Manolo Lirio had never needed to worry about people finding his Manolo and Rene café.
Everyone downtown knew his greasy spoon on the corner of Northeast First Street and Third Avenue would be there, open 24 hours a day, every day but Christmas, just as it had been for the last 40 years. And Lirio, now 73, would be the one serving up the hot Cuban coffee and pressed Cuban sandwiches.
But then came the hurricane.
Irma may have spared Miami its brunt, but rains flooded parts of downtown, including the one-story building on Lirio’s corner. The building was deemed unsafe to reopen, and the cafe closed down — but not for good.
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Just 127 paces up the block, Lirio has reopened after being closed for four months. Fans are still rediscovering this piece of Old Miami, with Lirio still at the helm. His family tried to get him to retire, after working at the restaurant six days a week with diabetes.
Instead, he doubled down.
“I’ll die if I retire,” he said after working a 5:30-11 a.m. shift one recent Tuesday. “I need to work. I need to be taking care of customers, looking after people.”
The cafe is more now than the 224-square-foot, four-seat counter Lirio opened July 4, 1977. It has a full kitchen, instead of just a sandwich press, and they’ve added table service with a menu and daily specials.
But they still keep it old school.
Lirios still marinates and roasts the pork shoulder used in the pan con lechon and Cuban and medianoche sandwiches. (Except now Lirio’s son, Eddy, doesn’t have to roast it at home.) It’s the way Lirio learned to do it as a recently arrived Cuban in the original Badia’s sandwich shop in Hialeah. He opened this spot with his late partner René Moure, who was a father figure to him when his own father died at 45.
“He says it’s the one place where no on tells him what to do,” said his wife of 53 years, Mercedes. “And he looks so happy now, surrounded by his kids.”
And forget UberEats or Postmates. At 93, Pedro Leon still delivers all orders (on foot and via the Metrorail) as he has for the last 19 years. The four months the cafe was closed, Leon didn’t know what to do with himself, he said.
“What am I going to do at home, staring at the ceiling, with my wife ordering me around?” Pedro joked.
After being closed from September to late January, many of Lirio’s original customers found new favorite spots.
“A lot of his customers assumed he just closed down,” his granddaughter Briana Lirio said.
But never underestimate Miami’s ability to find food that is hot, cheap and available at all hours of the night. Ultra partygoers rediscovered Manolo and Rene in its new place, a block from Bayfront Park.
“They came hungry and thirsty,” Manolo Lirio said. “It was phenomenal.”
Two months later, old customers are still stumbling on Manolo and Rene’s new location.
Hayley Ross had just finished dinner across the street when she noticed Manolo and Rene’s new sign across the street. She and her four dinner companions crossed the road to look inside just to confirm it was back.
The next morning, Ross and her husband, who live at the nearby 50 Biscayne condo, brought their out-of-town friends for café con leche, buttery Cuban toast and guava pastelitos.
“When they went away, we were heartbroken,” Ross said. “They’re great people, and we’re glad to see them back.”
But keep your eyes sharp. Lirio said when the renovations at his former spot are complete, he would like to move back to his corner — if he can afford the rent.
“Hopefully people can stop by and see how nice it all looks,” he said. “But I do miss my little corner.”
Manolo and Rene
281 NE First St., downtown Miami