On November 17, 2012, the Tobacco Road bar in Miami celebrated what was widely believed to be its one-hundred-year anniversary in business. The bar proudly touted that their liquor license dated to 1912 which made it South Florida’s oldest drinking establishment.
When the liquor license was allegedly issued, Miami was a little more than sixteen years of age. The city was founded in 1896. Given the claim, Miami would have been entering adolescence when its first liquor license was issued. By today’s legal drinking age, the city would have been too young to enjoy what the license provided.
While the tale of Tobacco Road’s liquor license may be urban legend, the establishment had a fascinating story. During its last years in business, locals referred to the place as “The Road”. This road provided plenty of wild turns throughout its history. The place continually reinvented itself as Miami evolved through the years. This is the story of Miami’s oldest saloon.
Prohibition Started Early in Dade County
Prior to there even being a building at the future home of Tobacco Road, Dade County voted itself dry. On a rainy night in October of 1913, the rural northern section of Dade County tipped the scales to ensure the sale and consumption of alcohol was outlawed. The county was officially dry in January of 1914. Prohibition in Dade County began six years sooner than it did for the rest of the country.
The law change in Dade County further complicates the tracking of the liquor license allegedly issued in 1912. Regardless of who had possession of the license, it became invalid as of January 1914, and would have required reissuance after the vote to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment. The ratification of the Twenty First Amendment ended prohibition in 1933.
Although Dade County was under the restrictions of prohibition in 1914, laws against selling and consuming alcohol did not stop store owners from covertly serving booze in the confines of their legitimate business. The term for this type establishment was called a speakeasy. It was applied to places you would speak of carefully in public to avoid alerting law enforcement that alcohol was served at the location.
It was a Bakery for Years
According to the Miami-Dade County property appraiser, there wasn’t a building at what would become the Tobacco Road bar location until 1916. The original address was 1812 Avenue D. However, when the Chaille plan was implemented in 1920, the address changed to 626 South Miami Avenue.
J.A. Hall, H.E. Pattern and Warren Williams were the first to be listed at the address in 1917. The three men were listed for only one year. It is likely the trio were responsible for constructing the original building at the location.
The Miami city directory listed a baker living at the address in 1918. The building was both a residential-style bakery and the primary residence of the proprietors. The official name of the business was Rosenquist Home Bakery and it was not listed until the 1919 directory was published.
The bakery was run by Karl Gunnar Rosenquist and his wife until 1925. The Rosenquists were from Chicago and relocated to Miami in 1913. Gunnar had been a baker in Chicago prior to the couple’s move to South Florida.
The next business to operate at 626 South Miami Avenue was Karcher’s Bakery. In an advertisement in the Miami News in 1925, Karchers offered housewives the opportunity to bring their turkey to the bakery to be cooked for pickup by noon on Thanksgiving Day. The service was advertised to cost only $1.00. The promotion was intended to make it convenient for customers to buy all of their Thanksgiving dinner baked goods at Karchers as well. The ad also stressed that all bakery goods can be conveniently purchased at the same location.
In addition to running the Bakery, Julius Karcher Jr. ran a real estate office from the same location. During the mid-1920s, Miami was experiencing a big real estate boom. Many business owners were dabbling in real estate while also running their primary business.
Karcher Bakery had a relatively short life on South Miami Avenue. The bakery closed its doors in 1927. The location was listed as vacant in the 1928 city directory.
The Great Hurricane of 1926 was the final blow that officially ended the real estate boom of the mid-1920s. Miami spiraled into economic depression three full years ahead of the rest of the nation. It is probable that Karcher’s Bakery went out of business due to the economic conditions in Miami at the time it closed.
The next bakery to open at the location had an even shorter life. Miller Brother’s Bakery was open for business for only one year in 1929.
The following year, a familiar name returned to 626 South Miami Avenue. Gunnar Rosenquist reopened his bakery in 1930. He once again operated his namesake bakery at the location until 1936.
South Side Bakery took over the business from Rosenquist in 1936. South Side was a common name for the Brickell neighborhood in the early to mid-1900s. It only stayed open for one year and closed its doors in 1938. After the closure of South Side Bakery, the next proprietor kept part of the name but changed the type of business operating at this address.
A Speakeasy in the 1920s
During prohibition, speakeasies provided more than just alcohol. Many of these illegal nightclubs also provided gambling. The speakeasy at South Miami Avenue catered to both vices.
While anyone could buy their baked goods on the first level, one needed a password to get access to the upstairs. Access to the stairway was likely guarded. Although relatively small, the second floor was both a bar and gambling den. There was a hidden storage area near the top of the staircase to conceal bottles of alcohol in the event of a raid.
