Thursday, March 25, 2010

Driving Florida's A1A
Fort Lauderdale to Miami Beach

Extending 328 miles from the Georgia line south to Key West, Florida’s State Road A1A offers Atlantic coast travelers a scenic alternative to the hectic monotony of neighboring Interstate 95. One particularly busy stretch of A1A covers some 30 miles of Broward and Miami-Dade Counties.

From the Galt Ocean Mile with its soaring condominium buildings, to the impeccable, palm-lined public beach where tanned and fit specimens sunbathe and exercise, Fort Lauderdale’s oceanfront exemplifies sophistication and fun. South of fashionable Las Olas Boulevard, beyond the elegant mansions that border the Intracoastal Waterways, and past the public marina, State Road A1A’s 17th Street Bridge spans the harbor, towering above cruise ships and container ships stacked high with cargo. Then, working class Ft. Lauderdale comes into view. In neighborhoods here, public buses outnumber luxury automobiles, and modest single family homes predominate.

At Hollywood Beach, A1A snakes through a canyon formed by high rises—mostly residential units with windows shuttered this late spring. By now, many of the seasonal residents have moved north to escape the impending heat of summer. Aside from a FedEX delivery man and one elderly woman shielded by an umbrella, the sidewalks are void of pedestrians this “low season” afternoon.

Farther south at Hallandale Beach and later at Golden Beach, the sky-high concrete eases as gated estates, many of them behind perfectly trimmed hedges 12 feet high, extend for a mile along the oceanfront.

Then A1A opens to three lanes of traffic in each direction. Modern granite towers with tinted windows neighbor aged buildings trimmed with faded awnings and metal latticework. Maids and factory workers stand at bus stops. Vehicles crawl through a string of traffic lights. Car horns blare and trucks roar. Clouds of exhaust hover above the pavement. Graffiti covers light posts and utility boxes. Construction cranes soar above the street, bringing more development to an already overdeveloped beach. For miles, concrete obstructs the ocean view.

Despite its large number of towers, Bal Harbour appears attractive. Pineapple palms and coconut palms line the sidewalks and the street medians along A1A. Tightly spaced, they create a canopy effect, especially evident when viewed on approach from the north bridge. Elegant boutiques, spaced as tightly as the palm trees, form the “Shops of Bal Harbour.”

At central Miami Beach, discount stores, tattoo and piercing parlors, and restaurants with grease stained windows occupy street side plazas. The miles-long boardwalk parallel to the ocean and just steps from A1A attracts tattooed teenagers, bearded beach bums, and foul-mouthed transients who beg for money. A sizable number of police officers patrol this area, in cars, on motorcycles, on bicycles, and on foot.

Thirty miles from Fort Lauderdale at Miami’s South Beach, where A1A ribbons along the Intracoastal Waterway, the 1920s and 1930s Art Deco architecture so characteristic of the area comes into view. It begins gradually, often with a curvy pastel colored building sandwiched between generic neighbors. And, here, neon is king. The Shelborne Hotel, the Geneva, and the Carlton all display colored tubing above their doors.

The feel is unquestionably metropolitan, and this beach side community bustles. Pedestrians stroll along swept white sidewalks. Diners gather at outdoor cafes, sheltered from the midday sun by colorful umbrellas. There’s a marked increase in bicycles and motor scooters, and a noticeable upgrade in style. Women here look elegant in miniskirts and high-heeled sandals. They wear their hair in modern coifs and their makeup in tasteful tones. The men look equally fashionable in pressed slacks and lightweight button–down shirts.

Its streets crowded with low-rise apartments and hotels, spacious diners, and shops, Miami’s South Beach is a city in itself. Save for the modern day fashions and the modern day shops—the Ralph Lauren, the 9 West, and the TGI Fridays—South Beach exudes a stylish, Gatsby-like character. The black Duesenberg parked at the entrance to the Casablanca Hotel, the neon lights, and the stucco facades tinted pink, yellow, and tangerine contribute to the classic atmosphere of this trendy neighborhood. And just beyond the A1A, only steps from all the activity, sea oats overspread mounds of sand and the public beach eases into the Atlantic Ocean.

from 2005

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Greenbrier Restaurant
Madison, Alabama

At the intersection of two remote farm roads in Madison, Alabama, beside cotton fields that stretch endlessly, a faded Coca-Cola sign stands on an old steel post, welcoming folks to the Greenbrier Restaurant. The flat-roofed, faded beige cinder block structure sits on Old Highway 20, just two miles off Interstate 565 but seemingly light years from civilization.

Wooden beams support low ceilings in the restaurant’s dim dining rooms. Dark paneling covers the walls, while vinyl tablecloths cover the sturdy wooden tables.

We sample the house specialty, the large barbecue pork dinner, a hefty half-pound serving of tender shredded meat for $6.95. The steaming entree arrives on a jumbo plastic platter, beside a baked potato and a mound of tart green slaw topped with a pair of dill pickle chips.

The combination plate—"this one's a lot of eatin'"according to the menu—includes a whole pen-raised catfish and two half-foot slabs of barbecued ribs for $10.95. The breaded catfish fillet tastes fresh and spicy, and our server kindly provides instructions on navigating the fish bones. Although they lack the “fall off the bone” tenderness, the Greenbrier ribs are meaty, if fatty, and tangy. A pile of soft French fries covers the remainder of the plate.

A series of squeeze bottles sits on each table, each one containing a signature sauce. “Only the ketchup isn’t homemade,” our waitress explains. I prefer the unusual mayonnaise and vinegar based white barbecue sauce and the traditional red barbecue sauce with the smoky edge. Louisiana hot sauce, Tabasco, and a spicy vinegar and pan-drippings sauce round out the lineup. Twelve to each basket, the complimentary hush puppies are crunchy and dark with a slightly sweet center. I enjoy several of them as dessert.

A representative from the visitor’s center in nearby Huntsville recommended the Greenbrier. She assured me that the restaurant attracts a local crowd. “Every Huntsvilleian knows about the Greenbrier,” she said. Every Huntsvilleian and, following today’s dinner, this satisfied Chicagoan.

from 2004