When Jason Odio was 18, South Beach was his playground. His dad was a local club owner and restauranteur, and Jason worked those connections to get in as a young promoter with Opium Group—the reigning nightlife promotion company of the early to mid 2000s. Every week, Odio brought friends and fashionable faces to Mansion, SET, and other megaclubs owned by the Group—and he says it was nothing short of “incredible” Miami nightlife.
“I had access to the best clubs on the beach. It was an amazing time for me,” Odio explains. “But I yearned for more substance. I started to enjoy the culinary scene and more music-driven stuff [over bottle service culture], and I think those were signs of my maturing.”
Odio isn’t the only one feeling these growing pangs. Over the last three years, nightlife in Miami has been shifting—moving away from over-the-top VIP blowouts and towards smaller, more intimate hangouts.
Just having a megaclub with major EDM DJs, flashy dancers, and high-end lasers is no longer enough to keep a business afloat in this city; in 2014, nightlife kingpin Cy Waits’ attempt to bring his Vegas style to South Beach with a club called Adore failed after four months. Mansion—one of South Beach’s most iconic VIP playhouses, closed its door for good in September 2015, just two years after it was voted the 47th Best Club in the World by DJ Mag. Mansion’s shuttering prompted one anonymous insider to declare to Miami.com that “bottle service [in Miami] is dead.” Opium Group, which at its peak owned Mansion, SET, Cameo, Opium Garden, Prive and Mokai nightclubs, doesn’t even exist anymore; it was purchased by a new company called Icon Management in August 2015. (Mansion re-opened as Icon Nightclub on January 9, 2016.)
This toppling of the old-guard suggests that most locals— and many tourists—are ready for something different. What was once considered the top of the nightlife pyramid is now a fading relic of the city’s fist-pumping past. The void left by these fallen giants is quickly being filled by a bevy of smaller hotspots, like dancefloor-equipped finger food joint Coyo Taco and late-night lounge Libertine (both opened in 2015), as well as hip-hop hangout Sidebar and upscale dive the Corner, among others.
“I think the big club is seeing the end of its days,” says Jake Jefferson, a promoter who’s been throwing parties with the Poplife crew for eight years. Until Grand Central was shut down by developers in late September, Poplife made the 2,000-capacity club their home, helping to throw annual Mad Decent, HARD, and Fool’s Gold parties during Miami Music Week in late March, as well as numerous live band and DJ events throughout the year.
“People are looking for dancefloors now,” Jefferson continues, referring to the glitzy clubs’ tendency to block off space for VIPs tables. “Bigger clubs are going to have to start creating more GA room, because it’s not that cool anymore to buy bottles and get a table. Smaller places give the opportunity for everybody to mingle, and you can have more of an intimate experience with a DJ that you’re actually there to see.”
Ditching traditional nightclubs for more intimate experiences isn’t a trend exclusive to Miami. Last year, the Independent noted that the number of nightclubs in the UK shrunk from 3,144 in 2005 to 1,733 in 2015. There is “a fundamental shift in the way a new generation chooses to spend its entertainment budget,” wrote the Independent’s Ian Burrell, citing streaming services like Spotify and dating apps like Tinder as replacing nightclubs as the go-to places for discovering new music and scoring dates.
But the changing face of Miami nightlife is spurred by a phenomenon specific to the city: the gentrification of mainland neighborhoods like Brickell, Downtown, Wynwood, and Midtown. It used to be only the island of South Beach that raged from dusk to dawn, even during internationally-recognized festivals like Winter Music Conference, Miami Music Week, and Art Basel Miami Beach. But over the last ten years—thanks in large part to younger promotion companies such as Poplife and SAFE who saw potential in downtown’s less-visited streets—it’s become increasingly trendy to carouse on the mainland side of the bridge. And according to Mic.com and Miami’s Ocean Drive magazine, these evolving neighborhoods—which developers are already dropping billions into building luxury high rise condos in—are helping to attract larger numbers of young creatives from all over the country, who are choosing to chase their dreams in Miami over hubs like New York City and Los Angeles.
Nightclub owners are fueling the Miami nightlife shift in geography too. At a recent panel held at the Perez Art Museum, Opium Group’s former owner Eric Milon said the future of Miami’s nightlife isn’t the beach but across the bridge. “I think it’s Wynwood, I think it’s midtown, I think it’s the design district, I think it’s Little River,” Milon said during the panel, referring to neighborhoods with rising cultural cache. “I think more people are going to come [from] all over the world and they’re going to plant their seeds.”
