In Deep Dive, VICE asks writers around the world to explain how their favorite bar represents their city’s history and culture.
Sergio Bonilla’s body is run down from a youth spent in dive bars. But almost every morning around 10 AM, he drags himself to the place he’s considered home ever since moving from Manhattan’s Sugar Hill to Miami Beach in 1980. He says switching his order from whiskey to club soda was as easy as subbing McDonald's for a salad—he just didn't feel like drinking anymore. Meanwhile, getting Mac’s Club Deuce out of his system would prove much harder than the booze. After all, if the 72-year-old stopped going, he wouldn’t know how to find people to talk to in a town that used to run on cocaine and an anything-goes attitude but has since been transformed by a massive influx of South Americans laundering money into condos. The infamous dive bar is one of a shrinking number of places for Floridians of more modest means.
“The Deuce is conducive to that because there’s nothing else to do there,” he told me. “If you sit at the bar and start talking to people, they’ll talk to you.”
Opened in 1933 as Club Deuce because of its address at 222 14th Street, the bar was eventually purchased in 1964 by a regular named Mac Klein who had been shot in World War II and moved to South Beach to recover in warm weather. He added “Mac” to the bar’s name but changed little else. At the time, the bar was popular place for working class people who had trickled down to Florida, because it reminded them of the spartan, no-nonsense watering holes from the small towns they’d come from. When Miami Vice used Mac’s as a location in the 80s, they lined the inside with pink and green neon, which amounts to what is possibly the greatest bar decor anywhere in the world. That decade saw—besides Don Johnson, who was known to step behind the bar at wrap parties—a Deuce clientele that consisted largely of drag queens, club kids, and off-duty cops. On any given day in Mac's you may run into "a poet, an accountant, a cremation urn salesman, a carpenter, a nuclear physicist, a janitor, a yacht captain, and a bus driver" reported a Miami Herald story from June 1989 aptly headlined "All Kinds Make a Merry Mix At Mac’s Club Deuce." It was then that the most legendary stories about the bar originated, like the one that involved a woman beating a man with an iguana because he stole her drug money. (Editor's note: A spokesperson for Mac's claims this happened because the man wouldn't accept her "services," though the drug money story has been reported elsewhere. The real story may be lost to time.)
Bonilla still reminisces about those days himself—the ones when you’d be hard pressed to find anyone walking in or out of a bank in Miami and gangsters would come to the Deuce and buy everyone three or four rounds with a hunk of cash. He still cracks up telling the story about a time he tried to use the bar’s bathroom and saw a guy in there doing a massive amount of coke with four women. “They all come out and sit at the bar, and the guy sneezes. The bartender doesn’t say, ‘God bless you,’ he says, ‘Change the cut [of the coke]!’”
Two blocks east of Mac’s is Ocean Drive—a posh beachfront stretch dotted with overpriced, mediocre restaurants selling Windex-colored fishbowl cocktails for two. It’s hard to imagine that all you’d have to do to find a slice of Old Florida is take a five-minute walk and step inside a dingy little bar next to a tattoo shop. Sitting on those stools is where you’ll find the tried-and-true denizens of the beach—the proud remaining degenerates—shooting pool, chain smoking, and keeping the reverse hours of a banker. The stories they’ll be telling are still very much Miami, albeit a bit tamer than they were in decades past.
“We were talking about a singer, his name is Pitbull,” Bonilla told me of his most recent morning at the Deuce. “He’s this very modest guy who calls himself Mr. Worldwide. It’s absurd! Gloria Estefan is also a Cuban singer, but she was much more famous than he is ever gonna be, but she never went around saying that she was Ms. Worldwide.”
Bartender Aaron Tucker caught the Mac’s bug back in the days of the Cocaine Cowboys. He first tried to get hired there in 1988, though he didn't get to pour his first drink until 2014. His persistence came in part because he recognizes it’s one of the last few authentic places in a town that’s become a playground for the hyper-wealthy. “In a city that changes like an indecisive chameleon, an island always for sale to the highest bidder,” as Miami New Times put it in their exhaustive oral history of the bar in 2015 on the occasion of Klein’s 100th birthday, “Mac's joint has remained a pristine, neon-lit paradise untouched by outside forces.”
One of the main criteria of a dive bar, in my opinion, is that it continues to honor the foundation on which it was built. It also shouldn’t serve anything that includes more than two ingredients, which minimizes any wait times for a refill. A good dive like Mac’s is almost a sensory deprivation chamber, where you can’t tell if and when day has passed into night, or vice versa. It’s a place that looks like it could belong anywhere, but somehow unmistakably belongs to the city you’re in. It’s the ideal place to pass the time, but somehow manages to look exactly the same over the course of several decades. Although it’s unspeakably cool, it’s never been hip, which means it’s impossible to age out of attendance. Tucker agrees that the Deuce, as it’s affectionately called by locals and regulars, checks every single box.
“The beauty of the place is that anyone can go in there from a celebrity to a street hustler and feel like home,” Tucker says. “It’s got an edge, but you can be anonymous and hang out and have a drink and not worry about attitude, when the whole city has become fancy and posh. The cheap places have all left the beach, and this is the last bastion.”
Tucker and I are far from alone in thinking Mac’s is somewhat of a Mecca. Next time you’re at your favorite dive, look up behind the liquor, next to the open tabs and old receipts, to see if you can find a coaster from Mac’s. If you see that black-and-white circle adorned with a two of clubs, you’ll know someone who works at the place you’re sitting has made the hajj. It’s the calling card of a legendary establishment and an Easter egg—a secret wink from drink slingers to sippers who are in the know. If there isn’t one hanging where you’re hanging out, you might not be patronizing the right places.
Despite its outsized fame, Mac’s still manages to remain a neighborhood joint—complete with regulars and buy-backs. This is all the more incredible given the fact that Anthony Bourdain shouted out the bar three times on TV, at one point even calling it one of his “favorite places on Earth.” Although that’s certainly added to the notoriety, especially among a certain set of tourists who, like him, want to experience the authentic parts of whatever city they’re in, everyone still checks their social status at the door. Mac’s was still the antithesis of champagne brunch or living like a Kardashian in 2016, when Mac died at the age of 101, and is still today now that his wife, Mary, is running the show. Mac credited running the Deuce, "the everyday person's bar," for his long life. "I love coming to work," he told a University of Miami TV crew during a profile shortly before his passing. "I find it rewarding."
“It’s one of the best laid out bars I’ve ever been in—you can sit anywhere and see anyone and talk to anyone,” says Tucker. “We don’t do blender drinks and we don’t do trendy. There are windows, but we keep the blinds shut during the day. The only thing that’s ever changed is the barstools.”