Call of the Mild
I’d imagined zookeeping to be a jaunty, tea-with-the-chimps affair— then they handed me the shovel
A decade ago, if you happened to walk through Wynwood’s warehouse district — a 16-block swath of boxy buildings just north of downtown Miami — you’d have found little more than a succession of gray walls, a stray cat or two and a foreboding sense of desolation.
Today, Wynwood is something else, a riot of color, sound and flavor, home to a neighborhood-wide street art phenomenon. There’s a massive melting rose on one wall, a rainbow-colored Yoda on another, an entire building painted as a boom box—along with some of the best people-watching in town: conspicuously wealthy window shoppers, meticulously shabby artists, or dudes idling their Ferraris at the curb, happy for the attention.
Panther Coffee, which serves as a de facto clubhouse for Miami’s hip youth, was opened in 2010 by Oregon transplants Joel and Leticia Pollock. “We came here at a point where you had to drive three miles to get a sandwich,” says Joel. “Now we’ve got breweries and any kind of food you can imagine.” Around the corner from Panther, Brad Kilgore’s acclaimed restaurant, Alter, serves imaginative dishes in a chic industrial setting.
“Wynwood is at an interesting juncture right now,” says local developer David Polinsky, sipping a rum cocktail at Alter’s outside bar. “There’s this vibrant mix of high and low side-by-side. You have a bar like this, or a restaurant like KYU, which is a high-end experience, or you can wander into a hip, scruffier bar like Gramps down the street.”
The story of Wynwood’s rise could be summed up as “build it and they will come”—or, more accurately, “paint it and they will come.” The warehouse area, a half mile from the ocean and lacking any conventionally appealing architecture, had once been a thriving manufacturing hub, but decades of neglect had taken its toll. In the early-to-mid 2000s, street artists like Books Bischof and Shepard Fairey began tagging the area. At around the same time, a few indie galleries, attracted by the low rents, started to move in. Wynwood’s inexpensive real estate also caught the eye of the late developer Tony Goldman, who bought up a couple dozen properties and set out to give the area “charisma.”
To get things rolling, Goldman teamed with SoHo gallerist Jeffrey Deitch and Goldman offered airfare, supplies and massive warehouse walls to street artists such as Barry McGee, Clare Rojas, Swoon and Kenny Scharf. By the opening of Art Basel Miami 2009, Wynwood had become, as Fairey puts it, “the closest thing to a public art museum — extending for many, many blocks—that you can find anywhere.” Soon, other landlords invited muralists to paint their walls. Hip restaurants and retailers moved in, even as some of the pioneering art galleries left for cheaper rent elsewhere. The final stage of Wynwood’s reinvention, local developers say, will be the construction of apartments low enough to maintain the character of the area, and cheap enough to sustain a “creative class.”
At the center of it all, as ever, are the constantly changing canvases of Wynwood’s walls. “As the quality of art increases, which it has dramatically here, the emotional impact is unavoidable,” says Fairey. “These pieces are imbued with technical virtuosity and love that can’t help but convey the best side of the human spirit.” A similar sentiment is expressed by Falco Najul, a tattooed 18-year-old from Seattle who’s here on a visit. “It’s amazing,” he says. “I feel joy, wistfulness, serenity.”
Along with rousing the human spirit, Wynwood’s ubiquitous artworks boost its commercial ventures. “We moved here because of the type of clientele, all the creative people from Miami seem to be working around Wynwood,” says Jerome Cherki of the design concept store L’Appartement. “You walk in the street and you see new work. That’s uplifting.”
Ana Faria, owner of women’s boutique Boho Hunter, has seen the area evolve in the two years since she opened her doors. “It’s similar to SoHo; it started with small galleries and it’s moved on to boutiques and restaurants,” she says. “It’s a great thing.” Faria believes that Wynwood is having an effect on the city as a whole — the idea of Miami being one big glossy shopping mall, she says, is finally giving way to something a little more creative and quirky. “Wynwood brings a bit of that. Miami needs it.”
