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Inside Miami’s Iconic Little Havana Bar, Ball & Chain

The 82-year-old Calle Ocho mainstay has lived several lives before taking on its current form in 2014. Lizzie Munro on Miami's legendary bastion of Cuban cocktails and jazz.

Ball and Chain Miami

One of Miami’s best bars was once put out of business after being slammed with a lawsuit by jazz legend Count Basie.

The Little Havana institution, Ball & Chain, was originally opened as the Ball & Chain Saloon back in 1935, when the neighborhood was still primarily Jewish and gambling was rampant—not only at the bar, but throughout the city. But by 1957, when owners Ray Miller and Henry Schechtman—who had bought the place a few years prior—were fighting the aforementioned lawsuit, Ball & Chain was better known for jazz than for illicit activity; Billie Holiday was something of a regular, and it’s rumored that Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole and Louie Armstrong performed as well, though no records exist of their sets.

Much of this was thanks to Schechtman, who not only was uniquely receptive to hiring African-American musicians but also made a habit of offering them a place to stay in a still deeply segregated South. (As the story goes, he owned a nearby apartment complex and would sneak performers in through a hidden doorway.)

But Schechtman was also a known criminal. In 1957, he was arrested twice in the span of two months, once for breaking and entering into a bar on Miami’s Lincoln Road and again for attempting to forcibly pry open the trunk of a jeweler’s car. His partner, Miller, didn’t have an outstanding reputation either: He’d been arrested for public drunkenness and was linked to various instances of vandalism—including the slashing of a whopping 70 car tires.

So perhaps, good intentions aside, it should come as no surprise that the pair’s comeuppance would arrive with scandal. Following a multi-day set at the bar, Basie looked to collect the $13,000 he’d been contractually promised. When the bar paid him just $5,106—arguing it was all the money they’d brought in during the bandleader’s Miami stay—he took them to court and was awarded a judgement of $5,000. The club went belly up and was quickly replaced by the lackluster Copa Lounge Tavern, which opened in 1958 and remained in business until 1967.

During that time, the neighborhood changed drastically. As longtime residents left the central 8th Street stretch, decamping to the beach and the suburbs, they left a slew of affordable homes in their wake. Before long, Cuban immigrants, who’d begun arriving in south Florida in the 1960s, were taking up residence along “Calle Ocho.”

After changing hands and iterations a number of times throughout the 1990s and early aughts—from a furniture store to a brief stint as the Kamazoo Nightclub, a dance lounge equipped with a blue neon-lit backbar, zebra print wallpaper and cage dancers—Ball & Chain was restored by Zack Bush, Ben Bush and Bill Fuller to its nightlife-destination glory in 2014.

Where the bar recalls its midcentury heyday in design—offering vintage 1940s wallpaper, posters of iconic performers and photographs of post-Depression-era Miami—it’s executed with a steep nod to Little Havana and Cuban drinking culture. The drink list, which includes the bar’s signature Mojito, alongside drinks like the golden Cañita (made with rum, lime juice and freshly extracted sugar cane juice) and Calle Ocho Old-Fashioned (aged rum, demerara sugar, tobacco-infused bitters), was developed by Julio Cabrera and Danny Valdez, both members of Cuba’s nearly 100-year-old bartending guild. It’s a menu that feels both contemporary, and timeless.

It’s this combination that has made Ball & Chain feel like home to both Little Havana locals and day-trippers wandering in for some of the city’s best drinks, Cuban food and, of course, jazz—the acoustics booming beneath the original, high-beam pine ceilings, which have remained unchanged since 1935.

Inside Ball & Chain

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Tagged: Ball & Chain, Miami