Over the Thanksgiving weekend one of my best friends was back home in Miami from New York City. We had talked for a few days about grabbing drinks Friday night with his wife and her family. Friday afternoon he told me we were going to Ball & Chain on Calle Ocho. That took me a bit by surprise, just in that I wasn’t expecting that to be the place, but I was excited to finally check it out. I had read an article about Ball & Chain reopening, but I don’t think I really grasped what a “notable” bar it had been back in its time (or at least the strength of the connection to the original bar).
Ball & Chain originally opened in 1935. At the time the area, “Shenandoah”, was a primarily Jewish neighborhood. The bar hosted famous performers like Billie Holiday and Count Basie. The original bar closed in 1957 (replaced by another nightclub), which was right before the neighborhood experienced a lot of dramatic changes (ie. the Cuban Revolution) and became the Little Havana it is today. For many years the space was a furniture store. Now it has been extensively renovated in an attempt to hearken back to its days as the Ball & Chain.
I met my friend, his wife, and her family at Azucar Ice Cream Company (which I really need to check out). Calle Ocho was quite busy and bustling, since it was Viernes Culturales or “Cultural Fridays,” which is a street fair that happens every last Friday. There are tours and special classes of tango and salsa, among other things. Ball & Chain was similarly crowded (although from anecdotes I think that is true even when it’s not Viernes Culturales). The windows are pretty large and open to the inside, so a lot of people passing by were stopping to look inside Ball & Chain.
You enter Ball & Chain and the main bar is right in the center. Large booth tables (with the classic leather) line the left and right walls, while there is space right in the front for dancing and music. The space is a lot of dark wood and rafters and “hazy”/low-light chandeliers. The bartenders are all dressed to the nines and there were a number of women dressed in sort of cigar girl/show girl costumes. The walls were also lined with old photographs and performance advertisements. Your receipt came in a cigar box. Overall it just had a very cool, old-school vibe.
Since it was pretty crowded we first headed outside to the back, where there is another bar and more seating (lounge furniture). There are a number of neon lights illuminating the outside. It was a little chilly that weekend and it was still crowded outside, so we headed back inside. My friend and I went to the bar to order some drinks. They have a number of cocktails like a mojito, bananita daquiri, and other specialty cocktails. My friend asked about their beer selection and I’m not sure if it was because of the noise, a possible language barrier with the bartender, or that beer isn’t a popular drink there (or a combination), but it took a little while to get the beer figured out. I went for the mojito. It’s made in front of you in a ‘somewhat dramatic,” “handmade cocktail” fashion.
My friend’s mother-in-law initially grabbed a table that had just cleared out, but then apparently it was reserved (most of the tables had reserved signs on them). After talking with an employee, we were able to sit at the table as long as we met a $40 minimum. Not too hard to do with cocktails at $12 and such, although my friend and I had unfortunately paid for our drinks at the bar already. They ordered a bottle of wine, which I think met the minimum no problem. If you’re going on a popular night and would like to sit down, I would recommend calling ahead to reserve a table.
There was a live band that played for a lot of the time that we were there. I will very amateurishly describe it as a Latin band, which while I know is technically accurate, it’s probably not very specific/descriptive. While the band played there was a lot of salsa dancing going on at the front and then even along the bar or in the walkways. The band took some breaks and a DJ took over. The DJ played all kind of music- pop, 90s, salsa. It was a very diverse playlist.
The variety/diversity seen in the music definitely played out in many other aspects. One of the things I loved about Ball & Chain (besides the history and very old-school vibe) was that it seemed to represent Miami to a tee. And by that I mean there were all kinds of people, music, and things going on. There were people dressed for the clubs and then people in sneakers, people just out of college to middle aged to quite a bit older, people who stopped in to just check out the place and order one drink and then people ordering elaborate bottle service at their table, people dancing very animatedly and then people sitting at their tables pretty rigid. It was all capped with a group of dancers (including one on stilts and dressed in neon feathers) dancing around the bar to the band for part of the time. Quite the experience! Miami is so hard to quantify and and define and that’s the case with Ball & Chain as well.
If you go to Ball & Chain, plan for it to be loud from the music and most likely pretty crowded (something I’ve heard from others’ visits), but also quite the experience. I would recommend going in a group that wants to dance or enjoy music. It was hard to have a conversation given the music, although that could maybe happen more outside. Next time I’d like to try more of their cocktails (the bananita daquiri really has been on my mind) and also some of their tapas (like the chicharrones and maduros). A few pics below, although kind of hard to make out from the darkness.
Ball & Chain- 1513 SW 8th St Miami, FL