At the Donut Gallery Diner, not much has changed since 1972.
Well, except this: Donuts are no longer on the menu.
“It is always funny to see a tourist come in and ask for some,” said Harry Gottlieb, who discovered the tiny diner 20 years ago and became a regular customer.
But the place still serves the same breakfasts and lunches, and the same family still owns and operates what has become a Key Biscayne institution.
Black vinyl stools lined up along the Formica counter help provide an atmosphere many customers remember long after the taste of its dishes have faded.
Famous figures have frequented the location in the past — among the many are actor Andy Garcia, banker and Nixon buddy Charles “Bebe” Rebozo, baseball player Cal Ripken Jr., and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Today, the Donut Gallery remains an island gem for visitors and locals.
It’s is a place where young soccer players gather Saturday mornings, dressed in their uniforms, to celebrate a big win at the nearby Village Green.
Nelson Zambrano and his wife, Ota, are now the owners of his father’s diner. Nelson remembers how his father would sponsor his sons’ soccer teams, and would reward the players if they won a game.
“He would allow all of my team to come in if we made it back before the place closed,” Nelson said. “If we won, our whole team would sit down and eat, and that was pretty cool.”
The Gallery remains a place where tennis players like Andy Roddick are known to swing by and grab a bite to eat before playing at the Sony Ericsson Open at Crandon Park Tennis Center.
It’s also a place where residents come together to become friends, and sometimes, a bit more. Mark Celette, a resident of the village since 1959, met and dated his wife, Pat Kelly, at the Donut Gallery in 1979.
At the time, Kelly worked at the zoo in Crandon Park. She’d go into the Gallery each morning to pick up coffee; five days a week, she and Celette would flirt.
They dated for about three years, and got married in 1983. They celebrated their 29th wedding anniversary in April.
Kelly says her favorite memory at the diner remains the warm welcome she and her husband received after getting engaged. “We were greeted one morning with champagne and mimosas by one of the other folks we met at the Donut Gallery,” Kelly said. “There was enough champagne for everyone at the Gallery that morning. We were served champagne by the couple who had arranged for it. The husband had a white towel over his arm. A lot of these people then came to our wedding.”
The couple still live in Key Biscayne, and visit the Gallery often.
This year, the Gallery celebrates its 40th anniversary.
The walls are still lined with a large photo mural, though new tiles and flat screen TVs have been added to “spruce it up a bit,” Nelson said.
“There are thousands of photos of customers and the staff on the walls. The regular customers can see themselves in their youth, adulthood and maturing into seniors,” Gottlieb said. “Customers come by just to find the photos of their kids or old girlfriends.”
The flat screen TVs play photo slideshows; Nelson believes thefamily-oriented atmosphere is essential to his small diner’s success.
“They’re the ones that are really making it happen. If they didn’t keep walking through the door, we wouldn’t be as successful,” he said.
The diner, though it seats only 24 people, had a successful start.
Benjamin Zambrano arrived in Miami in 1958, from Mantua, in the Pinar del Rio province in Cuba. After working as a cook in New York, he returned to Miami in 1972. Though Benjamin died five years ago, sons Benjamin Jr. and Nelson took over the business when their father began to get sick.
“It’s what we saw growing up,” Nelson said. “It’s what we always were involved with. Not that we didn’t go to school, because we did, but we just fell back on the family business because it was prosperous and it gave us a life at the end of the day as well. I finish at 3 p.m. and get to spend time with my daughter.”
Eventually Nelson and his wife became theowners. He and Ota live on the island, with their 9-year-old daughter. His mom, Acela Zambrano, lives next door. Nelson remembers growing up with his family at the diner, which is still nestled at a corner of an ordinary shopping center near the entrance to Key Biscayne.
But the diner remains far from ordinary; many refer to it as the island’s “kitchen.”
“You know the metaphor; everyone hangs out in the kitchen? In the house that is Key Biscayne, that kitchen is the Donut Gallery,” Key Biscayne Mayor Frank Caplan said. “That’s where everybody hangs out.”
Caplan has been living on the island for 26 years, and remembers the first time he visited the diner, in October 1986. He had just come from Massachusetts.
“I popped in and I had breakfast. It struck me, and I didn’t know Key Biscayne very well and I didn’t know everybody. There were so many people there,” Caplan said. “I felt a real neighborhood feel.”
“It is the first place to open after a hurricane. Couples have met and married. There are regular customers that have been going there for years,” Gottlieb said.
Gottlieb said his favorite dish is the “Ted’s Special:” bacon, ham, melting cheese, tomato and eggs, served on an English muffin.
The diner also has loyal employees.
Lori del Hoyo travels each morning from her home in Homestead to Key Biscayne. She has been working at the Gallery for 26 years.
“My favorite part of my job is my customers, they are sweethearts,” del Hoyo said. “My favorite thing is that I do the same thing every day.”
Nelson hopes the Gallery will continue to prosper.
“Hopefully, Key Biscayne and the community continues to support us,” Nelson said. “And, hopefully we’ll be able to stay here for another 40 years.”