On November 17th in 2012 the Tobacco Road Bar celebrated the 100th year anniversary of the issuance of Miami’s first liquor license. Tobacco Road is in possession of this license, and as such, is considered South Florida’s oldest bar. This milestone was impressive considering that Miami had just finished celebrating 116 years of incorporation as a city on July 28th. Appropriately, the City of Miami was entering adolescence when Tobacco Road was getting started.
Miami’s Oldest Bar – Tobacco Road Bar, Miami, Florida
It is well known in Miami that Tobacco Road holds Miami’s oldest cabaret license. This license was issued back in 1912, which leads everyone to believe that Tobacco Road has been in business, with that same license and at today’s location, the entire 100+ years. What is not well known is that the liquor license was issued three years before today’s Tobacco Road building was built, and five years before any business ever opened its doors at 626 South Miami Avenue.
Prohibition Started Early in Dade County
It is unclear if or where the Tobacco Road liquor license was in operation in 1912. What is clear is that the citizens of Dade County, in the fall of 1913, voted to prohibit the sale and consumption of alcohol in the county. Dade County was officially dry by January of 1914. This timeframe was six years sooner than the ratification of the 18th amendment, which implemented prohibition at a national level.
Prohibition of the sale of alcohol further complicates the tracking of the liquor license issued in 1912. Regardless of who had possession of the liquor license, it was no longer valid from January 1914 until the ratification of the Twenty First Amendment on December 5th, 1933.
Although Dade County was voted dry in 1914, laws against selling and consuming alcohol certainly did not stop store owners from covertly selling contraband, or liquor, within the confines of their legitimate business. The term for this type establishment was called a speakeasy. The term speakeasy came about to describe a place that you would very carefully discuss in public so as to not alert law enforcement.
It was a Bakery for Years
The property appraisal for 626 South Miami Avenue, the location of today’s Tobacco Road, indicates that the building was built in 1915. Inspecting the 1915 City Directory, the listing for the property indicated that the land was vacant. It wasn’t until the 1916 City Directory that there first appeared a listing. There were three men associated with the property in the 1916 directory: J.A. Hall, H.E. Pattern and Warren Williams. The three gentlemen would only be listed at this address for one year.
The city directories of the late nineteen teens listed a bakery on what would eventually be the Tobacco Road property. The bakery was widely known as running a speakeasy on the second floor in a room that still exists today.
Given its proximity to the Miami River, the speakeasy was in an ideal location to unload, store and serve illegal contraband (booze). There were plenty of speakeasies to be found in Miami in the nineteen teens through the nineteen twenties. However, the location at today’s Tobacco Road is likely the only one still standing in as close of a configuration as it was in the 1920s. Patrons of Tobacco Road in 2014 can have a drink in the same room that Miamian’s and tourists of yesteryear drank illegally.
The city directory listings from 1917 through 1918 listed Gunnar C Rosenquist and his wife, Anna, as the residents of the property. The 1918 directory did list Gunnar’s occupation as a baker, but the name of Rosenquist Home Bakery didn’t appear in the directory until the 1919 listing. Gunnar was the proprietor of his namesake bakery.
As part of a plan laid out by Councilman J.F. Chaille, the street names in Miami completely changed in 1920. Main thoroughfares such as 12th street changed to Flagler Street, and Avenue D became Miami Avenue. Although the plan was laid out and approved on October 6th, 1920, it wasn’t until the 1922 city directory that Rosenquist Home Bakery appeared at today’s address of 626 South Miami Avenue. Prior to the Chaille plan, the bakeries address was 1812 Avenue D.
Rosenquist Home Bakery continued to operate at 626 South Miami Avenue until 1925. A new bakery by the name of Karcher’s Bakery appeared in an advertisement listed in the Miami News in 1925. The advertisement offered housewives the opportunity to bring their turkey to Karcher’s to be cooked for pickup by noon on Thanksgiving Day. This service was advertised to cost only $1.00. The ad also stressed that all of a household’s bakery goods can be conveniently purchased in the same location.
In addition to running the Bakery, Julius Karcher Jr. ran a real estate office at the same location. During the mid-1920s, Miami was experiencing a big real estate boom. Many business owners were dabbling in real estate while running their primary business. Julius Karcher Jr. appeared to be one of these people.
Karcher’s Bakery had a far shorter life than Rosenquist Home Bakery. Karcher only appeared in the 1926 and 1927 city directories at 626 South Miami Avenue. The 1928 city directory listed this property as “vacant”.
