiser. “The ideals haven’t changed.”
Tobacco Road, 626 S. Miami Ave., Downtown Miami