MIAbites contributor, and Miami historian, Mandy Baca's new book, Discovering Vintage Miami, comes out November 18th, and here is an edited excerpt from her book on Miami's classic eating and drinking establishments.
Tobacco Road is the everyman’s (and woman’s) bar. Opened in 1912, the popular two-story dive bar is usually featured at the top of everyone’s must-try list when visiting Miami. The Road, as it is most commonly referred to, is located in the heart of Brickell and surrounded by pricey high-rises and chic restaurants. But, it was not always like this.
Before the area’s construction boom in the early 2000s, the Road stood alone as a beacon in the night. Over the course of its long history, it has operated as a Prohibition-era speakeasy, a gambling hall, a jazz club, a burlesque house, and a gay bar under the names the Chicken Roost and the Chanticleer Restaurant, to name just a few. In 1912, it fronted as a bakery appropriately called The Bakery, hiding a secret liquor room on its second floor. While Prohibition did not begin until 1920, the city battled with its own alcohol consumption as the temperance movement stormed through the city. The bootlegging business operated at an all-time high during this period, and The Bakery stood in the perfect location with easy access to the Miami River.
Patrick Gleber, its current owner, purchased the bar at the age of twenty-two from Michael Latterner along, along with Kevin Rusk, who later went on to open Titanic Brewery in Coral Gables. Gleber is a Miami native and attended Florida International University’s School of Hospitality. While all his friends left Miami, he decided to stay and make an impact. His inspiration was further sparked by an episode of 60 Minutes on downtown gentrification, but opening a bar in Brickell in 1982 was no easy feat. The establishment already donned the name Tobacco Road, but it was a gritty and rough dollar-beer and dollar shot bar that had even earned the distinction of being one of the city’s worst bars. Initially, they only made around $150 a night, $300 to $400 if they were lucky. “In the first six months, I saw a guy get stabbed, another guy get shot in the stomach, and lots of hookers and pimps,” says Gleber. “I would go into work with brass knuckles in my back pocket."
"This was a rough time all over Miami; the Marielitos were being placed in temporary housing in a makeshift tent facility under the nearby highway overpass, and the Miami Vice era of drugs and violence was in full effect. Nobody wanted to come to downtown, much less a dive bar. I had never even gone into Tobacco Road before I purchased the place.”
The day he went to see the property, four signs convinced him to pull the trigger: “Kevin and I visited Tobacco Road on St. Patrick’s Day, a drinker’s favorite holiday; the name Dee was written out in the cement in front of the bar’s entrance, and that is my mom’s nickname; there was a rabbit’s foot in the gutter when we walked out; and the last sign which sealed the deal, the Nashville Teens’ hit song ‘Tobacco Road’ played on the radio during my drive home. We did not have cell phones back then, so I could not call him on the spot. It was about 3 a.m. when I got home. I called him and the rest, as they say, is history.”
Rich Ulloa, original owner of Yesterday and Today Records, which is also featured in this book, was once quoted as saying, “The place is iconic, a great gathering place for music and socializing.” And it’s true, Tobacco Road not only sold cheap drinks, but also boosted interest in the local music scene, one of the first and still one of the only few that hosts live music shows in the city.
In early 2014 the Cocktail Collection opened on the second floor, in previously unused space. You could say it is a bar within a bar, as the vibe is completely different up there. Why now? Patrick just got tired of looking at the empty and dilapidating space, and simply, it was the natural next progression. Teaming up with Leo Holtzman, a Miami-based mixologist, they are revitalizing the speakeasy that first called the space home.
The Road is the Road is the Road. At the end of the day, the owners want one thing—for Tobacco Road to continue being the neighborhood spot for good drinks, good food, good music, and a good time. They are not trying to be ahead of the curve on anything. And one thing is always constant: Everyone knows that the Road is open until 5 a.m.; you can always stop there on your way home for a solid experience and a nightcap.
At time of printing, a real estate developer purchased Tobacco Road’s location to make way for a new high-rise development. Locals are working hard to have the government bestow the bar with historic designation. If not finalized in time, a rescue attempt will be salvaging any and every scrap of 626 S. Miami Ave. for use at 69 SW Seventh St., the tentatively proposed new location. This would mark the first move for the iconic establishment in 101 years.
The owners assure us that this is not "the end of The Road...for Tobacco Road"! There is even a Kickstarter campaign to try to save The Road. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/tobaccoroad/save-history-miamis-oldest-bar-legendary-tobacco-r
NOTE: Tobacco Road's Last Call Closing Party is this Saturday, October 25. Tobacco Road, 626 S. Miami Ave., Miami. The party starts at 8 p.m., and admission costs $10. Ages 21 and up. Call 305-374-1198, or visit tobacco-road.com