June 29, 2015
by bill kearney | November 7, 2013 | Style & Beauty
Josh Wagner creates a Miami nightlife experience that’s equal parts hedonism and panache
Josh Wagner, a bit bleary-eyed, accepts his Americano from one of Panther’s coffee sprites, and we take a seat outside. Cadres of spandex-wrapped Flywheelers sashay by—nothing like caffeine and other peoples’ fitness to roust one from sleep after a late night. It seems nearly every night is late for Wagner, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. As a managing partner of LDV Hospitality, he creates and runs the nightlife experience at the Gale South Beach and has emerged as a sort of hedonism-with-class-and-panache ringleader for Miami (he helped create the former Florida Room, which essentially launched the mixology movement here).
Before we can get through our coffees, he takes a conference call with Sean Carasso and Joey Rubin of Falling Whistles, a nonprofit group focused on creating sustainable peace in war-plundered Congo. Wagner shows me his whistle necklace—the group’s talisman—and explains how it represents the boy soldiers too small to carry guns, but sent to the deadly front lines with whistles to warn of attacks. Wagner is helping the group set up an event at the Gale in the following days, and gearing up for their big Art Basel Miami push, with the Gale as a home base. “We’re in the business of building memories,” he says. “But we also have a social responsibility, and if I can use the resources at my fingertips, I will.”
Wagner mixes negronis while guest bartending at Broken Shaker
“That’s my office,” says Wagner, pointing to the end of Dolce’s bar, lit softly by the diffused daylight shafting through the hotel’s Deco windows. There’s a serenity to bars during off hours, and this is where Wagner crunches numbers in peace or takes meetings with liquor and wine reps. We meet with Matusalem Rum, which wants in on The Regent Cocktail Club’s Wednesday program, Havana Nights. He lets his staff come up with their own events, and this one’s put on by one of his proudest staffing finds, bartender Julio Cabrera, who fled continued from page 134 from top: Wagner mixes negronis while guest bartending at Broken Shaker; the Dolce Italian dining room serves as an impromptu meeting spot with Matusalem Rum. Cuba at age 35 and recently won the Bombay Sapphire Most Imaginative Bartender competition (and inclusion in GQ’s December Men of the Year Issue).
Wagner started at this game when he was still a kid, really: As a Manhattan high school student he promoted parties in the city at night, and in college, while his frat buddies at the University of Wisconsin were playing intramural sports, he was promoting, bringing acts such as Slick Rick, Run-D.M.C., and Method Man to Madison. A stint studying in London had Wagner and friends wrangling American students into London clubs and making a pretty penny.
We head downstairs, where Wagner rallies his team of bartenders from The Regent for a staff meeting. They shuffle in one by one, slouch on the banquette, give each other grief the way a baseball team might. Someone’s late. “It’s a six-minute walk to work. I know that’s rough,” Wagner says. He leads the meeting with a light touch, letting the team, who’ve all run their own bars before, tell him what works and what doesn’t: Champagne bottles on the bar would be too much clutter, they love the new shot glasses, Boardwalk Empire screenings would rule. He has them pick the cocktails to be printed on the menu, and narrow the beer list. “What else?” he asks. “You’re always bitching about something.”
Comedy is part of The Regent Cocktail Club staff meeting
Wagner wades into a gauntlet of high fives on his way to the bar for a few hours of guest bartending. The event calls for him to serve only his favorite drinks: negronis (a cocktail he’s shared with idol Anthony Bourdain), El Tesoro tequila reposado, and beer. Industry insiders pile in—a manager from Khong River House, Tatanka Guerrero and crew from Radio Bar, Robert Burr of the Miami Rum Renaissance Festival, a bartender from Blackbird Ordinary. Wagner doles out the drinks, jokes, and anecdotes as if these folks were in his den, home for the holidays.
We sit down for a quick pizza at Dolce Italian, interrupted every few minutes by a flow of nightlife comrades and regulars saying hello, then take laps through the property: Downstairs in Rec Room, it’s the calm before the storm—bartenders prep, cocktail waitresses vamp up their outfits in a hallway mirror. Wagner shakes hands with a dishwasher, high-fives a barback. We ascend the stairs to the ground-floor of The Regent. Circles of professionals drink amid dimly lit Deco lines. We mingle, Wagner gliding from group to group, planting the seed of ending the night in Rec Room. “One of the cool things about this property is the Jekyll and Hyde experience you can have,” he says, referring to the difference in energy between The Regent and Rec Room. He breaks off the conversation to pick up a small candy wrapper off the floor, then greets the sommelier from Zuma, who’s just finished a shift. “Nightcaps are really important for people in the industry. This is a decompression zone for them,” he says. “There are cultural benchmarks for a city: an opera house, a science museum, and I think a classic cocktail bar,” he adds. “Now we have one.”
We descend from the elegance of The Regent to the now-thumping Rec Room. Banquettes are draped in long legs emerging from shadows. Hall & Oates’s “I Can’t Go for That” gets mashed up with the Notorious B.I.G. “All our DJs play vinyl only,” he yells. It’s 3 am. Wagner conducts a meeting with his manager in the walk-in cooler—Soho Beach House is sending down a bachelorette party, and a big table from SLS is due any minute. He steps out into the melee, the rows of hands in the air. Wagner hasn’t “turned off” all night. He weaves his way through the crowd, saying hello to every table, offering a nod of camaraderie to various staff members. “Is it work ethic or personality that keeps you on?” I ask. “This is my living room,” he says.
photography by ben fink shapiro; bill kearney