For better or worse, there are few places on earth quite like Miami. Officially declared a city in 1896 with a population of 300, in just over a century it has rapidly billowed into a city of almost six million people. The blue ocean is as vivid as the bikinis and nightclub strobes. Art Deco hotels from the 1920s jam up against Aston Martin-branded luxury condos. It's dripping in money, drugs, neon and sweat.
But it also has one of the most unexpectedly exciting food scenes in the US; a brash and colourful melting pot of Carribean and modern American styles oscillating wildly between delis serving Jamaican jerk chicken in styrofoam containers and ridiculously flashy 17-course celebrity-chef dinners. In between, there is a buzzing homegrown movement of young chefs serving up Peruvian sushi (Itamae) or kaleidoscopic Indian food (Ghee) that's so good it brought local food lover Andrew Giambarba, founder of Miami food and drink website thisisthenewmiami.com, to tears.
"[Ghee owner and James Beard finalist] Niven Patel's parents are there, his wife's parents are there, they're bringing stuff up from their garden to cook with," Giambarba says. "They're saying, 'I want to share my culture with you, I want to show you my roots, I want to show you my grandparents!'"
Miami has been a late culinary bloomer, Giambarba concedes, hindered by Miami Vice stereotypes and a lack of investment in food tourism. "The slow-food movement started here seven years ago … In terms of coffee, we're 20 years behind Australia," he says. But they're determined to catch up, thanks to "a lot of young, super-talented folk who haven't gone off to New York, who want to make their city great".
Sprawling Little Havana, which earned its name unofficially in the 1960s when hundreds of thousands of Cubans escaped the Castro regime, is a great starting point and a gateway to Miami's rich Latin American and Caribbean ethnic influences. Just north sits Little Haiti, a still-rough-around-the-edges neighbourhood where the West Indian food at the ramshackle B&M Market – tender oxtail, jerk chicken and goat roti – is simple but good. Head a few blocks east to the ritzy waterfront locale of Brickell and the scene couldn't be more different. It's here at Edge in the Four Seasons hotel that Aussie chef Aaron Brooks is grilling mind-blowing steaks.
A couple of busy main streets are dotted with galleries, noisy salsa bars, men playing dominoes and traditional places like Versailles Restaurant, where abuelitas (grandmas) sip coffee all day and families celebrate birthdays and graduations.
Cuban-born bartender Julio Cabrera says Cafe La Trova is an elevated homage to the kind of bar his father owned in the 1950s near the Cuban beach resort town of Varadero: nightly music, cigars, good coffee, refined Spanish-influenced food, a serious cocktail program and the cantinero style of bartending, which prides dapper dress, good chat and technical prowess. Co-owner and local celebrity chef Michelle Bernstein says she has captured her whole life in Miami in the menu's croquetas and empanadas.
"This kind of place, Miami needed it," Cabrera says. "For years I'd been listening to people saying Miami needs a place for people over 35. Every place you go to it's house music, club vibe, for Millennials." It's hard to disagree with him. This is the kind of spot you could come back to every night, perched at the bar with a Hemingway, Bernstein's bread pudding and the sound of salsa.
A few kilometres away, on the other side of the Biscayne Bay, is the beating tourist heart of Miami: an endless stretch of beaches, nightclubs and bad tattoos. Along the iconic Ocean Drive, the restaurants are over-priced, kitsch affairs where bikini-clad diners smoke hookahs. The former Versace mansion is a hotel serving Australian lamb chops for $US45 ($65) and Miami-born rapper Pitbull owns a steakhouse for people who like to dance on tables.
But there are some gems to be found. Start the day at Tasty Beach Cafe, a no-frills spot in the Jewish district with a big menu of healthy breakfasts and green juices. By late afternoon, as sunstroke sets in, recharge with vibrant Peruvian ceviche and pisco sours at CVI.CHE 105 or the best totopos (blue masa chips with guacamole) this side of the Gulf of Mexico at Taquiza.
By night, it seems fitting to embrace the full-blown Miami experience by downing Collins Park Sours at world-renowned cocktail bar Sweet Liberty or sacrificing your credit card to the celebrity chef altar at The Bazaar by Jose Andres, a theatrical degustation where oysters are served in plumes of smoke and mojitos are made with liquid nitrogen. Nothing says "holiday mode" more than ending a long, lazy day on the terrace at A Fish Called Avalon with a slice of competition-winning key lime pie – a Florida staple – and a side of epic people-watching on Ocean Drive.
Homestead and the Keys
When Miami gets too much, rent a car, wind down the windows and drive through the Everglades, down to the Florida Keys, via the semi-rural hamlet of Homestead. Grab some exotic fruit and a life-changing coconut and key lime milkshake at legendary farm stand Robert Is Here (still run by Robert Moehling, who was plonked on this street corner at age six to sell excess cucumbers) and slurp it down while queuing for cinnamon rolls and fruit pies at Knaus Berry Farm.
The Beach Boys sold Key Largo to me as an idyllic pocket of glistening beaches, palm trees and surfer boys. In reality, the keys are largely swampy waterways, average beaches, and a coral reef a couple of hours away by boat. The vibe is more quirky fishing town and The Hideout is a case in point, a low-key hangout on the edge of the Largo Sound, where you can get a big plate of fish fry served by a group of chain-smoking, leathery locals who pitched in together a few years ago to buy the diner.
Back in the bright lights of Dade County, Wynwood is fighting Miami's silicon-heavy stereotype one graffiti mural at a time. Previously a neglected industrial area, it's now several colourful blocks of spectacular street art covering every inch of every studio space, converted warehouse, trendy cafe and dive bar.
Weekends feel like a claustrophobic street rave but new cafes, bars and restaurants are popping up monthly. Young chefs and artists experiment with roasting coffee, baking bread, grilling meats and fusing different cuisines and playlists. At Le Chick, wonderfully tender rotisserie chicken and branzino (European sea bass) are charred in a giant green smoker, while at brightly coloured Zak The Baker, people line up for whiz kid Zak Stern's kosher bread and pastries, like airy chocolate babka and tuna melts.
Opened in 2015, chef Bradley Kilgore's casual New American restaurant Alter might now be considered a veteran of the new Miami food movement. It was the first of its kind in the emerging Wynwood district and was "the flagship for that level of food in the city", Giambarba says. "But it's still the place I take folks when they're visiting the city."
Lucky for him – and us – that list of must-visit places just keeps getting longer.
B&M Market bmmarketmiami.com
Cafe La Trova cafelatrova.com
Tasty Beach Cafe facebook.com/tastybeachcafe
CVI.CHE 105 ceviche105.com
Sweet Liberty mysweetliberty.com
The Bazaar by Jose Andres thebazaar.com
A Fish Called Avalon afishcalledavalon.com
Robert Is Here robertishere.com
Knaus Berry Farm knausberryfarm.com
The Hideout 47 Shoreland Drive, Key Largo
Le Chick lechickrotisserie.com
Zak The Baker zakthebaker.com