The last time Miami’s S&S Diner moved to a new location — 79 years ago — it took out an ad in this newspaper with a simple promise.
“All the old employees you know and like will be there to greet you with the same spirit of friendly willingness ...” the July 6, 1938 Miami Herald ad reads, beneath a black-and-white photo of what was then a brand-new facade of stainless steel and cream-and-red Art Deco glass tile that decades later would earn it a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
Monica Linares rushes past this ad, framed at the diner’s new location for the last three weeks on Biscayne Boulevard, with her hands full of plates, as a lunchtime crowd fills each of the 28 seats inside.
All around is the memorabilia from the old S&S, from the “Goodfellas” and “Godfather” movie posters to the large-scale oil painting of the original diner by Overtown artist Earnest King. There are Zagat dining awards and a decades-old Miami Herald review that reads, “Bustling and friendly, the S&S is a tasty tradition.”
A sign rescued from the old restaurant reads, “The best thing to hold on to in life each other.”
“Hi, guys, how’s everyone doing over here?” Linares says, smiling as she takes an order at a table of four. “Have you tried our lamb shank? Oh, it just falls off the bone.”
The S&S Diner has stayed in business longer than any other restaurant, second only to Joe’s Stone Crab, for what it brought to its neighborhood: simple diner food aimed at working men and women.
But what passes for progress meant the S&S Diner was forced to move from its historic Art Deco building after the owner of the last 18 years was evicted in September, following a lease dispute with a landlord who agreed to sell the property and others surrounding it for $33 million.
A proclamation by the city of Miami’s Historic and Environmental Preservation Board means the building’s facade will have to be preserved despite any new development.
But that said nothing of the actual restaurant, which had continued to run for nearly eight decades with different owners at the same location with the same name on the historic marquee.
Rather than write the restaurant’s obituary, the former longtime manager leased a new place, hired the same staff, including the cook, and teamed with the previous owner to keep the restaurant’s name — if not the location — a Miami classic. And the diners have followed.
“The food is good, simple, straightforward, and the prices are reasonable,” said Bill Malnick, a real estate attorney who followed the S&S to its new location. “The food’s the same, and that’s nice to see. It’s nice to see a familiar face.”
Simon Elbaz had bought the S&S in 1999 after he moved from Montreal and decided to make Miami his home. He kept the focus of the restaurant on working stiffs, opening at 6 a.m. with affordable meals aimed at those who had to be on the job early.
Its “workers specials” promised a pair of eggs and home fries, hash browns or grits and toast for six bucks before 10 a.m. It’s still that way at the new location, as is the Turkey Tuesday roasted turkey platter.
Strangers sat around a horseshoe-shaped counter that seated 23, striking up conversations or disappearing for a few minutes behind their newspapers before going to work.
For the last 2 1/2 years, he turned the restaurant operations over to Maria Linares, Monica’s mother, to manage. She said it became a second home.
“That place was a part of me,” she said.
But the trouble started in 2014, when the company that purchased the property two years earlier, 17th and Second Avenue Properties Corp., said it didn’t recognize an extension Elbaz said was set to begin in 2015. They wanted him out at the end of 2014, and the legal wrangling began, court documents show.
Elbaz said he saw his restaurant was not in the company’s long-term plans, especially after they agreed to sell the property again as part of a $33 million deal that is set to close next month, according to the Real Deal. Elbaz was late on paying his month-to-month lease in July 2016, court records show, and in September, police officers arrived to evict them.
In the middle of a lunch rush, Maria Linares said, law enforcement showed up and told the diners and staff they had 10 minutes to finish their meals, grab their personal effects and march out of the business. Frantic, she called Elbaz, who arrived just in time to watch officers close the storm shutters and padlock the doors.
“It was like they had torn my heart out,” Maria Linares said.
Elbaz, 69, admits he slipped into a depression and gave up all thoughts of opening another restaurant himself.
“It was very difficult to lose the restaurant like that,” he said. “To be treated like dirt. To be left with nothing.”
All, however, was not left behind.
Linares decided she wanted to open a restaurant, and what better name to carry on than the S&S? She found a spot she could afford eight blocks north, at Northeast 27th Street and Biscayne Boulevard, and asked Elbaz if he would come on board for several months as a consultant.
The staff followed her, from the waitresses to the cook, who left another job when he heard the S&S was back up and running. They paid the previous landlord $2,000 for the memorabilia, including the S&S sign, which they are planning to put up.
She turned to Monica, 28, who had worked at the restaurant for years when she wasn’t modeling, to become the manager.
“Monica is the reason I dared to do it,” said Linares, who recently left the business in Elbaz’s and her daughter’s care while she attended to a family emergency in her native Peru. “She’s my right hand.”
During a recent Thursday lunch crush, the S&S was doing the kind of a business a three-week-old mom-and-pop restaurant can only dream of.
Diners wait for tables over the course of the next three hours (they could not bring over the horseshoe-shaped lunch counter) that turn over quickly with hot, fresh meals. Monica Linares jumps from the front of the house to the back, helping on the griddle before rushing out orders like a juicy patty melt with a side of their housemade applesauce, with a model-worthy smile.
“My mom wanted to continue the tradition,” Monica Linares said. “She saw how unique it was and wanted to keep it going ... . And now, the pieces are falling into place.
Elbaz mans the register, chatting up regulars and new diners alike in a neighborhood surrounded by the kinds of new high-rises that led to his restaurant being displaced. He can easily slip into a dark mood with memories of the legal battle that cost him his restaurant.
But just then, as Linares zips between tables, she flashes him a smile and he brightens at the passion of the next keepers of the S&S Diner.
“That’s what made me happy — the tradition continues,” he said. “It’s in good hands.”
2699 Biscayne Blvd, Miami