I’m sure Miami has parks and museums and zoos and aquariums. I wasn’t there for that kind of stuff, though. I was in Miami for one thing: to drink. As such I spent my recent weekend there hitting up a small cross-section of South Beach’s most acclaimed bars, from places known for their taste and decorum, to ancient dives with national acclaim. The goal was not oblivion, although I wouldn’t necessarily say no to that. It was simply to experience these five different establishments and find out what they do best.
I wouldn’t call it science, but I broke this down across five categories, with a ten-point scale for each. I tried to focus on what I look for in a bar—the crucial factors that can make or break a place. If you’re wondering, food is not one of those. I’m looking at the quality and variety of drinks, the cost, the responsiveness and affability of the bartenders, the type of music they play, and the overall atmosphere, which includes not just how the bar looks but what all of its different elements say about how the place wants itself to be seen. And then I average it all out for an overall score. These scores are just a guideline, and just my opinion. I recommend all these places, although as you’ll see a couple easily stood out above the rest. And no, I don’t rank ‘em by that score—I’ve written this as a sort of travelogue, in order of when I approached each bar. And it all started with…
218 Española Way
Miami Beach, FL 33139
I started the weekend here, not just because it had the most appropriate name, but because it was maybe two blocks from my hotel. (Most important travel tip: Always make sure you’re staying within a block or two of a good bar.) The Lost Weekend is pretty much a meat ‘n’ potatoes kind of joint, with basic well drinks and a beer list that supplements the expected major brands with a solid selection of local and national craft beers. It has a sandwich menu—the bartender recommended the Philly cheesesteak—and although I did get a po’ boy I was pretty much just there to drink. I did a good job of it. The Lost Weekend is a laid back, unpretentious watering hole with a variety of bar foods on the menu, sports on the TV, a few pool tables and Skee-Ball machines, and drinks at the right price. It’s not trying to impress you with a theme or stylish design, and doesn’t put on any airs; that’s why it’s a good bar.
Drinks: 7.5. Nothing fancy, which is fine by me.
Price: 10.0. I had two mixed drinks and a beer for under $20, which is cheap for this particular town.
Service: 9.0. The bartender was quick with the drinks and had some good stories about touring the Southeast in a metal band in the late ‘90s.
Music: 4.0. They were playing the Sublime Pandora station. I dunno, maybe that’s your thing.
Atmosphere: 6.0. It was comfortable but a little generic. The games were a nice touch, though, especially the Skee-Ball machines.
2727 Indian Creek Dr
Miami Beach, FL 33140
As I’ve entered my middle-aged years I’ve developed a slightly embarrassing fondness for tiki nonsense. Put me in a dark bar decorated with palm fronds and thatched roofs, throw some steel guitar and exotica on the soundtrack, and pour way too much rum and fruit juice into a culturally insensitive mug, and I’ll be a very happy drunk. (Okay, I’m pretty much always a happy drunk.) The Broken Shaker, which can be found at the Freehand Hotel, nails the beautiful look and peaceful vibe of a tiki bar without the kitsch. It accomplishes that by turning its entire outdoor patio, including the poolside area, into a lush garden lit by torches and tastefully arranged strings of lights. There’s a bar in a small nook by the entrance that serves all manner of classy cocktails on both a monthly and seasonal rotation, along with a variety of beer and wine. The main draw might be the punch bowls, though—these massive (and expensive—$250) combinations of fruit, liquor and botanicals serve up to 12. There’s also a daily punch that anybody can buy single glasses of at the bar; the night I was there it was a lemon and rum concoction that went down very easily and had that dangerous tiki-style combo of being so sweet and delicious that it’s easy to overlook how strong it is. I had three of them after a fruit and nut old-fashioned while sitting beneath an open sky and palm trees and gazing at the tranquil pool. Uh, it was nice. Oh, it also has a short menu of snacks, small plates and sandwiches, if you’re feeling peckish. And if you’re in New York or Los Angeles, you can find Broken Shaker locations at the Freehand hotels in those cities, too.
