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At Happy’s, Midcentury Miami Still Glows Beneath the Grunge

Planted on an island causeway between beach and city, this relic of the Rat Pack heyday has acquired the patina of a true locals' haunt.

It’s just after 5 p.m. at Happy’s Stork Lounge & Liquor Store on the 79th Street Causeway on Florida’s Treasure Island. Wedged into a strip mall in North Bay Village a series of three minuscule islands between North Miami Beach and the city proper, Happy’s is peppered with a dozen or so people who have nowhere better to be at quitting time on this balmy Friday in February. In one corner of the bar, a few people are singing along to a 1989 Miki Howard cut that’s wafting from the speakers. A few tourists have wandered in from the parking lot, ordered High Lifes and are leaning up against a hazy wall-length fresco.

Though never mentioned in any of its dozens of Yelp reviews, and barely featured in the hundred-some Instagram photos geotagged there, the most aesthetically remarkable thing about Happy’s Stork Lounge is the gloomy L-shaped mural that wraps around one side of the barroom. It features a tableau of a dark and smoky bar and a handful of patrons in various states of slump and repose, dressed in midcentury garb. One woman, in a white fur coat and an earbob, pinches a cigarette holder between her fingers and considers the man beside her. There’s a story about an off-duty cop whose gun went off one night some years ago, putting a hole through her blonde hair and another through her cheek, like a big black beauty mark. Today, a flickering neon Corona bottle hovers beside her, a warning that modernity has been creeping in for a long time now.

Like so many of Miami’s manmade island oases, North Bay Village didn’t exist until it was dredged up from the ocean floor in 1941. A once-ritzy outpost just off the beach, Treasure Island’s streets—Buccaneer and Mutiny Avenues, Pirate’s Alley—were inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel of the same name, and at one point the Causeway was lined with swish restaurants and clubs like the Place for Steak, Billy’s Stone Crab and Nick and Arthur’s. In the ’60s and ’70s, Dean Martin lived there and owned a club called Dino’s. According to current co-owner Howard “Happy” Inerfeld, Bernard Goldlust opened Happy’s in NBV in the 1950s.

“He was a grumpy old man,” recalls Inerfeld, age 54. “Like a fat man is called ‘Tiny’ or a bald man is called ‘Curly.’” Inerfeld met his predecessor in 1992 through his cousin, who was Happy’s legal representative. By then 82, Happy was ready to retire, so Inerfeld flew down from New York and bought the place with his brother Steve, who had been working in bars in Fort Lauderdale, a spring break haven in its heyday. Photos from that period of wet T-shirt and swimsuit contests have been glazed beneath the bar’s surface, like so many Reagan-era mosquitos in amber.

Aside from the mural, though, Happy’s today looks like any old dive bar. There’s a digital jukebox, NASCAR on the television, a zombie doll, a quarter-operated boxing machine and small pool table in the back and a faded Pinnacle Whipped sign draped across the front wall. Happy’s is connected to a package store, its shelves lined with cheap booze and enough Alabama Slammer mixer to supply a spring break weekend. Here, a blowfish skeleton dangles from the ceiling along with other tchotchkes patrons have gifted Happy’s over the years. A sign inside warns, “Store customers must wait one hour before entering bar.”

Inside Happy’s Stork Lounge & Liquor Store

Sebastian, the bartender on duty, moved to Miami when he was 24. “Fell in love with a Cuban girl,” he says. Of German extraction, he’s been here ever since, and he’s spent six years, happily, at Happy’s, serving cheap beers to fellow bartenders. Seventy percent of his customers, he says, are from the service industry, so midnight is when things really pick up. But at this moment, the crowd is pretty tame. A guy with a skateboard has just walked in. Another has begun servicing the ATM. The group at the end is still singing along to Miki Howard, handing around a phone and laughing at something on its screen.

“Jackie Gleason and a lot of the old-timers used to go there,” says Inerfeld, “but that was before my time.” Also before his time was a club slash piano bar next door called Top Draw, where local legend says stars like Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland were known to slink around. It’s not crazy to think Happy’s old silver cash register once held paper doled out from Old Blue Eyes or the King of Cool’s billfold.

Today, the crowd is mostly locals. “They hold real jobs. Doctors, lawyers, musicians,” says Inerfeld. “They’re drunk when they leave, but they get up in the morning and function somehow.” Inerfeld doesn’t really drink anymore, but he does come in late to count cash and make sure business is going as usual. As for the mural, he says, the artist has never come forward to claim it. “It was based on bar customers from the ’60s. Those are all real people,” he says Happy told him. “But that was before my time.”

By now, it’s just before 6 p.m. at Happy’s Stork Lounge, and an older gentleman has settled in at the bar to eat a homemade salad out of a Tupperware container and drink a rum and Coke from a little tumbler. Another guy in a Muhammad Ali T-shirt and Muhammad Ali hat is canoodling with a woman in a cheetah-print blouse who’s scattered a number of plastic bags next to her stool. The group at the end is still jiving to Miki Howard—this time, “Baby Be Mine”—and Sebastian is cashing someone out at the register. The group drinking High Lifes is getting ready to head out, but before they do, they note the eerie mirror-like quality of the room—on one side the mural reaching back nearly 70 years; on the other, the bar itself happily situated in the present.

Tip: If you want the tamer version of Happy’s, go early. If you want the more riotous version, go late—it’s open until 5 a.m. Happy’s Stork Lounge & Liquor Store | 1872 79th St. Causeway, Miami; 305-865-3621

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Tagged: dive, dive bars