This Friday, the Palace Restaurant and Bar on Ocean Drive celebrates thirty-three years of being South Beach’s preeminent drag revue. The queens have long drawn customers to the iconic venue, and owner Thomas Donall notes, “Our birthday celebrations usually pull in large crowds that stretch out way past Ocean Drive.” says owner Thomas Donall.
With Palace at half capacity, this year’s birthday bash will be a little less wild, with tables six feet apart, and masks required for entry.
But the Palace Divas, including Shanaya Bright, Elishaly D Witshes, Tlo Ivy, and Fantasía Royale, will still be on hand to perform their latest show-stopping acts. “The evening will be a time to laugh, dance, and reflect back on thirty-three triumphant years of Palace and the amazing community it serves,” Donall continues.
It’s been a wildly successful run. Last spring, Donall was in negotiations to buy the location next door in order to expand Palace, when he learned that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis had just declared a state of emergency. “We were given a few hours to close and send employees home,” Donall remembers.
The first thing he and his management team did was order a complete sanitization of Palace. He then whipped out his phone and began emailing clients and staff to rearrange the coming weeks of planned events and promotions, trying to determine if any could be salvaged or restructured. No luck. All had to be canceled.
It was a catastrophe, but not the first storm to hit Palace in its 33-year history.
Palace first launched around the same time that designer Gianni Versace emerged in Miami's South Beach. Versace frequented the eatery regularly, often bringing friends like Luciano Pavarotti, Elton John, Madonna, and Princess Diana to dine with him. As Ocean Drive became a hot spot for fashion models, photoshoots, and music videos in the early nineties, Palace stood at its epicenter.
Sadly, Versace’s murder in 1997 would change Ocean Drive. The fashion scene swiftly left. Music and nightlife industries soon followed. When Thomas Donall took over in 2007, the once mighty Palace was in disrepair.
Donall went to work on a major renovation of the restaurant; he then focused on re-branding it. He introduced daily drag on-the-street shows and weekly T-Dances. He launchedt the eatery’s popular drag brunch and during big LGBTQ+ celebration weekends (Pride, Winter Party, and White Party, among them), Donall created free block parties that eventually grew so large, he had to acquire permits from the city to shut down the entire 12th street block to accommodate the crowds.
Over the next ten years, Palace became a place for a new breed of celebrity with regulars like Andy Cohen, NeNe Leakes, and Perez Hilton.
It came as a shock on April 25, 2018, when Donall announced via Facebook that Palace would be leaving its historic location. A developer had bought 1200 Ocean Drive, the building that housed Palace, and planned to “enhance the property, including improving the building’s prominence and accessibility.” Rather than wait for the enhancements to be completed, Donall decided to find a different spot for his eatery.
On November 24, 2018, the queens of Palace kicked up their heels at Palace’s new location at 1052 Ocean Drive. “We worried that patrons would not accept the new space but we needn’t have,” Donall recalls. “Our local customer base and the millions of visitors that vacation in Miami each year supported us strongly from day one.”
Donall credits patrons with helping the restaurant, its staff, and performers through the difficulties of 2020, too, and acknowledges that he couldn’t have secured Palace without community support. “So many of them generously donated money at the digital fundraising events we held for our staff and performers,” he explains. “Their support throughout the pandemic has been incredible.”
Palace is finally open again. Per CDC guidelines, tables are socially distanced, masks are mandated, sanitizer stations have been added throughout the property, staff are required to be tested regularly, and customers’ temperatures are taken prior to their entry.
Donall urges the LGBTQ+ community show similar patronage to all queer businesses across the country, as they need support now more than ever. “Most LGBTQ businesses are independently owned and operated and if we want to keep our gayborhoods looking as they did pre-pandemic, it’s important we help them today, before it’s too late.”
Palace Bar (1052 Ocean Drive) celebrates its 33rd anniversary with dinner and specular drag shows this Friday, February 19th from 7-11:30 PM. Reserve a table at palacesouthbeach.com.