Drinks: 9.0. The old-fashioned had a unique taste with the hints of fruit and nut, and the punch of the day was a smooth but stiff twist on classic tiki drinks.
Price: 9.0. The cocktails and beers have fairly standard pricing—$12 to $16 for the former, $5 to $8 for the latter—but the daily punch is only $8 a glass, and there’s a daily cocktail special for $9.
Service: 9.0. There was table service, but I didn’t require it where I was sitting. I’d just walk to the bar for a refresh, where one of a steady handful of bartenders was always immediately able to take my order and engage in a little small talk.
Music: 8.0. It was an eclectic mix during my time there, with current hits alongside pop classics and ‘90s rock songs like “Lump” by the Presidents of the United States of America. It didn’t necessarily fit the tropical vibe but it was an unpredictable and largely enjoyable set of music.
Atmosphere: 10.0. Even without the stereotypical tiki trappings, the Broken Shaker’s beautiful outdoor environs captures that sense of the exotic. The patio is large and sprawling but between the layout and the darkness it still feels private and secluded.
300 Alton Rd
Miami Beach, FL 33139
Most of the places on this list are on the Atlantic side of South Beach. Monty’s Sunset is on the opposite edge of the peninsula, next to the the Miami Beach Marina on Biscayne Bay. Perhaps that distance from the main tourist drag is why it felt the most like a local hangout of all the places I went to that weekend. This classic seafood restaurant has a large outdoor area with a bar, a swimming pool, and a stage for DJs and live musicians, and although it looks like it could be a place that targets spring breakers and tourists, it’s clearly popular with the area’s full-time residents. Other than the HD TVs that broadcast golf and baseball the afternoon I was there, it felt perfectly preserved from the ‘80s. I easily could’ve seen Crockett and Tubbs calling on an informant here, or Sonny’s houseboat docked in the marina. Large fans put some muscle behind the breeze off the bay, helping combat the Miami heat, while families and couples moved between the pool and the drinks at their tables. I started with a perfectly fine dark and stormy, before moving on to their signature drink, the painkiller. Sort of like a spicy dish at an Asian restaurant, the painkiller has multiple levels depending on how much alcohol is inside. I stuck with the painkiller #1 (out of three) because I knew I had a long, boozy night ahead of me. It was a pretty traditional painkiller—rum, orange juice, pineapple juice, coconut—which meant it was another sweet, potent, rum-based cocktail. After a couple of those I knew I had to move on, but I probably could’ve spent the whole night knocking ‘em back at Monty’s, especially with its full-service dinner menu.
Drinks: 8.0. The cocktail list is full of faithful versions of the classics, and the painkiller definitely does what its name says it will.
Price: 7.0. The prices are absolutely middle-of-the-road for Miami Beach—it’s not the cheapest but far from the most overpriced.
Service: 8.0. I sat at the outside bar and never had to wait for a new drink.
Music: 6.0. It ruins the old-school waterfront atmosphere just a bit when the DJ starts blasting club remixes of Billie Eilish, but for the most part the music didn’t make much of an impression.
Atmosphere: 9.0. This is the main thing Monty’s has going for it. You’ll feel like you’re hanging out at a place where your dad would do business over happy hour drinks in the ‘80s. (If you can’t tell, I am a fan of old things.) Also the view of the marina and Biscayne Bay with the skyline of downtown Miami in the background is truly impressive.