The folklore of the speakeasy has been largely exaggerated. One of the urban legends was that Al Capone was a frequent visitor to the second floor. Capone arrived in Miami in December of 1927, and was rumored to have been in a lot of places during his time in South Florida.
However, there is no verifiable evidence the Capone spent any time at the speakeasy on South Miami Avenue. What is known is that the future location of Tobacco Road officially transitioned from a bakery (and speakeasy), to a legal drinking establishment in 1938.
Bakery to a Bar
In 1938, South Side Bakery gave way to South Side Bar. For the first time in its history, the business operating at 626 South Miami Avenue was officially a legal drinking establishment. Based on urban legend, South Side Bar would have been operating under liquor license number one.
Next door to South Side Bar was Bert Dunbar Billiards. On September 4, 1938, Dunbar was arrested for detonating a bomb in South Side Bar. The Miami News headline read “Three Charged in Miami Bar Bombing Case”. The explosion caused $300 in damages to a plate glass window and inventory. Fortunately, nobody was hurt in the blast.
The likely reason for the bomb blast was over a dispute about the lease for the billiards room. The lease dispute may have motivated Dunbar to take revenge on the South Side Bar.
Once the billiards room was closed, Gunnar Rosenquist once again surfaced to open a bakery at 628 South Miami Avenue. This time, his bakery was located next door to his original location and was opened for business until the mid-1940s. In 1944, the business changed ownership and name to Heinis Bakery.
This change represented the end of an era on South Miami Avenue. It represented the last time the Rosenquists would operate a bakery somewhere on the block. Karl Gunnar Rosenquist passed away on January 10, 1950.
Charlie’s Tobacco Road
South Side Bar operated at 626 South Miami Avenue until October of 1941. The establishment that replaced it opened with a lot of fanfare. Charlie’s Tobacco Road advertised itself as “Miami’s Gayest and Newest Nite Club”. The club featured live music and live shows that carried the tagline of “A Show That Never Stops”.
One of the original owners of Charlie’s Tobacco Road was Lew Cohen. He named the bar in honor of the novel written by Erskine Caldwell called ‘Tobacco Road’. The novel was a popular Broadway play in the 1930s.
The change of ownership and name to Charlie’s Tobacco Road also changed the theme and activities of the bar. The upstairs area stopped operating as a gambling den and became a venue for live entertainment. Music and shows were featured nightly.
The bar hosted regional Jazz and Swing bands popular during the 1940s. 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 an immoral place and was frequently targeted for raids by the “moral’s squad” of the Miami Police Department.
Tobacco Road’s reputation had gotten so bad during the war that the military officially declared the establishment off limits to all military personnel. During 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 was plenty of military personnel in town that could find trouble at Charlie’s Tobacco Road. Hence, the military issued the order to stay out of the place.
In March of 1944, the forces of decency finally won and Charlie’s Tobacco Road was shut down for “lewd, wanton and lascivious behavior”. The charge specifically referred to its female impersonators and male strippers. The bar was closed and the liquor license suspended for most of 1944.
The Chanticleer to Shandiclere Bar
In December of 1944 the liquor license and business was acquired by Tom Davis. According to an article on December 16, 1944 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 he 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.
Davis originally named the tavern the “Chicken Roost”. However, once the liquor license was reinstated, he changed the name of the restaurant and bar ‘The Chanticleer’. The place 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 entertainment at the new restaurant. In a June 1945 advertisement in the Miami News, The Chanticleer promoted 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 revoked due to selling liquor after curfew hours.
According to a Florida state law, a place that had its 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 existing owner of Club Mayfair, Lew Cohen. Because of Cohen’s checkered past with Tobacco Road, he acquired the club under his daughter’s name. Due to the precarious nature of the proceedings, the liquor license was not re-instated.
The owners of The Chanticleer changed its name to The Shandiclere in 1946. There was a poultry market in Miami that was already was operating under the name ‘Chanticleer’, so Davis and his wife changed the spelling of the name of their place, but kept a similar pronunciation. They incorporated under the new name to avoid any future conflicts.
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. The two sisters owned the bar for only one year.
The Shandiclere almost lost their liquor license in April of 1949. The Miami News characterized the bar as running a “hostess scam”. The racket 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 bar. Once the hostess and client reached the upstairs bar, gentlemen were charged $6 per hour to enjoy the company of the hostess and an additional $1.25 per drink. The drink was nothing more than colored water. The state beverage director issued a fine, but the bar did not lose their liquor license over the controversy.
Morris Blake purchased The Shandiclere in 1950. He made a slight adjustment to the name of the establishment and it began to be known as ‘Shandiclere Bar’. Blake owned the bar for the next twenty-six years. Finally, a saloon located at 626 South Miami Avenue experienced a little stability in ownership and name.
