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A thirtysomething woman rolls her carry-on into a bar at 8am on a Thursday. She wears a loose-fitted tank top, jeans and a messy bun as she quietly sits down to order a beer. It has been a year since she was last here, but nothing seems to have changed. ”You still got my keys?” she asks Angel Diaz, the bearded bartender pouring from the tap. He hands her a thin green lanyard threaded with a cheetah-print enameled key, a disco ball keychain and a Miami Beach Locksmith tag.
This transaction looks routine, and for good reason: Mac’s Club Deuce, the oldest bar in Miami Beach, holds the keys to at least two dozen South Beach apartments. By 10.30am, 10 people are scattered around the bar. They have little in common – each different ages, aesthetics – but they are united by being in this concrete box with “Club Deuce” in green neon lettering affixed to its roof. For many South Beach residents, this spot is their hideaway of choice.
“When I think about this bar, I think of home,” says Sean, a Miami Beach bartender who came in with the Thursday morning crowd. “It’s like coming home and taking your shoes off – the people inside, friends or strangers, feel like family.”
Since opening its doors in 1926, Club Deuce has created a space that’s withstood the test of time (and hurricanes) – it is poorly lit, cash-only and smoke-heavy, and transactions are made via an old-school cash register. Often attracting multi-decade-long regulars, Club Deuce pulls in a range of eclectic characters – from a 30-year-old vegan dancer to a 60-year-old car salesman-slash-pool master. And, daytimers abide by the bar’s one rule: don’t touch the blinds. A bona fide Miami institution, the bar is open 365 days a year from 8am to 5am, and the proprietors are interested in one thing only: making their business about their people.
Diaz, who was a regular for a year before he earned his gig as the bearded bartender, believes the bar’s consistency is what continues to attract customers. “[They] come in once and experience the freeing environment. Then they come back. The faces are different, but the bar is the same,” he says.
The bar’s history shaped the establishment into the place customers value today. Mac Klein, the Deuce’s owner since 1964, passed away in 2016 at the age of 101. His picture, in which he wears a classic Mac Klein Hawaiian-print tee, hangs above the club’s entrance.
Mac’s wife, Mary, now runs the Deuce with a tight-knit staff who have decided to keep the bar’s integrity intact. What has been established by Klein continues: bartenders refuse to serve cocktails, the cash register will stash cash until its buttons malfunction, prices won’t climb and the feeling of being treated like family will always persist. “We’ve taken it upon ourselves to keep the memory alive,” Diaz says. “That was Mac’s thing; he was old-fashioned.”
Originally from New Jersey, Klein made his way to Miami in search of warmer weather on his return from fighting in World War II in the mid-1940s. He quickly became a regular of the already established local watering hole, the Deuce, before buying the joint in 1964. Klein told the Miami New Times that the club reminded people of their home-town bar and it was the working people of Miami, who showed up week after week, that drew him to this place.
In the ’80s, at the height of Miami Beach’s reputation as a drug and crime hub, the Deuce became a place with a sordid reputation. At night, drug traffickers and dealers traded seats with the daytime crowd of retired elders, according to Klein in his oral history to the Miami New Times.
The drug trade poured over South Beach during this era, coinciding with the initial airing of Miami Vice in 1984, which centered on undercover cops trying to tackle international crime. Sergio Bonilla told the Miami New Times that he “walked into the men’s room [at the Deuce] – there were three or four women and two men breaking cocaine out of a thing that looked like a monster roll of cheese.”
According to Klein, the cast of Miami Vice frequented the Deuce during this period. It was their bar of choice, so much so that when the show ended, the cast hosted their goodbye party there. The neon “Club Deuce” sign and pink and lime mermaids that the cast left behind still watch over the bar from the same place they were planted in the ’80s.
Shortly thereafter, business at Club Deuce spiked, partly due to recurring television exposure. But the bar’s fame really soared in 2006 when Anthony Bourdain dubbed it one of his “favorite places on Earth” and featured Club Deuce on his show No Reservations in 2006, and then again on The Layover in 2011 and on Parts Unknown in 2015.
“He’d sit right there, like you are, and talk to people just like everybody else,” Diaz says. The Deuce hosted a wild party the day Bourdain died, as an homage to his love for the bar. “He would’ve been happy that we were drinking in his honor,” he says.
As a nod to the other stars who graced the Deuce, the crew keeps a memory book handy behind the bar. The laminated book documents “The Deucers” through decades of debauchery – from posing drag queens to topless women by the pool table to Halloween happy hours. That history is what makes Mac’s Club Deuce such a Miami commodity – perhaps the last standing authentic, unchanging Miami Beach bar, rich with memories of the people who frequented its doors. Though the days of Miami Vice, cocaine cowboys and Bourdain are long gone, the Deuce remains the come-one-come-all spot for the people, even before 9am, just as Mac Klein always intended it.
Sean arrived at Mac Club Deuce at 8am, after wrapping up a shift at a nearby hotel bar. He speaks with his hands, slurs a few words, but never diverts from praising the establishment.
“There’s nothing like going to the Deuce at 8 o’clock in the morning,” Sean says with a sly smile. “You see the cross section of life. You witness the people who wake up and come in with the shakes, and you witness people still partying from last night. It’s people’s getaway spot.”
It’s hard to believe that the Deuce still stands the test of time, but Sean and his fellow 8am-ers are a testament to the bar itself. “[The Deuce] gives the people what they want, so we keep coming,” says Sean. Another patron says, “The bar will close, but only because Miami will be underwater.”