MIAMI — For travellers looking for respite from South Beach clubs and the oh-so-chic Design District, the offbeat Miami Modern District — also known as MiMo — offers a welcome change of pace.
No Segway tours here. This is the real Miami, a place to pass a lazy afternoon by the bay, peruse independent boutiques and enjoy some surprisingly delicious local bistros — including celebrity chef Michelle Bernstein’s flagship restaurant, Michy’s.
The stretch along Route 1, which recently received a historic designation, lies just north of midtown, dividing Biscayne Bay’s hidden residential neighbourhoods from Miami’s Little Haiti corridor. MiMo is easily distinguished by a string of 1950s-era or mid-century modern motels along Biscayne Boulevard, and by the original, kitschy, three-storey sign of the Coppertone Girl and her dog on a building overlooking the traffic at 7300 Biscayne Blvd. The hotels flourished in the 1950s as affordable, family-friendly lodging before the advent of freeways — so too did the first franchised Playboy Club (now defunct) which flouted segregation rules in the waning years of Jim Crow.
Then, like much of Miami, the neighbourhood fell into disrepair. But today, MiMo (pronounced Mee-mo) is once more on the rise — though, as in the days of old, it’s helpful to have a car to explore the area.
“People come here because they want a real experience. ... We’re not trendy. We’re not trying to be something we’re not,” said Bernstein, a guest judge on the Bravo TV’s “Top Chef,” who, like many MiMo business owners, lives in the ’hood. (Full disclosure: so does this reporter.) Bernstein, a Miami native, was first attracted to MiMo, part of Miami’s broader Upper East Side, as an untouristy place to experiment with her menu. But the crowds kept coming, so she stayed, even as she opened other restaurants in more upscale neighbourhoods.
MiMo is still a mix of naughty and nice. A couple of the hotels, like the New Yorker at 6500 Biscayne Blvd., have been revamped in the sleek style of their 1950s heyday and are drawing young, European budget travellers. But calling the area family friendly is a stretch; midnight police sirens aren’t uncommon.
Still, it’s fine for day-trippers with families, who can start the morning just outside MiMo’s northern border at Yiya’s Gourmet Cuban Bakery and Cafe, 646 NE 79th St. An outdoor mural by Miami graffiti artist Daniel Fila, of a seagull stealing a woman’s bread, makes it easy to spot. Enjoy a cafe con leche and sugar-dusted vanilla croissant or a guava cheese Danish and chat with the super-friendly staff.
Then head for the sun. Off the southeast end of MiMo is Morningside Park, where shaded benches offer tranquil views of the bay. Turn east off of Biscayne Boulevard at 58th Street and ask the guard at the gate for directions to the park. During the winter, kids will enjoy the covered playground and a mini-nature walk through mangroves. In the summer, you can rent kayaks and visit one of a handful of the bay’s uninhabited islands. Also fun for families, bayside Legion Park at 64th Street features two sets of playground equipment beneath giant mango and banyan trees.
Feeling the need to sweat indoors? Try a boxing class at Biscayne Boxing & Fitness Club at 7200 Biscayne Blvd., or a pole dancing class and a massage up the street at IronFlower Fitness, which doubles as one of several neighbourhood hair and nail salons.
Unlike South Beach’s Lincoln Road, when it comes to shopping, MiMo boasts a bevy of locally owned stores, ideal for fashionistas on a budget.
On the west side of Biscayne at 72nd Street, there’s the vintage store Divine Trash. Two blocks north, award-winning designer Julian Chang creates samples for his international line of women’s wear. Next door, The Consignment Bar displays Gucci and Hermes beneath a ceiling of rose printed-paper and crystal chandeliers. Consignment Bar co-owner Ilissa Whitehead, who opened the store earlier this year, said she wanted to support the neighbourhood in which she lives.
“There’s a long way to go, but MiMo is undiscovered. It’s eclectic, and things are changing a lot,” she said.
On the east side next to Legion Park, Rebel features trendy Miami styles and aromatherapy candles. A giant bowl of Legos means mom can try on that little black sheath in peace. Just south at Pet Mode, patrons can browse sequined doggy sweaters while their pooches get their nails polished pink.
For the kiddies, there’s the hipster children’s consignment shop LoudGirl Exchange at 75th Street, which lets the wee ones play with toys while their parents shop and take in works by local artists.
And for the artistically inclined, Tyler Galleries offers quality antiques, while Broadway Art & Framing showcases new artists. Other art galleries regularly sprout and fade.
The boulevard comes alive weekend nights with inexpensive valet parking at a host of restaurants. Bernstein, together with her husband David Martinez, helped jump-start the MiMo revival in 2005 with their casually elegant Michy’s at 6927 Biscayne Blvd. Its bright orange and blue decor and mismatched flowered chairs were inspired by Bernstein’s childhood Barbie doll houses. Michy’s white gazpacho and crispy duck confit regularly draw locals, downtown theatregoers and even New York snow birds. Meanwhile, the patio oasis and Moroccan-inspired bar of UVAS Restaurant and Lounge at 69th Street provide one of the neighbourhood’s liveliest happy hours.
Michael Bloise, formerly of South Beach’s four-star Wish restaurant, has just opened the inexpensive American Noodle Bar where patrons can choose among ingredients like brown sugar ginger sauce and braised oxtail. MiMo also boasts several sushi restaurants, and the Greek Anise Waterfront Taverna, just off Biscayne at 78th Street. Hungering for crepes? There’s Le Cafe Bistro, tucked into the corner of a strip mall at 72nd Street, which doubles as a gallery with live music.
Around the corner on 79th Street, at the gay- (and everyone-) friendly Magnum Lounge, it doesn’t take much for customers to gather around the piano for show tunes.
Then there’s Red Light, a hip eatery at 7700 Biscayne Blvd., archly named for the neighbourhood’s late night — and early morning — inhabitants. New Orleans’ chef Kris Wessel uses local ingredients to whip up dishes like citrus steamed mussels, green tomatoes and crunchy plantain chips. The riverside locale offers patrons rare city views of old Miami nature, as well as a glimpse of the neighbourhood’s remaining corner strip club ... just like old times.
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MiMo: http://mimoboulevard.org/. Miami Modern/Biscayne Boulevard Historic District runs 50th to 77th street on Biscayne Boulevard.