However, stability did not always mean absence of impropriety. Morris Blake was arrested on April 23, 1954, for illegal gambling at his bar. Blake was seen taking a bet from a customer by law enforcement, and when he was caught, attempted to eat the paper in which the bet was written. However, there was enough evidence to charge Blake with bookmaking. He was also charged with resisting arrest for attempting to dispose of the evidence.
In addition, Shandiclere Bar was one of several establishments that were included in raids of places that were suspected of being hangouts of what the police deemed to be “perverts”. The raids took place in August of 1954. Those arrested were charged with vagrancy and were forced to be tested for STDs. As reported in the Miami Herald on August 14th, law enforcement used these raids to show “perverts that they can’t setup housekeeping in Dade County”.
The Shandiclere Bar operated as an eatery, neighborhood bar and live music venue through the 1950s and 1960s. However, the Brickell neighborhood began to slowly decline. As locals migrated to the suburbs during these decades, the neighborhood became sketchy and the clientele began to reflect the change. The Shandiclere became a place where shady people could conduct drug deals or find a hit man. It became a regular stop for the real Miami Vice.
Tobacco Road Once Again
Blake’s ownership came to an end when retired police officer Neil Katzman bought the bar in April of 1977. Mr. Katzman decided to rename the bar back to what it was called 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, Katzman renovated the bar with 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. A writer from the Miami News referred to Tobacco Road as “a little slice of Greenwich Village right here in our town”.
Despite the investment in the bar, the neighborhood around Tobacco Road continued to decline and business had dropped off dramatically. Neil Katzman claimed that he was only pulling in $800 per week and began to realize that the bar may not be an economically viable business.
In February of 1981, Tobacco Road was one of ten bars that were targeted by the Florida Department of Alcohol and Tobacco for drug raids. The agency declared the bars as “dangers to the community”. Katzman viewed the raids as a “witch hunt” for political purposes. Following the raid, he owned the tavern for roughly one more year.
When 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 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.
When the three friends bought Tobacco Road, the neighborhood mostly consisted of crack houses, homeless squatters and vagrants that were up to no good. There was even a house across the street where prostitutes would lean out a window and solicit patrons entering the bar. During this 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 their first few years as owners.
The place began to turn around when they booked the Fat Chance Blues band. They were one of the most popular bands in town. The band later changed its name to ‘Iko Iko’ and became Tobacco Road’s house band.
The band was one of the main reasons behind the revival of the music scene at Tobacco Road. They strongly appealed to the downtown professional crowd. The Road’s music scene included national acts such as blues legends John Hammond, the James Cotton Blues Band, John Lee Hooker, KoKo Taylor, Albert King, David Bromberg and Sun Ra.
During a performance by Koko Taylor in the upstairs bar, the power went out in the middle of one of her sets. According to Graham Wood Drout of Iko Iko, someone found an acoustic guitar and Taylor sang by candle light in the stifling heat for the remainder of the night. Drout said it was one of the greatest performances he had ever heard.
Another great to play the upstairs bar was Sun Ra’s swing jazz big band. The band was twenty members strong and put on one of the most memorable shows in Tobacco Road history.
Tobacco Road appeared in a movie that was filmed in Miami in 1985. Kurt Russell played Miami Herald reporter Malcolm Anderson who got pulled into a serial murder investigation when the murderer contacts him after each homicide. The bar was the local watering hole for the crime reporter and his colleagues. The film was based on a book by John Katzenbach called “In the Heat of the Summer”. 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 the Brickell neighborhood. He was employed as an honorary doorman 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 the place lost one of its most endearing characters. Many regulars felt his spirit in the place long after his passing.
The reputation of Charlie’s Tobacco Road from the 1940s was not forgotten. While the ‘off limits’ order by the military was lifted many years earlier, the order was revisited on July 24, 1986. The USO formally issued an official ‘on-limits’ decree that was largely ceremonial.
The on-limits order read as follows:
“WHEREAS…Tobacco Road, being a rowdy night club, has traditionally been off limits to servicemen. WHEREAS…The unruly nature of the client in the past, and the rock and roll nature of the club has forced the armed services to forbid innocent servicemen and women to patronize this establishment. WHEREAS…Tobacco Road has cleaned up their act, so to speak, as to the quality of their patrons, if not the rock and roll nature of their music. THEREFORE…Be it resolved on this 24th day of July, 1986, Tobacco Road, the oldest saloon in Miami, is officially ON-LIMITS to all servicemen and women.”
The document was proudly displayed at 626 South Miami Avenue until its final day.
As gentrification of Brickell began in the early 2000s, a lot of young people moved into the neighborhood and found Tobacco Road to be an interesting destination for dining and entertainment. The Road was one of the few places that patrons can buy an affordable drink or order high quality bar food in the downtown area. The place had one of the best hamburgers in town.
