For South Floridians who have family or friends visiting from out of town and want to show them the quintessential South Beach experience, Mango’s Tropical Café has been a must-see option for many years.
The splashy tourist mecca on iconic Ocean Drive in South Beach, which celebrated hitting the quarter-century mark with a blowout bash on New Year’s Eve, offers a crowd-pleasing, best-of-both-worlds entertainment mix that taps both the charm of Old Havana and the hipness of modern Miami.
On any given night, revelers can loosen up with authentic mojitos and enjoy an almost nonstop barrage of colorful, Carnaval-style live entertainment that ranges from fiery flamenco dancing, belly dancing, hip-hop and odes to Michael Jackson and Celia Cruz. You can even learn to dance salsa with nightly classes.
There’s also a good chance that you will be joined by a famous face or two, as Mango’s is a celebrity hangout that routinely draws A-listers such as Will Smith, George Clooney, Robert De Niro and Tiger Woods, among many others.
Back in 1991 when the café opened, it would have been difficult to imagine the energetic, infectious scene that greets its patrons today. Wallack says Mango’s endured several years of struggle and sacrifice as a “sports bar kind of a thing,” often with Wallack himself performing rock, reggae and country music onstage as the main entertainment source.
And then came the turning point, and everything changed completely.
“One day, a Cuban gentleman by the name of Miguel Cruz came in and said, ‘I work with Santana out in L.A., and I want to come in and play Afro-Latin jazz,’” Wallack recalled. “And he said, ‘I’m gonna rock the house.’”
Apparently, Cruz wasn’t kidding.
“You might say this guy was like a psychedelic Desi Arnaz on steroids, mixed with Jimi Hendrix,” Wallack said. “He was on the floor, crawling across the floor banging a conga drum. And I mean, it was Santeria, it was rock and Latin music, and he rocked the house! And my girls, my staff, jumped up on the bar on their own – I never asked them – and started dancing.
“Well, that was the miracle that transformed Mango’s,” he continued. “Right at that moment, I looked at my staff having a ball, and I looked at him just banging on the drum, and I looked at my customers getting up and dancing and smiling, and it switched from beer to Black Label. And that was the beginning of the success of Mango’s Tropical Café.”
Soon, Wallack noticed that when the band stopped playing, the crowd filed out, so his business sense helped kick things up a notch.
“I said, ‘We’ve got to be smarter than this.’ Let’s get a choreographer, and with the girls jumping up on the bar, when the band goes off, we’ll put on a show. And we can’t just put girls up there – that’s not who we are, so let’s get the guys up there, too. So it evolved into three girls and three guys up on the bar doing specialty Latin dances. And then the line became bigger when the band went off than when the band was on.”
Mango’s became the kind of place where the celebrities weren’t afraid to let loose and join in the madness. One night, Gloria and Emilio Estefan came in with actor and musician Andy Garcia.
“Andy was a Miami guy,” Wallack said. “And he knew Miguel Cruz, so Andy got up onstage with Miguel, and they were both banging the congas and having a ball. And Emilio and Gloria were sitting on the second floor just looking down at them, and a few years later, Bongo’s [Cuban Café] came out. And in Emilio’s brilliant, brilliant mind, I think that in some way he got a little bit of a suggestion of the possibilities of what could be. So that night was a wonderful, wonderful thing.”
Another night, Marc Anthony stopped by with Lance Bass from ‘N Sync.
“Lance happened to be a bartender before he became a singer,” said Wallack, “and he jumped behind the bar and mixed drinks. Then Marc jumped up onstage and started singing.”
Even with the celeb sightings and packed house every night, Wallack couldn’t have foreseen just how big Mango’s would become.
The café quickly evolved from local hotspot to national phenomenon when the image of three girls dancing on the bar in their animal print catsuits went around the world.
“For 10 years, Mango’s was the most videoed nightclub on the planet Earth,” Wallack said, still sounding incredulous. “Every night, there was cable TV from cities and countries all around the world. We were the ones featured on the Super Bowl, on the University of Miami games, on the Orange Bowl games. All of a sudden we were on the national news representing Miami.”
The madness didn’t stop there.
“When Peter Jennings did the ABC 24-hour millennium show that aired on Channel 10 in Miami, they broadcast from seven cities, and here they were set up right in front of Mango’s on the beach,” Wallack said. “Mango’s was featured seven times with our logo and our staff dancing. We were the only business featured on that 24-hour show. So we became internationally known, and to me it was just a miracle.”
One year ago, the Mango’s miracle finally led to an expansion. Wallack was content, both financially and philosophically, with remaining in Miami, but when his son Joshua joined the family business, he convinced his father to pull the trigger.
While a deal with Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas was put on hold, “a magnificent property opened up for us in Orlando,” said Wallack. “So my son brought me over here to see it. And the logistics of it, plus being only a three-hour drive from Miami, became much more appealing, so we moved our sights toward Orlando, and here we are.”
While Mango’s in Miami whoops it up on Saturday night, its successful Orlando spinoff will celebrate its first year with a New Year’s Eve party of its own. And Wallack couldn’t be prouder of both.
“Mango’s is all about live entertainment, live musicians, live talent,” he said. “The people that work and perform at Mango’s over the years are the most amazing, talented group of people that are in Miami, and now in Orlando. Many of them have performed at the Tropicana in Havana, so people who came here on rafts are now stars at Mango’s. It’s very amazing, and a blessing for me to be a part of it.”
Mango’s Tropical Café, 900 Ocean Dr., Miami Beach; 305-673-4422 or www.mangos.com/miami.