SPOTS THAT SIZZLE: Miami Beach

Miami Beach is growing up.

Long known for its hedonistic nightlife, Don Johnson suits and early-bird specials, its image got a polishing-up in the past few years, thanks to an influx of international designers, glistening condos, celebrities galore, and Art Basel Miami Beach, an important annual contemporary art fair.

That said, its South Beach area is still protective of a “party central” image.

Droves of bold-faced names visit here in season and off, for MTV’s Video Music Awards, which came bebopping through in August for the second time. Residents know how to have a good time, too. You’re likely to sip mojitos alongside the likes of Shaq, Diddy, and Enrique Iglesias any given night.

Strap on those stilettos, charge up that Blackberry, and let’s get ready.

CHOWING

If you really want a piece of the scene, sit down to a thick one at Prime One Twelve (112 Ocean Drive, Miami Beach; 305-532-8112; www.prime112.com), which is wall-to-wall models, businesspeople, and highly paid jocks. In the brick and wood-adorned 1915 landmark Browns Hotel, the wildly popular steakhouse is owned by Myles Chefetz, who is famed not only for his marbleized prime beef but decadent truffled mac ‘n cheese. It’s got a happening bar scene as well. Scotch drinkers, of course. There’s no attitude at Van Dyke Cafe (846 Lincoln Road, 305-534-3600), just tasty, moderately priced, rib-sticking food: sandwiches, salads, eggs of all types, and burgers. Chances are, if you sit outside you’ll make friends with a local or two.

This is a big hangout for dog owners, who can order a bowl of milk or water for their panting pets.

As for you, think about getting the chocolate souffle and cafe con leche, then sitting back to watch the Lincoln Road craziness go by. A wood-paneled upstairs loft offers live jazz nightly.

Barton G The Restaurant (1427 West Ave., 305-672-8881) is known for its wild decor (zebra woods, giant floral bouquets, iridescent curtains, and a glass wall embellished with lilies) and over-the-top presentations (the popcorn shrimp comes in a movie popcorn box, duck is served in a hunting decoy). So it’s a terrific destination for the entertainment value alone, especially for kids.

You won’t be able to leave Miami Beach without trying Cuban food at least once. Though there are little Latin American cafes dotted throughout the area, head to Lario’s (820 Ocean Drive, 305-532-9577), a Gloria Estefan-owned eatery famed for its raucous buzz and superbly prepared classics like ropa vieja, rice and beans and chocolate flan. Rachael Ray chose it for a “$40 A Day” show (her order: Cubano sandwich and plantains).

Bohemian and picturesque, the colorful Espanola Way, closed to traffic on 14th Street between Washington and Pennsylvania avenues, is a must-visit for shopping, strolling and eating. The authentically Italian sidewalk cafe Hosteria Romana (429 Espanola Way, 305-532-4299) is a good bet, with singing waiters from “The Boot,” handmade pastas, delicious house wine by the carafe, brick oven pizza, and homey red and white checkerboard tables.

Monty’s Raw Bar (300 Alton Road, 305-673-3444) is the perfect place to kick back with a Corona and some conch fritters and watch the afternoon slip by. This scrappy outdoor seafood house has a sister in Coconut Grove, but this is where the action is (and where “Meet the Fockers” was filmed). A pool with changing rooms attracts families on weekends; a relaxing view of cruise ships bobbing by reels in everybody else.

HANGING

The quintessentially South Beach-esque, Philippe Starck-designed Delano Hotel (1685 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 800-606-6090; www.delanohotelmiamibeach.com) can always be counted on for making even the most jaded traveler take a step back and revel in the amazing surroundings: the white-on-white lobby with Arabian Nights-like curtains; Venetian chandeliers; dramatic high-backed couches; and an outdoor area that looks like a movie set. The bungalow-lined pool and orchard area has a submerged table and chairs, oversized chess board and soaring palms. An outdoor bar is steps from the sand with patio seating and lots of chances for beautiful-people gawking.

Club crawlers are setting out to newly opened Buck 15 (701 Lincoln Lane, 305-538-3815; www.buck15.com). Reminiscent of a downtown New York underground bar, it’s got art displays, 1970s leather couches, thick coffee tables … but no velvet ropes. Mondays are rock ‘n roll night; Wednesdays feature a popular local DJ.

Those in the know still head out to gritty Washington Avenue to a place owned by erstwhile politician wannabe/former model Tony Guerra. In a former synagogue, Amika Loft Lounge (1532 Washington Ave.; www.amikamiami.com), is the *it* place for packing in late-nighters. Though it’s as loud as it wants to be, there are upstairs VIP rooms made for cocktails, conversation, and other fun activities.

Like scenes from a Girls Gone Wild video, free-wheeling singles love, love, love the Clevelander (1020 Ocean, 305-531-3485; www.clevelander.com), an outdoor bar and lounge smack in the middle of Ocean Drive. Appletinis and Cuervo shots flow at five poolside bars as electronica and hip hop pulse on till the wee hours.

SHOPPING

Try to visit Bal Harbour Shops in North Miami Beach (9700 Collins Ave.; 305-866-0311; www.balharbourshops.com) with a zero balance on the credit card. This lush and tropical outdoor mall targets big spenders with boutiques by the likes of Prada, Gucci and Escada, and upscale department stores Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus.

The more bargain-inclined head to Miami Beach, just south of 16th Street, to Lincoln Road, a tree-lined thoroughfare of cafes, galleries and a blend of chains (Ann Taylor Loft, Banana Republic, Victoria’s Secret) and freestanding boutiques such as En Avance for great denim, Base for edgy men and women’s sportswear, and Chroma for way-trendy handbags and T’s.

If you’re seeking the retail road less traveled, hop into your rented convertible and tootle up Biscayne Boulevard — just over the Venetian Causeway, in Miami, to what is known as the Upper East Side. Still gritty, the area’s got a pre-hipster SoHo vibe (many of the little stores have security buzzers). You’re rewarded for your trip at single-named places such as Mia and Fold (both at No. 6900) and Anna Kournikova’s favorite Rebel (No. 6669) … with no crowds, distinctive fashions and decent price tags.

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