As with its ever-evolving street art, Wynwood is in a constant state of flux, and early developers have an almost parental protectiveness about the area’s character. “Most commercial brokers just want the commission and don’t have a commitment to the neighborhood,” says Polinsky, who played a big part in the transformation of the area, and who is one of the developers who insist on, as he puts it, “special tenants.”
The effort seems to be paying off. Less than two years after its opening, Alter is regarded as one of the top restaurants in Miami, and the year-old KYU is not far behind. In the raw industrial space, braced by a marble bar and an open kitchen, servers breeze by bearing platters of burrata with yuzu marmalade, or wagyu brisket with black shichimi peppers.
Not far from here, on 29th Street, you’ll find a different kind of dining experience. The Wynwood Yard is a 35,000-square-foot gravel lot containing a dozen or so food trucks, a culinary mish-mash that includes Mr. Bing’s Taiwanese shaved ice (run by a former hedge fund guy); Kuenko, serving Spanish-Japanese fusion from Michelin-starred Ricardo Sanz; and Myumi, the first omakase sushi truck in the U.S. The Yard is the creation of Della Heiman, a Harvard Business School grad who’d hit a dead end trying to find a restaurant space. “I said, ‘You need to get more scrappy, or you need to leave Miami,’” she says. “I realized there were dynamic culinary entrepreneurs here, but they didn’t have space.” So, in the Wynwood way, Heiman set about transforming desolation—in this case five vacant lots—into a first-rate destination.
There are, of course, many ways to end the night in Miami’s most dynamic neighborhood—slip through the back door at Coyo Taco and you’ll find a hidden bar with weekend DJs. Bardot, just beyond the warehouse district, feels like a massive debauched living room. Or you could opt for The Electric Pickle, a no-nonsense dance club that’s just revamped its first floor into a separate bar and lounge called The Racquet Club, where music ranges from ’60s classics to synth pop.
However, to get a real sense of Wynwood’s origins, your best bet might be to slide into a booth at Gramps, a dive bar that opened in 2012 and whose regular attractions include a bingo night run by Miss Toto, a drag queen who could likely beat you at arm wrestling.
“Gramps keeps Wynwood grounded,” says the bar’s Miami-born owner, Adam Gersten, who sees his establishment as a counterbalance to the influx of “high-end retail and fancy stuff.” Gramps also exemplifies the anarchic energy of the neighborhood, the idea that you can jumble a bunch of disparate things together and make it work. Gersten recalls a night that perfectly captures this spirit: “We had Phil Collins’ son’s band playing in the back, there was a [political] fundraiser in the front, then drag bingo, and Hannibal Buress, the comedian, performed a sold-out show in the back.” He pauses and smiles. “Not bad for a Wednesday night.”
Wynwood Brewing Company
The first craft production brewery in Miami, WBC’s taproom offers seasonals like Father Francisco, a Belgian with a fruity aroma and malty sweetness.
Concrete Beach Brewery
Try the the tartly sweet Tropic of Passion wheat ale, which can be sipped on the tap room’s outdoor patio.
J. Wakefield Brewery
With stunning street art on the outside and a chalkboard menu inside, J. Wakefield’s taproom pours the likes of Hops 4 Teacher IPA, with crisp citrus notes and a solid malt foundation.
Boxelder Craft Beer Market
The Boxelder flows with a rotation of 20 Florida beers, and houses a library-like selection of rare bottled beer you can drink on-site or mix into to-go six packs.
Brad Kilgore’s seasonal American cuisine in a restored industrial space, with a lively patio and bar outside.
Beaker & Gray
A former factory space plating world cuisine, and offering a strong cocktail menu.
Lines out the door tell of delicious Mexican iterations hawked by the hip staff.
The Goldman eatery that helped start it all, and still offering strong Italian fare.
From a former Zuma executive chef and GM, KYU offers elegant Asian-inspired cuisine, much of it fire-roasted.
A serene cafe with some of the best coffee in town, Miam is a nice place to read, write and watch the people who make Wynwood tick.
Zak the Baker
His sumptuous breads have taken the Miami restaurant scene by storm. The bearded breadman has two spots, the Deli, offering glatt kosher fare (405 NW 26th St.) and a bakery (295 NW 26th St.).