By Olivia Tracey
Well, there’s nothing like a little globetrotting to keep a girl’s life exciting. Lined up over the next few months are Boston and San Francisco followed by an eagerly awaited five-day stopover in the glorious Big Apple on my way to the Old Sod for Christmas. Meanwhile, I’ve been swapping one palm-fringed coast for another with a recent three-week escape from L.A. to South Beach, Miami, where, amid the vibrant Latin beat, I managed to seek out a few Irish tunes and heaps of hospitality.
It began in an Irish pub, surprise, surprise, in Coconut Grove’s Murphy’s Law. The extensive watering hole was packed to the gills, both inside and out, the Guinness-drinking clientele rocking to the evening’s live entertainment. Then along came the owner, Leslie Sinclair, otherwise known as Lou, a fine-looking, down-to-earth Dubliner with a youthful appearance that belies his 40-something years.
"I’ve been taking the Cliff Richard tablets," he joked as he lit up a cigarette in that rugged masculine way, his eyes dancing with mirth.
As well as hanging on to his youth, he’s also keeping a firm grip on his Dublin accent. All the way from Greenhills, only a few miles from my own west Dublin abode, he has spent the last 20 years opening pubs in Germany and the United States. Circa 1978, at the tender age of 21, he left Ireland for Germany, where he began working in construction before starting his first pub only a year later. Within the next three years, he opened no fewer than 11 pubs, four of which he still has. And, like any smart Irishman, he’s keeping it in the family, delegating management to his two brothers, Raph’l and Loughlin.
Now 10 years in the United States, he also has a number of pubs across Florida in Orlando, Tampa, Coconut Grove and the recently opened Fort Lauderdale venue. He has no doubt made the Ma and Da proud, Christine and Patrick, who visit him every year "to work on their tans."
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Too busy to work on his tan is fellow Dubliner Niall Moran, from Sandymount, whom I discovered behind another bar in the swank Smith & Wollensky steakhouse in South Beach. Though I wandered in on my own one evening, it was not long before he had me introduced to the bevy of staff, most of whom are Irish, including the manager, Frank Ross of Dublin. So, while I declined a Paddy — the whiskey, that is — and opted instead for a nice hot cuppa, made as it should be, my endearing host proceeded to recount the tale of the Smith & Wollensky Irish connection.
Owned by notable restaurateur Alan Stillman, the upscale chain employed its first Irish beverage manager in 1980, starting a trend of Irish beverage managers who, in turn, tended to employ Irish staff in every branch across the country. As a matter of interest, Smith & Wollensky are under the same top-quality umbrella as Park Avenue Cafe, Maloney & Porcelli’s, Post House, Manhattan Ocean Club and Cite, the latter being where Niall Moran began his career with the company in New York six years ago. He moved on to Smith & Wollensky and Maloney & Porcelli’s before finally moving to Smith & Wollensky Miami when it opened in December 1997.
Of course, besides the Ciaran Markeys, Mickey Mahers and Joe Dillons running the place, there’s a little Italian in the mix, with head chef Bob Mignola, along with "the token Irish American," as he calls himself, gregarious Bostonian Joe Cox "of Roscommon heritage," he adds proudly. Equally proud was my good friend Niall as he treated me to the grand tour through the wine cellar, the cigar room and the entire mahogany-boothed two-story restaurant, including the kitchen within which sits a private glass-domed dining room. I’m told it’s for the gastronomically-inclined to dine with friends while getting a bird’s eye view of all the surrounding action.
As for the main 700-seat restaurant, should it pack to capacity, there’s always the balmy waterside terrace outside, complete with stunning views of downtown Miami and the very select Fisher Island across the bay. "Oprah owns the top floor of that building," added Niall, referring to a deluxe high-rise on the island. Well, it wouldn’t be a real Irish welcome without a cup of tea, a kitchen and a bit of gossip thrown in.
Back in Coconut Grove, I squeezed in a trip to the theater to catch a Broadway-bound revival of "Finian’s Rainbow" at the Coconut Grove Playhouse. From the moment the curtain went up, I sat entranced by the sheer magic, from the fairy tale story and heart-warming music ("Old Devil Moon," "If This Isn’t Love," "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?") to the superb performances across the board from Brian Murray and Kate Jennings Grant in the father-and-daughter lead roles, to Denis O’Hare as Ogh the leprechaun, Tin Ou as the mute but magical dancer Susan Mahony, Robert Spencer as the love interest Woody Mahoney, and the trio of maids Terri White, Brandi Chavonne Massey and Dioni Michelle Collins.
The Playhouse is no doubt a theater of the highest caliber, having attracted such star names as George C. Scott, Colleen Dewhurst, Liza Minnelli, Jessica Tandy and, of course, Mr. Murray himself. Incidentally, it was Beckett’s "Waiting for Godot" that inaugurated the playhouse back in January 1956, and considering that the theater is running beautifully more than 40 years later, I suspect there must be a lucky Irish Charm in there some place.
As for "Finian’s Rainbow," it is charm itself. It is a display of the finest quality theater, the kind that leaves you elated for having been fortunate enough to experience it. It is quite simply what theater should be: colorful, comedic and thought-provoking. Director Lonny Price can indeed be proud of his work — which, of course, I told him when I discovered him sitting beside me. Catch this gem at the Coconut Grove Playhouse until Nov. 21. Call (305) 442-4000. It moves on to Cleveland on its way to Broadway by early March.