Nathan Paul Smith always dreamed of opening his own pop-culture-themed bar. He just couldn’t ever imagine his lifelong dream would come to fruition in the middle of a pandemic.
This month, Nathan’s Bar — an LGBT bar that is heterosexual friendly — celebrates its one-year anniversary amid having opened when the pandemic shut down many small businesses for good. During the course of a challenging year, Smith, 44, remained optimistic and positive business would flourish. One year later, business has done just that with the bar thriving and successful as ever even after COVID broke other small business owners and shut down similar establishments permanently.
“Any other small business owner could’ve and likely would’ve failed, but not Nathan,” said Brianna “Bawdyy” Kane, 26, a trans woman and is one of five rotating hostesses who man the door and entrance to this pop culture themed bar at 1216 Washington Avenue on Miami Beach.
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Upon entering this establishment, patrons of the bar are instantly greeted with wall images of pop divas like Madonna, Cher and Lady Gaga and pop culture stations or living room areas dedicated to popular American television serials, including “Friends,” “Stranger Things” and Bravo’s “Real Housewives” franchise. The uniqueness and one-of-a-kind concept behind the small business landed Nathan’s Bar smack in the middle of a recent “Miami New Times” readers' poll that named the establishment South Florida’s Best New Gay Bar.
Nathan’s regular Brian Charria, 28, started visiting the new bar about a year ago during the pandemic. A Miami Beach native for 11 years, Charria said Nathan’s has become his new favorite place to hang out with friends or have a Happy Hour drink after a long, stressful day at work.
“I love the lounge-like vibe at Nathan’s Bar. I love that they have music playing lower at the beginning of the night so you can hear yourself talk with friends and then the music gets louder when you want to kick up your heels and dance,” Charria said. “It’s always a good crowd, no matter which day of the week you come. Staff is super friendly, drinks are great.”
The pop culture experience at Nathan’s currently includes a “Stranger Things” VIP area and areas dedicated to “Will & Grace,” “Friends,” “The Big Bang Theory” and “The Real Housewives of Atlanta,” among others. Smith said a living room area devoted to “The Brady Bunch” will soon be replaced by one dedicated to “The Golden Girls.”
When asked why his bar is so heavily influenced by pop divas and pop culture in general, Smith said, “Because pop culture is me. It’s all I know; it’s pop culture, music and gay bars.”
A GAY MAN & THE ‘LITTLE BAR THAT COULD’
Before opening the bar Smith was a popular VJ — that’s short for a video DJ or disc jockey — who worked at Twist for 20 years (from 2000 to 2020) and also ran the upstairs video bar for more than a decade. Everyone in Miami knows Twist, the long-running South Beach gay bar and club known for its catch slogan, “always a groove, never a cover.” Well, that was also the place where Smith would make two important and heartfelt connections in his life.
The concept behind Nathan’s video bar at Twist was one Smith himself conceived and pitched to his boss and eventual idol and father figure, the late Richard Trainor.
During the course of his successful run at the helm of Twist, Smith spent two decades of his life slinging and serving drinks to a loyal clientele consisting of locals and tourists and the brand he created made Twist and Smith synonymous with each other. Over time, Smith also developed a father-son type of relationship with Trainor. The rest as they say is history.
“I wouldn’t be anywhere today without Richard,” Smith said. “He gave me a stage for 20 years, he believed in me, he taught me everything I know today and he was like a father to me.”
Equally as important to Smith was the late Henrietta Robinson, a decades-long South Beach barfly and pioneer in the Miami LGBT community who frequented Smith’s upstairs video bar at Twist for years.
“Henrietta brought more people to my bar than what I would’ve had to come to on their own because of her legacy and the fact that she sat at my bar upstairs on Saturdays and Sundays,” Smith said. “We used to joke around all the time to customers who didn’t know us that she was my mom and I was her son. And it wasn’t really that hard to believe. If Richard was like a father to me, then Henrietta was like a mother to me. That’s just a fact.”
HONORING 2 LEGENDS, PARENTAL FIGURES
Flash forward to present day, Smith and his bar honor Trainor and Robinson today with a caricature on his wall by artist Tommy Jimenez, which is a recreation of a White Party picture of Smith’s father and mother figures, respectively.
The cartoon portrait resembles a pair of Funko pops and currently faces opposite Smith’s music video equipment at the corner of the bar by the entrance next to “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” living room area, which used to be a “Sex and the City” tribute booth. In addition, Smith also honors Robinson — who died of COVID-related complications in 2020 — with her own chair at the bar emblazoned with her name in gold.
“Henrietta used to always sit at my bar on Saturdays and Sundays, sometimes Fridays, sometimes Mondays … and that’s where she would sit,” Smith said. “I imagine if she were alive today to see me run this bar, she would be sitting at this very chair with her name on the back of it. There’s no question in my mind about that.”
For the last 10 years, Smith had been mulling over opening his own real-life version of the upstairs video bar from Twist — a brand and concept he created and ran with Trainor’s eventual approval. In fact, shortly before Trainor suffered a stroke and took a turn for the worse, dying in 2019, the surrogate father and son duo were thinking about implementing a similar concept for Nathan’s Bar in Wynwood.
After years of envisioning running his own video bar separate from Twist, Smith’s plans finally started shaping form when the pandemic shut down South Florida bars in March 2020. In fact, all non-essential businesses such as gyms, bars and indoor dining at restaurants were closed for months while only essential businesses remained open, including pharmacies and supermarkets.
By summer 2020, it was clear COVID-19 wasn’t going anywhere and Smith’s main source of income and his livelihood for the previous 20 years was about to take a different form.