There were a series of events in 1926 that ended the great real estate boom of the mid-1920s in Miami. The September 1926 Hurricane was the final blow that officially represented the end of the boom. Miami was headed toward an economic depression three full years ahead of the rest of the nation. It would certainly make sense that Karcher’s Bakery went out of business due to the severity of the economic conditions in Miami by 1928. This most likely explains why the directory listing in 1928 appeared as vacant.
By 1929, there was another bakery that appeared at 626 South Miami Avenue. This bakery was named Miller Brothers Bakery. Of the three bakeries run at this location, Miller Brothers was the shortest lived. This bakery only appeared in the 1929 city directory and most likely only operated by this name for one year.
Once again, Gunnar Rosenquist reappeared and re-opened Rosenquist Home Bakery at 626 South Miami Avenue as of 1930. Gunnar continued to run Rosenquist Home Bakery at this address until 1936. By the 1937 city directory listing, South Side Bakery appeared at this address. This could have been a name change by Rosenquist or a change of ownership of the bakery. The proprietor of this bakery was not listed in the directory. The year 1937 would be the last time a business operating at this location was designated a bakery.
While the businesses run at this Miami Avenue location were all bakeries from the completion of the building in 1915 through 1937, it is not clear when the speakeasy opened upstairs. Considering that Miami was dry from 1914 through most of 1933, the speakeasy could have opened at any point during that timeframe. Eventually, the speakeasy would expand and become a gambling den. It was widely rumored that Al Capone was a guest at the speakeasy, on more than one occasion, during his stay in Miami. Capone began spending time in Miami around 1928, at which time ownership of the bakery was in flux. It is widely believed that the illegal gambling den remained in operation years after the repeal of prohibition.
Bakery to a Bar
By 1938, South Side Bakery gave way to South Side Bar. It isn’t clear what precipitated this change, but for the first time, a business at 626 South Miami Avenue is running as a bar. It was likely that the liquor license issued in 1912 was applied to the business now running at this address. The name ‘South Side’ was a common name of the area south of the Miami River that is today referred to as the Brickell neighborhood.
Next door to South Side Bar was Bert Dunbar Billiards, located at 628 South Miami Avenue. On September 4th, 1938 the headline for an article in the Miami News read “Three Charged in Miami Bar Bombing Case”. The bar in the article was South Side Bar. Bert Dunbar was one of the three men charged and was characterized as the “former operator of a pool room adjoining the bar”. The blast caused $300 in damages to a plate glass window and inventory. It is unclear why Dunbar conspired to bomb the South Side Bar, but he seemed to have lost his lease at his location just prior to the participating in the crime. Ironically, Gunnar Rosenquist once again opened Rosenquist Home Bakery at 628 South Miami Avenue, replacing Dunbar Billiards as the tenant in 1938. Maybe this change was the root of the problem between Dunbar and the owner of South Side Bar?
Tobacco Road Shut Down
South Side Bar continued to operate at this location as late as the early 1940s. By 1942, the city directory had the bar listed as Charlie’s Tobacco Road. The bar was owned by Lew Cohen. Supposedly, the bar was given this name by the new owner in honor of the novel written by Erskine Caldwell called ‘Tobacco Road’. The novel was a popular Broadway play in the 1930s.
The change in ownership and name to Charlie’s Tobacco Road also changed the theme and activities of the bar. Most likely, the upstairs stopped operating as a gambling den and began operating as a live performance venue. Based on advertisements in the Miami News during the early 1940s, it was clear that Charlie’s Tobacco Road was a live music destination.
The bar would host regional Jazz and Swing bands popular during this time. In addition to being known as a live music venue, it became known as one of the pre-eminent gay bars of the Southeast. It was largely regarded by the forces of decency as a very immoral place and was the frequent target of the “moral’s squad” of the Miami Police Department.
Tobacco Road’s reputation had gotten so bad that, during the war, the military officially declared this establishment off limits to all military personnel. During the World War II, the military took over hotels and businesses for training and tactical operations. Miami had become a host city for several branches of the military, and there were plenty of military personnel in town that could find trouble at Charlie’s Tobacco Road during this time. Hence, the military issued the decree to stay out of the establishment.
In the spring of 1944, the forces of decency finally had their way and Charlie’s Tobacco Road was raided and shut down for “lewd, wanton and lascivious behavior”. The charge specifically referred to its female impersonators and male strippers. The bar would be shut down and the liquor license suspended for the better part of 1944.