Milon is a partner in Coyo Taco, a small restaurant serving beer and tacos with a cozy dancefloor in the back that fits 100 people at the most—a far cry from Mansion’s 2,500 capacity and million-dollar setups. Jason Odio left Opium Group a few years ago, and invested in Little Havana’s “resurgent” main street Calle Ocho. Now 30, he’s found success with Sidebar, a dimly-lit bar with a backyard and no frills that’s played host to the A$AP Mob and LA’s the Do Over since it opened in 2014. It’s only a 25-minute drive from South Beach, but atmospherically, the laidback Sidebar is light-years away, often without cover and full of stylish, weed-smoking sneaker heads instead of buttoned-up professionals.
Libertine is another club that shares Sidebar’s all-inclusive attitude. The cozy, 180-capacity lounge opened in 2015 and gives patrons a place to dance to everything from indie electro to deep house and 2000s-era hip-hop. Though it serves plenty of bottles and operates under the liquor license of massive neighboring Club Space, Libertine puts local DJs in the spotlight and gives them reign to play to their own tastes instead of the charts.
“There is something very genuine and substance-oriented to [our approach],” says Libertine’s program director Michelle Leshem. “It’s nice to see the passion behind music, mixology, and experiences being valued.”
Libertine shares a block with fellow late-night favorite the Corner, one of downtown’s first attempts at an intimate mixology bar operating since November of 2011. The dimly-lit afterparty favorite has sandwiches on the menu, and is the kind of place that puts fresh fruit and house-made bitters in your glass. Two blocks north, the old owners of Grand Central opened an upscale bar on January 14, 2016 called 1306, its 40-person capacity a drastic change from Grand Central’s 2,000 headcount. (1306 has a larger 400-capacity space in the back, but it’s only open for special events.)
Even back in the classic nightlife district of South Beach, the cocktail has become king. South Beach’s latest hang, Craft Social Club, made it very clear it’s “not a nightclub” when it announced in October 2014 that it would be opening on New Year’s Eve. Their private VIP tables are outfitted not with bottles, but with personal bartenders whipping up table-side craft concoctions.
By cracking the mainland code, Miami has discovered what NYC and LA have always had: diversity. “Everyone’s like ‘Finally, there’s a cool small bar or a club that’s not the megaclub which was my only option,” Jefferson says. “Miami getting a beer garden is like, ‘Wow! There’s a beer garden.’ Some things that may be played out in other places is refreshing here, and I think [these businesses] are well received because of that.”
While the budding experimentation in Miami’s nightlife scene is promising, some locals worry that “intimate resto-lounges” might just become the next tired new trend. “Miami will always beat a dead horse faster than anybody else will,” remarks Adam Gersten, the man behind Gramps, a dive bar and beer garden in the Wynwood Art District known for cheap drinks and low-key hangs like Tuesday trivia nights. Gersten opened the bar about four years ago, frustrated by the lack of live music venues and casual watering holes. Even though he admits that anything is better than the practical nonexistence of no-frills bars and gastropubs that came before, Gersten fears that members of the conservative old guard could just be replicating the South Beach mentality on a smaller scale. “The club people are saying ‘Well fuck, people hate our old world. How can we lizard into this [trendy cocktail culture] and chameleon [our] vibes?'” he says.
For Gersten, community is what gives a business a sense of authenticity, and he remains skeptical that Miami can evolve beyond its shallow reputation with a rash of cocktail joints and smaller music venues. If you walk into an intimate lounge owned by a megaclub tycoon, maybe nothing has changed. But in the same breath, Gersten wonders if that’s the right way to measure authenticity in the first place.
“What’s authentic and what’s not is kind of intangible,” he says. “I think more people are giving [new venues] a shot, and I think that’s cool. I think that’s especially cool when it’s locals.”
Above all, that the scene continue being driven by locals and for locals seems tantamount. Miami will always be a tourist destination, but its culture should be defined less by the fantasies of outsiders and more by the needs of the people who call it home. That more people are choosing to call it home is a symptom of the work that’s already been done, and that more of the faces behind the institutions big and small are local is key. They may build expensive cocktail lounges or musty dive bars, glowing party mansions or dim-lit dance halls. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. It’s the people’s prerogative, and the people are choosing to have a choice.
Written by Kat Bein for THUMP.