I’ll admit a certain prejudice against downtown Miami; daytime parking’s about as much fun as arguing with a drunk, and despite the condo boom, the streets are still a hodgepodge of fabric shops, watch stores and electronics vendors that seem hellbent on that “sooty ’70s look.” It’s easy to ignore as you drive to Brickell or Midtown. But do so at your peril, because a little cluster of awesomeness has sprung up, particularly in a small section of downtown just north of Brickell and south of Northeast Second Street. While it has been given the corporate-sounding and dull name Central Business District (CBD), let’s call it NoBri (North of Brickell) instead. Fed by the condo boom around it, NoBri has enjoyed a spike that, until very recently, has remained camouflaged in the downtown you think you know.

CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: The downtown Cuban staple Las Palmas Cafeteria; Soya & Pomodoro’s dining room; Area 31’s ceviche with yellowfin tuna, sour orange, red-pepper juice, hearts of palm, chili and coconut; Wok Town co-owner Shai Ben-Ami; the restaurant’s terrace at the Epic Hotel; The basketball court at the JW Marriott Marquis

Downtown has always needed food, and there are landmark coffee and cheap-eats spots, such as Las Palmas Cafeteria (209 SE First St., 305-373-1333), with its hard-earned bluecollar charm, and 40-year-old Manolo y Rene Cafeteria (281 NE First St., 305-358-4488), with its steady flow of loyalists shooting the breeze. But about six years ago, things changed. If you hear a trumpet echoing down noirish streets, follow it and you’ll find Soya & Pomodoro (120 NE First St., 305-381-9511). After working on the Beach, Italian buddies Cristian D’Oria (from Puglia) and Armando Alfano (Pompeii) decided they were done with the transience and looked to the mainland as a place to put down roots. “People told us, ‘You guys are crazy to open downtown,’” says D’Oria. They took over a Neoclassical alcove, walled it off with bookcases, Latin Colonial antiques and candlelight, and created an Italian spot that’s like a little aphrodisiac hidden on an otherwise barren street. “We started with lunches and Latin jazz on Thursday nights, and it’s taken off from there,” says D’Oria. Bring a date who’s never been, and you’ve suddenly doubled your charm factor.

The next newcomer actually had its genesis in Cuba. La Epoca was Havana’s third-largest department store until the 1960 Castro confiscation. They operated out of NoBri’s Alfred I. DuPont Building until late 2005, when Randall Alonso (PICTURED RIGHT) and his family moved the store into the Deco Walgreens building on Flagler (200 E. Flagler St., 305-374-7731; shop.laepocamiami.com), where it occupies three floors and nearly 24,000 square feet. Since then, business has flourished, and Alonso’s taken over a floor above the store and turned it into a sprawling loft/living space that would fit right into SoHo circa 1980.

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