A restaurant is a notoriously risky venture for an entrepreneur. The widely accepted statistic is that upwards of 60 to 80 percent of new restaurants change hands or close within their first few years of existence. For a developer to survey the local landscape and then pick out a struggling, desolate, or even dangerous neighborhood, and say, “There. I’ll put a restaurant there. Actually, I think I’ll put a bunch of restaurants there…” is a certain kind of madness. Ruminate on that notion while indulging in the following exploration of Miami’s Wynwood Arts District.
One could pass a decidedly awesome day among the scant blocks of Wynwood alternating between eating, drinking, and art-gazing. If you really want to make the most of the day, you’re going to need to eat micro-meals every two hours. Begin with an invigorating juice (read: coffee) at Angelina’s Coffee and Juice and plan your visit to the northernmost galleries.
Do damage control from that wholesome beginning with a mid-morning chocolate babka at the technicolor, OG Wynwood institution Zak the Baker while you consider the nearby boutiques. Share a few small Latin-inspired plates for a light lunch at Wynwood Kitchen and Bar, and take in the funky atmosphere as you buzz with excitement for a visit to the instantly-iconic Wynwood Walls just next door. Afterwards, wander over to Concrete Beach Brewery for a draft to debrief and fully deconstruct the power of street art. Wait—did you not get dessert at lunch? Take in more street art with a stroll up Miami Avenue for a food truck-inspired slice of pie awaiting you at Fireman Derek’s.
After a visit to Art Wynwood or an indie film at O Cinema (or both), time for happy hour with a craft cocktail at Beaker and Gray (rosé-colored glasses, perhaps?) ahead of your dinner reservation at the spot that started it all, Joey’s Italian Cafe. If the cocktail was strong enough, you may be inspired to inquire about sitting at Bey and Jay’s favorite table. After dinner, check out the scene at 1-800-Lucky, an Asian-themed food hall where the evening DJ set just might get you moving enough to be hungry again for a snack. Before departing the neighborhood, maybe just a nightcap at Prohibition Restaurant and Speakeasy. You don’t want to have missed anything. Except that this itinerary represents merely a fraction of what this culture-and-cuisine-saturated area has to offer. You’ll probably need to go back again tomorrow, (and the next day, and the one after that) for a few things you missed.
A mere decade ago, this tour de Wynwood would not have been possible, when the area was, as described by journalist Bill Kearney, a “desolate, drab, and sometimes dangerous warehouse district outlined by working-class housing. I worked in the area, and it was hard to find a sandwich, or even anyone to say hello to. I was held up at gunpoint, though admittedly only once.” So how does a neighborhood overcome that kind of vibe to transform into the eclectic and energetic playground as described above? Perhaps madness is to thank. A particular brand of ingenious madness personified in developer Tony Goldman, who found success not only in Wynwood with revitalizing a struggling area, but also in New York City’s SoHo and Philadelphia’s Center City. In Wynwood’s case, one need only look to the building exteriors to see the primary thing that the Wynwood of the past and the Wynwood of today have in common: the graffiti. That which is usually seen as a scourge to neighborhood developers was, in Goldman’s case, the key to the whole kingdom.
“Before there were restaurants there were the artists,” says Leticia Pollock, co-founder of Panther Coffee, one of the original businesses to open in the revitalized Wynwood. “They work together quite well. The restaurants respect that it is a neighborhood deeply rooted in the arts. The arts brought a tremendous increase in tourism. Now the artistic neighborhood has evolved and our neighborhood has transformed; it continues to be very artistic but now there are a lot of restaurants, coffee shops, and bars. It’s more of an entertainment district now,” she laughs.
A former drama student with a keen interest in the arts and preservation, Goldman was a “romantic and sensitive” developer with a particular knack for identifying those neighborhoods where a live and creative heartbeat below a crumbling surface; those areas that had an intrinsic potential for a natural confluence between art and hospitality. Rather than fight the street art, Goldman encouraged it, establishing relationships with both local and internationally-renowned street artists. Goldman purchased 25 properties in Wynwood around 2004, developing spaces that would become his own restaurants, Joey’s and Wynwood Kitchen and Bar, as well as the open-air gallery Wynwood Walls, and establishing other properties that encouraged tenants such as Zak the Baker and the immediately-iconic, aforementioned Panther Coffee.
“(Tony) was wonderful,” says Pollock. “He was a visionary. We were looking for a spot and we spoke with several different landlords in different neighborhoods, and nobody really got it. There was no speciality coffee in Miami back then. Tony got it immediately. He even went with to us to the bank to secure the loan.”
Goldman passed away in 2012, but the legacy of what he created lives on in a vivacious neighborhood that has received much recognition in recent years for being an epicenter of style, culture, and energy. A brief eulogy on his company website declares, “Our world will never be the same, but he certainly left it much more beautiful and far richer for all.” That, and delicious to boot.
Pamela Vachon is a culinary-school trained bartender, sommelier, and lover of cheese and microphones.