The bar offered a vibrant live music scene and was visited by people from all walks of life. It was not uncommon for groups of friends to return from the beach, or some other downtown location, to finish their night at ‘The Road’.
However, during the last building boom that began in 2012, Patrick Gleber felt it was time to capitalize on the risk he endured for the prior thirty years. During his time as owner, he began buying the property located on the block around his bar. He understood that the long-term value of his business was the real estate rather than the operation of the bar and restaurant. This was especially true during Miami’s frequent building booms.
On April 24, 2012, a real estate investor, Carlos J. Mattos, purchased the eight parcels of land that included Tobacco Road and surrounding buildings. Initially, the new owner of the property was quiet about his intentions for the historic location.
In October of 2014, circumstances changed quickly. Tobacco Road had planned to stay open at their current location until at least the spring of 2015. However, the bar announced its “last call” celebration for Saturday, October 25th. A couple of weeks earlier, Mattos covertly applied for and was granted a demolition permit on October 2nd. He made sure that he filed for this permit before an historic designation application could be submitted.
Shortly after the last call celebration, Thunder Demolition began their work removing all evidence of Tobacco Road on South Miami Avenue. The only part of the block that was razed was the saloon’s former location. The rest of the block was left alone and remains open for business today.
It is not uncommon in Miami for the fate of historic structures to be decided by outside investors. Many of Miami’s most cherished historic landmarks were discarded by outside developers in the name of progress. The Tobacco Road building was just another one of those casualties.
There was a hand inscribed passage on a door in the upstairs bar that captured the longevity of the place and what it meant to those who cherished the historic landmark:
“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 it is unlikely that Tobacco Road ever possessed the original liquor license in Miami, there is no doubt that it holds an endearing legacy to all those who walked through its doors. Although its history is gritty, and mostly infamous, the place earned the right to be considered one of the city’s great treasures. While it is gone, it will not be forgotten.Click Here to Subscribe
- Miami News: “Dade County is Voted Dry”, October 30, 1913.
- Miami News: “Three Charged in Miami Bombing Case”, September 4, 1938.
- Miami News: “Tobacco Road Shut; 4 Given 60 Days, Fined”, March 23, 1944. James McClean.
- Miami News: “Court Orders License Granted ‘Chicken Roost’”, December 3, 1944.
- Miami Herald: “Club Mayfair License Revoked, Boss Fined”, July 28, 1945. Henry O. Reno.
- Miami News: “Hostess May Cause Loss of Bars License”, April 4, 1949.
- Miami Herald: “K Rosenquist, Resident Here 37 Years, Dies”. January 11, 1950.
- Miami Herald: “Law Works Faster Than Man Chews”, April 23, 1954.
- Miami Herald: “Perverts Seized in Bar Raid”, August 14, 1954.
- Miami Herald: “Miami Avenue”, March 26, 1972. Lawrence Mahoney.
- Miami Herald: “The Long Road Miami’s Oldest Tavern Bellies Up To The Bar To Celebrate 80 Years Of Living The Blues”, October 11, 1992. Leonard Pitts, Jr.
- Miami News: “Speakeasy Colored Girls Exhuberant”, January 3, 1981. Bills Von Maurer.
- Miami Herald: “Bar Owners: Raids Witch Hunts”, February 1, 1981. Anders Gyllenhaal.
- Miami Herald: “A Place Called Tobacco Road The Proud Holder of Liquor License No. 001 Has Many Ghosts After 75 Years”, July 5, 1987. Tom Moon.
- Miami Herald: “Tobacco Road: 95 Years of Booze, Bands and Bawdiness”, November 9, 2007. Michael Hamersly.
- Miami Herald: “Last Call for Legendary Tobacco Road”, October 24, 2014. Andres Viglucci.
- IMDB: “The Mean Season”.
- Figure 1: Dade County Voted Dry in 1913. Courtesy of Miami News.
- Figure 2: Rosenquist Bakery in Miami Florida. Courtesy of Florida Memory.
- Figure 3: Karcher’s Bakery Ad in Miami News. Courtesy of Miami News.
- Figure 4: Ad for Southside Bar in 1939. Courtesy of Miami News.
- Figure 5: Charlie’s Tobacco Road Ad in 1941. Courtesy of Miami Herald.
- Figure 6: Chanticleer Ad in 1944. Courtesy of Miami News.
- Figure 7: Club Shandiclere Ad in 1949. Courtesy of Miami News.
- Figure 8: Tobacco Road Entrance in 1984. Courtesy of HistoryMiami.
- Figure 9: Tobacco Road from Mean Season in 1985. Courtesy of Mean Season Movie.
- Figure 10: Last Call Party on October 25, 2014.