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BUCKLE UP


IT’S JUST BEFORE
midnight in downtown Hollywood -- Hollywood, Florida -- and the belly dancers are doing crazy things with their hips for the sidewalk diners outside Taverna Yiamas. Down Hollywood Boulevard, girls in way-too-short, way-too-low hot pants are cozying up to a group of Russian immigrants in front of Spice Resto-Lounge. Next door, outside PRL Euro Cafe, the Rasta crowd is sipping Polish beer and eating slices of takeout pizza from Mauro’s Pizza. I’m headed to the more sedate confines of the Sushi Blues Cafe to hear Bluesman Dave & Bonga La Roc Jr. while noshing on some Japanese drinking snacks called otsumami. Frankly, I had not anticipated such a wild scene here.

Why had I been pouting about missing Miami’s South Beach? Here in Hollywood, I am savoring the South Beach ambience -- that is, as South Beach was in the 1990s, before the models arrived, before the moneyed crowd ran up property prices, before the sidewalks sprouted tables on every inch of concrete. Hollywood, less than 20 miles up the road from South Beach, is hip yet tourist-friendly and, happily for me, still raw around the edges.

Earlier, I pulled into historic downtown Hollywood behind a Jeep with plastic dragons glued to its top and sides. That set the wacky tone. As I then walked a four-block area, I was bombarded by taste offerings: curried goat at Ginger Bay Cafe, fresh oysters at Sage French Café and Oyster Bar, comfort food at Lola’s on Harrison, tapas at La Barraca Tapas Bar & Cafe, skirt steak at the Beef Eater Steak House, Guinness stew at Mickey Byrne’s Irish Pub & Restaurant, Peruvian seafood, and wine and cigar lounges ad infinitum. The variety seemed endless, as did the accents I heard. Music seemed to be playing at every venue. I had found my new South Beach!

The original idea for my trip was to revisit my old haunts: the News Cafe and Mac’s Club Deuce in South Beach, Joe’s Stone Crab down in the oh-so-trendy SoFi (south of Fifth, on Miami Beach), Scotty’s Landing on the water in Coconut Grove, and my favorite of all time, Alabama Jack’s on Card Sound Road at the entrance to the Florida Keys. At Jack’s, you sit on the deck by the inland waterway, sip a Red Stripe beer, and watch the seagulls swoop in for bread crumbs while you wait for the world’s best conch fritters. On weekends, lawyers arrive, parading as bikers, and oldsters swish their skirts to square dance music. I couldn’t wait to get off the plane and head out there …

But my friends had wearied of that circuit. They knew I was going to stay up in Broward County, where the prices for beach hotels are saner, so, Hollywood it was. I know Hollywood Beach and its car-free “broadwalk” well, having speed-walked (and sweated) the 2.5-mile length of it many times. The Canadian invasion is still in full force here, but you hear lots of Eastern European accents too. As Black Sea veterans, the Russians in particular know where to find a fantastic sand beach with aquamarine water. Unfortunately, the beach restaurants mostly leave me wanting.

Not Downtown Hollywood, though. I am enthralled. A developer by the name of Joseph W. Young Jr. dreamed up Hollywood in the Roaring Twenties, and soon, palms, bougainvillea, hibiscus, and oleanders replaced the mangroves and marshlands. Hollywood Boulevard, with its royal palms, was once dubbed Florida’s “widest paved street.” Along the thoroughfare, buildings with mission-style details snuggle up to art deco and art moderne. New condos -- a nod to Florida’s once go-go economy -- rise on the edge of downtown. Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino draws in the tourists, as does Gulfstream Park’s racetrack and casino in the nearby town of Hallandale Beach.

What I like is the wisp of desperation about the place. You just know the girls dressed to the nines are hocked to their eyeballs and that the guys can’t afford their big cars or the nights on the town. It’s not just young and beautiful people out in Hollywood either. There are plenty of locals (like my friends, all 40-plus) and families perusing the scene as well.

Adam Morgan, owner of the newly opened Megabite CyberCafé, settled in Hollywood in the 1990s, drawn by the city’s arts and jazz culture and its laid-back vibe. Except for Starbucks, there are no restaurant chains downtown, he says, just locals. “People tell me South Florida is not a friendly place, but not Hollywood. Everybody says hello down here,” says Morgan. His acoustic and open-mike nights (and frosted beers chilled to 23 degrees) bring in the 25-to-50 crowd.

Upon arriving at Sushi Blues, my girlfriend and I grab a corner table and order fried oysters and tuna tataki, while the blues band puts us in a mellow mood. On the way home, we catch snatches of salsa, reggae, rock, and karaoke along the sidewalk. We stop to admire a belly dancer in a purple harem getup who’s twisting her tanned middle to a Greek/Euro pop beat. Thank you, Hollywood. Sometimes, it’s great to have your plans changed.