Here's to Clarke’s of Miami, FL

Here's to Clarke’s of Miami, FL

It goes without saying that a bar is an important part of a neighborhood (hence the moniker, neighborhood bar). The people that frequent the place, those labeled as “regulars,” come from the surrounding areas, living blocks, or maybe just buildings away. But on many occasions, newcomers will also slip through the door – maybe people visiting the city or area for the first time, or maybe just bar flies like me. But in any case, these places give their neighborhoods their personality, not to mention a gathering place for friends and family.

That’s what Clarke’s, a small Irish pub in Miami Beach, did for eight glorious years. It was such a part of its community that even after closing a decade ago, the owner is still stopped on the street by past regulars who all sing the same chorus—“We miss our bar.” And it’s not hard to understand why.

Clarke’s was described as “South Beach meets New York meets Dublin,” a place dripping in darkly stained mahogany, from the back bar to the beams across the ceiling. As one publication put it, it had the “big-city neighborhood pub look down pat,” complete with a huge bottle selection and Irish beers on tap. The crowd was raucous but friendly, and the bar itself was homey and far from extravagant – which belied its deeper sophistication.

Sure, they had shepherd’s pie or fish ‘n chips on the menu, but a closer look would find some truly interesting offerings, like sea scallops wrapped in bacon or roasted duck with an orange demi-glace. The products behind the bar were no less refined. Sure, Clarke’s had all the Irish whiskey classics you could want, but they also featured rarer, harder-to-find selections (plus a wine list that included over 100 bottles).

You wouldn’t think an Irish pub – sophisticated or otherwise – would really fit into a place like South Beach, but for some reason, it did.

Clarke’s founder, Laura Cullen, is to be credited with this success. Laura had previously worked for a wine distributor and so had a pretty good idea of what worked and what didn’t in bars. But Laura’s history in the bar business goes back a bit further than that, back to her childhood, in fact.

Laura grew up in New York at a time when neighborhood bars were common across all five Burroughs. Not only that, but her own father was a longtime New York bartender (a class of angels all to themselves) and then later became a bar owner, running a Village staple called the Sazerac House for over four decades.

“I had no choice,” Laura told me when talking about how she came to own her popular Miami Beach spot, “my parents even met at a bar.”

As it happened, before he founded his own place, her old man worked the bar at Chumley’s, the historic pub and speakeasy that graced Greenwich Village for almost a hundred years. It was while he was slinging drinks there that he met Laura’s mom, and the rest is, as they say history.

So, for Laura, opening her own place was almost like destiny, like something she just had to do. Initially, the idea started as a school project while she was getting her MBA, but then grew increasingly real. Eventually, she couldn’t fight it anymore and opened Clarke’s. She combined the lessons she’d learned from supplying wine to restaurants for so long with her classes in business school and then added what she’d gleaned from her own time spent at her pop’s joint to open a place people still talk about to this day.

She said she put her customers at the center of the place, which is why they were so loyal to her little pub. If she didn’t know someone at the bar, she’d take the time to get to know them, and so there were never really strangers there – at least not by the time they left.

When Clarke’s was opened, the neighborhood was struggling to attract businesses. It was low rent, and so it provided a great space for a new, untested pub to hang out its shingle. But, within just a few years, and owed at least partly to the success of Clarke’s itself, more and more businesses started moving in. Before long, the area was starting to change, becoming more upscale and…well you can see where this is going, right? It’s happened time and time before – Clarke’s was a victim of its own success.

The rent went up and the little Irish pub was edged out. Laura admits without any bitterness that she let her lease get bought out because she saw the writing on the wall. Surprisingly, she’s not mad about it, nor does she hold a grudge against the landlord – a friend of hers – but instead just shrugs philosophically, “It’s just one of those things.”

But while she doesn’t feel bad for herself, she does feel bad for the locals and regulars, those are the people who depend on neighborhood places like Clarke’s. She’s always thrilled when they stop her and talk to her about her bar, but it’s bittersweet, as she misses it and them all the time.

And that’s what made her, and by extension Clarke’s, such a success. She cared.

So, for Laura Cullen and all the publicans who care so much about us, their thirsty crowd of regulars and visitors, thank you and cheers!