Liquor License Reinstated
By December of 1944, the liquor license and business was acquired by Tom Davis. According to an article on December 16th in the Miami News, Mr. Davis had won a court appeal to get the liquor license reinstated after it was revoked earlier in the year. His lawyer argued that Mr. Davis should not be “penalized for acts that occurred at the location before he acquired it”. Judge Marshall C Wiseheart agreed and issued a writ requiring the city to permit operation of a bar at 626 South Miami Avenue once again.
Tom Davis named the restaurant and bar ‘The Chanticleer’. The new establishment was named after the rooster in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. While Davis fought to get the liquor license reinstated, The Chanticleer was known primarily as a restaurant. Live performances were still a big part of the entertainment featured at the new restaurant. In a June 1945 advertisement found in the Miami News, The Chanticleer promoted live performances by Bill Purkey as “America’s Smartest Café Society Pianist”.
Like many of the prior establishments run at this location, The Chanticleer was not without controversy. According to a Miami News Story in September 1945, the manager of The Chanticleer, Frank Dehman, participated in a scheme to help the former owner of Charlie’s Tobacco Road get a liquor license reinstated for Club Mayfair. This club was located on West Flagler, in area that is now part of Little Havana, and had its liquor license was revoked due to “selling liquor after curfew hours”.
According to state law at that time, a place that had their liquor license revoked cannot get it reinstated for two years. Frank Dehman tried to convince the courts that he had purchased the license and that it shouldn’t be revoked because he was a new owner. However, it was widely believed he was really trying to help the new owner of Club Mayfair, Lew Cohen. Because of Mr. Cohen’s checkered past with Tobacco Road, he purchased Club Mayfair under his daughter’s name. Given the precarious nature of the proceedings, the liquor license was not re-instated.
Possibly due to incorporation, The Chanticleer changed its name to The Shandiclere in 1946. Based on the entry in the city director for 1946, there were corporate officers listed as the owners of The Shandiclere. The president of the corporation was Alice E. Davis. It is likely that Alice Davis was the wife or was related to Tom Davis, the proprietor listed in the 1945 city directory.
The corporate officers remained the same for The Shandiclere until 1949. At that time, the new president became Ida Braunstein and the new Vice President was Annie Braunstein. Due to the absence of Miami City Directories for 1950 and 1951, it is unclear how long the sisters owned the bar.
The Shandiclere almost lost their liquor license in April of 1949. The Miami News characterized the bar as running a “hostess scam”. The scam was a bait and switch operation where attractive young women, employed by The Shandiclere as hostesses, convinced patrons to follow them to the “dimly lit” upstairs area of the bar. At that location, gentlemen were charged $6 per hour to enjoy the company of the hostess and were charged an additional $1.25 per drink. The drink was nothing more than colored water. It isn’t clear what action was taken by the State Beverage Director as part of this investigation, but there was no evidence that the liquor license was ever revoked during this timeframe.
At some point between 1949 and 1952, ownership of the bar changed to Morris Blake. Mr. Blake made a slight adjustment to the name of the establishment and it began to be known as the ‘Shandiclere Bar’. Following a period of frequent ownership changes, the bar at 626 South Miami Avenue would experience some stability and be owned by one individual for roughly the next 27 years.
The Shandiclere operated as an eatery, watering hole and live music venue through the 1950s and 1960s. However, the riverside neighborhood in which it resided was slowly declining. As Miamian’s migrated to the suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s, the neighborhood got a lot worse and the clientele began to reflect the change. It was said that the Shandiclere became a place where patrons could conduct drug deals or find a hit man. It became a regular stop for Miami’s actual vice squad.
Tobacco Road Once Again
Blake Morris’ ownership came to an end when Neil Katzman bought the Shandiclere Bar and changed its name in April of 1977. Mr. Katzman decided to rename the bar back to what it was when the Miami police “morals squad” shut it down in 1944. The establishment at 626 South Miami Avenue was once again named “Tobacco Road”.
According to a Miami News article in January of 1981, Neil Katzman renovated the bar with particular attention to an upstairs room which he called the Tobacco Road Speakeasy. Once the renovations were completed, the speakeasy served as both a jazz club and play house. The writer of the Miami News article referred to Tobacco Road as “a little slice of Greenwich Village right here in our town”.
Despite the investment, the neighborhood around Tobacco Road continued to decline and business had dropped off dramatically. Neil Katzman had claimed that he was only pulling in $800 per week at the time that he decided to sell the bar.
