The Final Toasts at a Gritty, Beloved Miami Tavern | NY Times

The Final Toasts at a Gritty, Beloved Miami Tavern

If a bar’s essence could pull up a stool, throw back a few shots and bare its byzantine soul, stories would have gone on forever and last call might never have come. But before dawn on Sunday, after decades as one of Miami’s oldest, grittiest and most rollicking taverns, Tobacco Road called it quits.

Standing a few paces from the Miami River, the Road, as its devotees called it, had a knack for pulling Miami’s opposites into its narrow confines. Prosecutors sat side by side with drug smugglers, models ambled past prostitutes, and blues legends shared space with unknowns of the music world.

It was a saloon with a pedigree. “The best dive possible, a real classy dive,” said Terry Peters, a 60-year-old regular. The Road held the oldest active liquor license in the city. (Above the front door was this promise: “Hot & Cold Running Liquor.”) But the two-story shotgun shack that housed Tobacco Road and its predecessors for nearly a century is about to take a tumble for modernity, a fall that echoes the story of Miami. High-rise construction cranes surround the tiny bar in what has become one of the city’s trendiest neighborhoods, underscoring the idea that in this city, the shiny and new almost always defeat the shabby but venerated.

SLIDE SHOW|8 Photos — Last Call for Miami’s Tobacco Road

The owners sold the property but were not supposed to leave until April. Then on Oct. 15, city officials posted a “repair or demolish” order on the bar’s rear entrance, and the city’s code inspectors broke with precedent from the days when about $200 could buy a reprieve, said Kevin Rusk, one of the owners. Faced with huge costs to comply with the mandate, the owners decided to close their doors for good.
As Sunday rolled around, bringing the Road’s final last call, Joel Rivera stood before a bleary-eyed crowd at 4:40 a.m., a megaphone in hand, sunglasses shielding his eyes. A blackboard behind the bar set the tone: “The End of Days.” “Does everybody have a drink in their hands?” asked Mr. Rivera, the tavern’s general manager, an optimist who is raising money with a partner to reboot the Road a block away, even as high-rise projects consume property nearby. The die-hards hoisted their cups.

“Rest in peace,” they shouted, tossing white paper napkins into the air. A new chant followed: “Free drinks! Free drinks!” Patrons followed Mr. Rivera outside as Tobacco Road’s neon sign was switched off.

Four thousand patrons attended the raucous farewell party, which drained the bar of all its beer and nearly all its liquor. (A newcomer’s naïve request for a relatively frilly mojito elicited the response, “Are you kidding?”) A roster of beloved local bands played for free, a tribute to a bar that had offered one of the best intimate spaces for live music, blues in particular.

During the bar’s modern-era heyday in the 1980s and 1990s, performers including John Lee Hooker, John Hammond and Koko Taylor played there. Others stopped by, too, sometimes unannounced — The Romantics, Joan Jett, Jimmy Buffett.

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“The place had a glow,” said Graham Wood Drout, the leader of Iko Iko, the Road’s onetime house band, which played a send-off set on Sunday morning. “You talk about genuine spirits, the things that happened inside those walls, good, bad and crazy. It’s all there in that space.”

That space, built in 1915 and now sagging, began with a wholesome enough facade as a bakery, according to a chronicle of the Road by Casey Piket, a blogger for Upstairs, a speakeasy did brisk business. Prohibition had arrived early in Florida (1914) and the bakery, positioned so close to the seamy banks of the Miami River, set in motion the property’s love affair with vice.

The building later served as a gambling hideaway, with roulette wheels and bird cages, as a gay bar with drag queens and as a faltering striptease joint. So sordid was its reputation that during World War II, the military barred service members from visiting the bar, then known as Charlie’s Tobacco Road, to hear its swing and jazz acts. In 1944, the place was raided and shut down for “lewd, wanton and lascivious” behavior.

A retired police officer bought it in 1977, then sold it in 1982 — when Miami was known for its race riots, refugees and cocaine cowboys — to young owners who turned it into a blues mecca for those drowning in disco.

The decadent and the destitute were equally welcome. Throughout the bar’s last week, the reminiscences flowed.

There were tales of Doctor Feelgood, prosaically known as William Bell, a skinny, old ex-con whose finger poke was so authoritative that the Road’s owners made him a bouncer. For times when the finger failed, he kept a knife or gun in his back pocket. He slept on the porch next door. There were stories about the prostitutes, the drive-by shootings and a stranger staggering down the street with a butcher knife in his back. One day an accountant, newly ensconced in a halfway house for the criminally insane across the street, strode into the Road and demanded a beer by repeatedly slamming a chisel into the surface of the 44-foot wooden bar. “You should have seen the place clear,” said Mr. Rusk, one of the three owners.

An electric cattle prod rested ominously behind the bar, a warning to unruly patrons.

After Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, the former dictator of Panama, was convicted on drug and racketeering charges, federal prosecutors celebrated in a room upstairs. The phone rang: President George H.W. Bush was on the line to offer congratulations.

Mr. Rivera is hoping the crowd will follow when he opens a new Tobacco Road, but sequels are often freighted with unrealistic expectations.

“The Road always represented the best part of Miami,” said Coz Canler, who for 30 years was the lead guitarist of The Romantics, as he sat near the stage and listened to bands play on the last night. “It was real. It even smelled like it. All that wood.”

Many bemoaned the transitory nature of the city. “We have no appreciation of our history here in Miami,” said Luis Prieto y Muñoz, a 32-year-old Miami lobbyist who first drank at Tobacco Road when he was 18. “And we’re not good at keeping it.”

But Patrick Gleber, 55, who was one of the bar’s owners, disagreed. “This is what Miami’s about,” he said. “The old makes way for the new.”