222 14th St
Miami Beach, FL 33139
Mac’s is one of the most legendary bars in the whole damn country. A bar since 1926, and known as Mac’s Club Deuce since 1964, this is pretty much a perfect dive: small, cheap, seedy, smoky, and always packed. I sidled up to the large dual horseshoe bar that curves through most of the joint like a camel’s humps and immediately felt at home. I felt like a regular my first time in the place, and was so comfortable that I unwittingly pounded through three drinks in under an hour. That included two whiskey and gingers—the drink I most often make myself at home—and a can of High Life. The total price was $15. If I had more cash on me (this is a cash only bar) I maybe never would’ve left. Instead I laid down my only 20 and moved on to the next bar. Mac’s doesn’t coast on its rep or legend. It’s a bar that exists for one reason—to get you drunk—without any pretension or fucking around, and it appeals to a wide cross-section of thirsty travelers, with hipsters and bachelorette parties elbowing up against tourists, beach partiers, and beaming old drunks. There’s a pool table and a newfangled digital jukebox, and the sounds of balls clanging off one another and the unpredictable mix of classic rock, punk and R&B joined with the smoke, neon and crowd hum to create an ideal dive environment.
Drinks: 8.5. Don’t expect fancy cocktails or any “mixology” bullshit at Mac’s. My drinks were straight-forward and got me drunk, and that’s what I’m looking for.
Price: 10.0. It was $5 apiece for well drinks and a number of different beers, meaning I had three drinks and covered the tip with a single $20 bill. That’s good anywhere.
Service: 10.0. Despite being utterly packed, my hard-bitten bartender was always ready to take an order as soon as I finished a drink. He looked like a hardened garage rock grump but was good-natured and joking around with all of his customers throughout the night.
Music: 9.0. The jukebox ran a steady stream of great songs, from old favorites like Joy Division to, uh, even older favorites from the ‘50s and ‘60s. It’s the only bar on this list with a jukebox, so it’s the only place you’ll get to impact the music.
Atmosphere: 10.0. Again, Mac’s is like stepping into the dark, smoky past, into the type of dirty dive I regularly frequented in college and still feel most comfortable in today. If I lived in South Beach this would be my regular spot.
237-B 20th St
Miami Beach, FL 33139
I finished my rounds at Sweet Liberty, which was recommended to me as the best cocktail bar in South Beach. From what I tasted over the weekend, there’s a good chance that’s true. Sweet Liberty’s long drink menu includes a number of enticing cocktails. My plan was to try a few of them, but that was before I had my first sip of the scofflaw. This rendition of the Manhattan mixes bourbon with vermouth, lemon, grenadine and orange bitters, and was probably the best Manhattan I’ve ever had. It was sweet and tart but with the sting of the bourbon still coming through, and by the end of the night I had downed three of them. That was on top of everything I had already had at Monty’s and Mac’s, so, uh, I was feeling pretty good by this point. Not good enough to tolerate the dance club atmosphere that broke out around me after a DJ started spinning, though. I liked a lot about Sweet Liberty—the decor, the bartenders, the drinks—but I already felt out of place before the dancing kicked in. It’s definitely a spot for younger folks, especially ones who don’t mind dropping a solid chunk of change on a night out. As soon as the party broke out, I finished up my last scofflaw as quickly as I could, and headed back to my hotel, where three tallboys of PBR bought at the Walgreen’s down the street had to be dealt with before checking out the next morning.
Drinks: 10.0. The scofflaw really was that good. If the vibe hadn’t changed so suddenly I easily could’ve sat at Sweet Liberty and kept downing those things for the rest of the night.
Price: 6.5. You get what you pay for, but as good as Sweet Liberty’s drinks might be, a single one will cost almost as much as three drinks would at a place like Mac’s. Even a place like the Broken Shaker, which had Sweet Liberty easily beat on atmosphere and had cocktails that were almost as good, is a better bargain.
Service: 9.0. The bartenders clearly knew their stuff and were on top of slinging out fresh drinks, even when the crowd swelled and perpetually swarmed the bar.
Music: 4.0. I honestly don’t remember what was playing before the DJ took over, but once that happened it became a steady stream of current pop hits playing a little too loudly. If you weren’t there to dance or party or be seen, the music would’ve been a huge distraction.
Atmosphere: 6.0. Again, I like the look of the bar itself, and the tiki influence of the entrance. The rest of the room is nondescript, though, with tables that can be easily removed when it’s time to dance. It also felt artificially, unnecessarily dark, even before it turned into a club.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.