By the time Miami Vice became a hit television show and the city was featured on Time Magazine’s cover with the title of “Paradise Lost”, three friends took a chance on an old bar. A 22 year old real-estate broker, Michael Latterner, was tasked with selling a dozen properties back in 1982. All but one of those properties sold quickly. The one exception was Tobacco Road. Michael could not find a buyer for this property so he decided to buy it himself. He contacted an old friend, Patrick Gleber, who was running a wine bar at The Falls, to help him run it. The third owner was Kevin Rusk.
At the time the three friends bought Tobacco Road, the neighborhood mostly consisted of crack houses, homeless squatters and a lot of violent crimes in the area. There was even a house across the street where prostitutes would hang out the window and solicit patrons entering into Tobacco Road. At that time, the clientele included those who worked on the Miami River, policeman, newspaper men and lawyers.
The owners slowly began to invest and remodel the place over the next three years. However, business was very slow. Tobacco Road was generating about $65-75K in revenue per year during that time. The place began to turn around when they began to book one of the most popular local bands in town – Fat Chance Blues Band. Now known as Iko Iko, they are one of the main reasons behind the revival of the music scene in Tobacco Road for the downtown professional crowd. The Road’s music scene included a number of national acts through the years such as blues legends John Hammond, the James Cotton Blues Band, John Lee Hooker, KoKo Taylor, Albert King, David Bromberg and Sun Ra, who put on one of the all-time great shows at the bar.
Tobacco Road was in scenes from a 1985 movie that featured Kurt Russell and Mariel Hemmingway called “The Mean Season”. In this movie, Tobacco Road was the local watering hole for a crime reporter, Kurt Russell, trying to determine the identity of a serial killer in Miami. The Mean Season was a term used to describe South Florida’s volatile weather during the summer season.
As the 1980s progressed, the character of the place developed. There were also many characters that worked and frequented Tobacco Road. One such character was Willie Bell, also known as Doctor Feelgood. Willie was a short, wirey man who grew up in proximity of the bar. He was employed as a bouncer at Tobacco Road and lived in a room next to the bar. He was such a beloved character at the Road, that he was cast as an extra in the filming of the Mean Season. However, his scene was cut from the movie when he didn’t take his part seriously. Doctor Feelgood passed away in August of 1985 and many feel his spirit can still be felt until this day.
The reputation of Tobacco Road was getting a lot better, so much so that the military changed their official position on the local establishment. On July 24th in 1986, the US Military lifted its ban of serviceman from patronizing Tobacco Road. One of the statements in the “Official On-Limits” order by the USO, was “whereas, Tobacco Road has cleaned up their act, so to speak, as to the quality of the patrons, if not the rock roll nature of their music”. Even the on-limits order acknowledged that Tobacco Road had improved their image just enough to be considered permissible for military men and women. This order closed a loop that was opened 42 years earlier.
As the Brickell and Downtown Miami neighborhoods became a popular destination for new residents in the mid-2000s, Tobacco Road continued to be a vibrant and affordable watering hole. The Road is one of the few places that patrons can buy an affordable drink or order affordable, but high quality, bar food in the downtown area. It is a vibrant live music scene and is visited by people from all walks of life. It is not uncommon for groups of friends to return from the beach or some other downtown location to finish their night at the Road.
On April 24th in 2012, a developer purchased 8 parcels of land including the land which Tobacco Road resides. Although it is not clear of the developer’s plans, it is hoped that the change in ownership of the land does not lead to the demolition of this wonderful landmark. As the future of Tobacco Road is considered, below is a passage from a mural found on the second floor, to remind us of the link it has to Miami’s history and what it means to present day residents:
“As the Seminoles were attacking Cape Florida Light, before Julia Tuttle sent orange blossoms to Hank Flagler, while Carl Fisher was dredging up a sandbar now known as Miami Beach, when there were streetcars, there was a landmark. It was called then in a rough and tumble way, Tobacco Road. The front was a respectable eating emporium, the rear was the speakeasy on the Miami River, a constant source of anguish to law enforcement agencies. There were dark doings, booze-wise, in those days, but the Tobacco Road has evolved into a great dining spot, a purveyor of hefty, yet super-economic drinks. It holds the oldest cabaret license in Miami and is open from bird song to 5 a.m. — damn near the clock around. Visit the historic Tobacco Road. It’s a good and easy habit to get into.”
While the mural is not historically accurate, it does capture the spirit of the buildings infamous history. There isn’t much left standing that can attest to Miami’s past in the same manner as the buildings on the west side of the 600 block of South Miami Avenue. It would really be a shame for this block of buildings to fall victim to the wrecking ball similar to so many other Miami Landmarks during the last couple of building booms.