In a lifetime of self-destructive behavior, writing this story will certainly find a place in the top five. I see it landing somewhere between ordering a sixteen-piece dark meat from Popeyes and eating just the chicken skins, and my teenage romantic obsession with the poetry of Jim Morrison. I am, for money and the prestige of a byline, giving away the kind of secret that most people guard like my aunt Becky’s baked beans recipe: the location and name of the best unhyped and basically unknown day-drinking spot in the country. Welcome to Shuckers, the workmanlike hotel bar and grill in a Best Western in North Bay Village, Florida, near Miami Beach.
The hotel, with apologies to its management and owners, looks sagging and worn, the kind of place where you’d never, ever want to take a black light, if you know what I’m saying. It’s right on the edge of motel. The bar is little more than twenty-five years old, and would itself be a dive if it had a back wall lined with old military photos and softball league schedules, but instead it’s open air and looks out on sparkling water. Yellow awnings make shade, and the bank of televisions keeps you apprised of the comings and goings in the world of sports. There are big fans throwing breeze, because a man shouldn’t have to endure an ounce of discomfort while enjoying the sun. That’s why our ancestors braved the Oregon Trail and the beaches of France. America!
The high-rise apartments across the road are filled with the staff who serve your fruity drinks and grill your mahimahi sandwiches at the fancy places a few miles south. There’s a Benihana just down the way in case you meet a nice girl and want to impress her. In the other direction, Happy’s Stork Lounge is open late in case you don’t meet a girl, or don’t feel the need to impress one, or maybe just want to see how your fistfight skills have held up against the unending erosion of time.
Shuckers’ bartenders are thoughtful, like your grandmother, if she was on the run from a gambling debt or a religious cult. For instance, they give away beer huggies with lawyers’ names and numbers on them, in case you get popped trying to swerve back home. Which you should obviously never do, even if you can’t get a cab and really need a) sleep or b) Taco Bell. There’s always someone drinking an afternoon away who clearly isn’t a guest of the hotel, and I like to imagine what circumstances brought them here, to what would pass for any small-town or suburban tavern in the world, were it not right on the water.
My own journey to this little bit of paradise started with my brother-in-law, a dive Sherpa, who bartends down on the beach. He lives across the road, in one of those aforementioned high-rises, and he walked me through the parking lot into the bar’s embrace. Shuckers serves incredibly cold beer on draft, along with ceviche and chicken wings that I long for when I’m away, existing in my imagination like the pinups painted on the nose of those World War II bombers. They’re grilled. The hot sauce comes on the side so you can fend off the true enemy of any Chicken Wing Nation-State: a cruel and unusual sog. There are many other ways for chicken wings to go bad. There are the steroid- and antibiotic-addled factory-farm wings that look scientifically enhanced, like a Real Housewife. There is the overcooked/burned problem, and the gristle-in-the-teeth situation, but nothing is as bad as a sauce-logged wing.
Here, now, a list:
2. Soggy Wings
3. El Chapo
As I mentioned, the beer is ice, ice cold, which is how beer should be. If you wouldn’t drink it after mowing your lawn, I’m not interested, and if I wanted something complex on my palate, I’d drink wine or cognac. I want beer when I’m hot and when I’m staring at the water, which brings me to the next thing. Shuckers looks out over Biscayne Bay, with tables and umbrellas for those who haven’t yet mastered the art of day drinking. Personally, I like to sit at the bar, facing the blue, shimmering inlet, where boats cruise past or tie up at the hotel to get food or drinks. These are the kinds of views that cost five hundred dollars a night down on South Beach, the ones that are then marred by the low thump and whine of house music, when what you really want, if you’re honest, is Kenny Chesney Pandora.
I read once that Chesney bought a house in Key West and then quickly relisted it after the news got too much attention, which I understand. He was buying the dream of a different life, one where he lived like the characters in his songs and not like a business mogul selling his own dreams to other people for ninety-nine cents a song. That’s what Shuckers gives you most of all: a chance to break free, cut loose, get falling-down beer drunk and forget what you were doing before you arrived and whatever you might have planned once you leave.
Once or twice a year, my work schedule allows me a free day in Miami, without any of the responsibilities or pressures that normally accompany the daily grind of life. I’ll take a book, or my computer, and head over to the Best Western, finding a seat and the first of an endless string of draft Presidentes, along with my first order of the near-perfect wings. The bay dazzles and the boats speed by, including the inevitable cigarette boat of a chicken-skin-faced old man with his bikini-clad, ahem, niece, and the stereo plays songs about the beach, and about love and loss. I imagine a girl’s face lit by the light of a Benihana flaming onion—everyone catches the flying shrimp in their daydreams. A great bar stops and stretches time, brings into focus the ghost lives we might have lived. Everything seems possible three beers deep at Shuckers. I have been fed and watered, warmed by sunlight, and my beer huggie even has the name of legal representation, should things turn south.