Smith and his business partner, Derek Gonzalez, the owner of Pilo’s Street Tacos, decided it was time to make his lifelong dream about opening a pop culture-themed bar a reality. He departed Twist that summer and began preparations on Nathan’s Bar. That’s when the Buena Vista resident and fur parent of three dogs and two cats decided it was high time he moved his party up a block or two across from Twist in his own establishment and first secured the building located at 1216 Washington Avenue in Miami Beach, previously occupied by Waterloo, Gonzalez’s Pilo’s Street Tacos and many years prior to that by a place called Automatic Slim’s.
The location also just so happened to have a small kitchen, which eventually became the breakthrough for Nathan’s Bar to make its debut as COVID regulations at this time finally began allowing South Florida bars to reopen — as long as they served food with alcohol.
With a kitchen and bar bites now on the menu, along with the standard cocktails, well drinks and pop music videos blasting on multiple television screens, Nathan’s Bar was officially born on September 23, 2020.
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When asked why open his dream bar in the middle of the pandemic and if he wasn’t scared of failure, Smith responded, “No. A year ago when I first opened, everybody wanted to get out, everybody was cooped up. They just needed a place. You had to have a kitchen, I had a kitchen, so I opened and it just worked out. If I’m still here, still standing, it’s because of the community. The community is why I’m here.”
Added Smith: “With there being multiple [gay] places, it makes a larger footprint here in Miami Beach so there are more gay attractions, which means more gay people. So now the community has more LGBT options. Every establishment on this beach offers something a little bit different. It’s not the same either/or. It’s a different energy, a different environment, so I say it’s a good thing we are all here and can peacefully coexist and do our own thing. The more the merrier.”
GETTING INVOLVED IN THE COMMUNITY
Since opening one year ago this month, Smith has also been very active and charitable in the community. With a vaccination drive recently coordinated with Care Resource on Aug. 22 deemed a success, Smith says that event helped shed some light on the impact COVID-19 and new variants are having on the local LGBT community.
“I know [Nathan’s Bar] tends to get packed at times but I want everyone to know that we take COVID-19 and protect each other very seriously,” Smith said. “My staff is fully vaccinated. I also hope that people know I have my mask requirements signed up. I’m just hoping that most people who come here are vaccinated themselves.”
In addition to the vaccination drive, proceeds from an Aug. 30 benefit were donated to Support Surfside victims’ families and the event took place on the bar’s Monday hospitality night, Pop Culture Mondays.
“The community has always been my number one motivator,” Smith said, “and because they’ve been so supportive of me and Monday nights is an easier night for hospitality people to go out, it’s become the perfect night to be able to offer really reduced priced drinks and appetizers and not completely be taken advantage of. That’s kind of across the board with all of the clubs.”
Smith says that’s why he chose to hold the benefit event for Surfside on a Monday night because “it’s a local night” and the condo collapse on June 24 that resulted in more than 100 deaths was “a local concern as much as it was a national one.” Smith says he felt like “a local and I wanted to be able to give back and be able to do so in association with my local night.”
POP MONDAYS & MIAMI BEACH PRIDE
Pop Mondays’ inaugural show took place on Sept. 6 and featured performances by Brianna Bawdyy, Nelly Norell, Dasha Sweetwaters, Vanessa Monroe and Regina Cocoa Lords.
“It was fabulous and so much fun and hopefully all the other Pop Mondays are just as good,” Bawdyy said.
Speaking of Pop Mondays’ inaugural night at Nathan’s Bar, Smith said, “We’re very lucky for it to be this kind of crowd on a Monday night. The turnout we had after a long weekend is beyond expectations. God has blessed me because many small businesses cannot say they’ve had the kind of success I’ve had or even survive at all in the pandemic like I have.”
In addition, for Smith, the relaunch of Pop Mondays was truly a milestone moment.
“Any event that can cause more of a good time, that’s what this place is about,” Smith said. “Having a good time, giving people an escape … A drag show is a great way to escape and it gives my girls their opportunity to perform. I love giving the girls a stage to show their talent and art. I mean, that’s really what it’s all about.”
Smith got a little emotional recalling how Pop Mondays launched originally over 15 years ago and who formed part of the original casts.
“It’s been a long, wild ride with a lot of great people in my life,” Smith said. “Most of the girls attached to the shows have been with me a long time. Randy (i.e. Dasha) has worked for me for almost a decade. Nelly a lot longer, like 15 years at least. She’s one of my originals — her, Ruby Dior and Tiffany Fantasia were my originals.”
Nathan’s Bar held a Miami Beach Pride fundraiser supporting homeless LGBTQIA+ youth from Thursday, Sept. 16, to Friday, Sept. 17. All proceeds from the bar’s two-day sales were donated to Out My Closet, a nonprofit organization based out of New York and Florida specialized in Fashion X Philanthropy. The group empowers under-resourced and displaced LGBTQIA+ youth. For more information, go to www.outmycloset.org.
Smith can not believe that his establishment’s one-year anniversary is already here.
“I just can not believe that on Thursday, Sept. 23, is our one-year anniversary,” Smith said. “It is starting to sink in. We were unable to do a grand opening due to the pandemic but we will be celebrating the anniversary with a big blow out.”
Smith said Nathan’s Bar will have a show every hour with their house divas, a red carpet and “so much that I want most of it as a surprise to say ‘thank you’ to the community that has made all of this possible. I truly love you all and can not say thank you enough. But on Thursday the 23rd I am going to try my best xoxoxo.”