How to eat a corned beef sandwich at Deli Day
Looking for a good place to get some corned beef today?
In the Miami area, it probably won’t be at a deli.
In the last two decades, South Florida has lost most of its major delis — the places where the pastramis were spiced and brined and cut at the counter, where waitresses snapped “Sweetheart” as they tossed down buckets of dill pickles and prune danish.
Demographics had a lot to do with the death of the Jewish deli. (Although these places served it all, including corned beef and cabbage for St. Patrick’s Day). So did the quest for a healthier diet. Fatty meat and sky-high sodium levels just don’t cut it anymore.
Listing the death toll of delis is enough to make us cry (and make us hungry, too).
Corky’s. Pumpernik’s. Rascal House. Wolfie’s.
Yes, there are still places to get a big corned beef sandwich (on rye with mustard, thank you). Mom-and-pop bagel shops such as Moe’s in Aventura do their best to fill the void. Chains such as TooJay’s and Roasters & Toasters give a nod to the New York-style food popular with Eastern European immigrants and their children.
But if you’re looking for the South Florida originals, they are gone.
Here is a look at some of the delis that have closed shop in South Florida through the years.
Died March 2008
Hold the schmaltz: Another piece of Northeast Miami-Dade’s fading history is slipping away.
For a cast of Rascal House regulars, the end will come Sunday night, when the hallowed deli in Sunny Isles Beach closes its doors for good.
Gone will be the red vinyl booths, the fabled corned beef sandwiches and stuffed cabbage, the cartoonish devil smiling impishly above the tattered green awning. Rising in its place will be an Epicure gourmet market, which the restaurant’s owners believe will better cater to the residents of the new Northeast Miami-Dade, with its luxury hotels and canyons of high-rise condos.
“I guess this is progress,” said 66-year-old Sibil Weinstein, who rides the bus from Miami Beach twice a week for breakfast. “That’s the way life is, right?”
The last of the old-school New York-style delis, specializing in hearty Jewish fare, was built by Wolfie Cohen in 1954. A seemingly eternal staple at Collins Avenue and 172nd Street — outliving legendary delis like Pumperniks, Wolfie’s and Corky’s — it thrived for decades. Hungry diners lined up around the building, recalled Michael Scheck, 69, an Aventura retiree who first visited the restaurant in 1956, when he was 17.
“You couldn’t get in, you had to wait,” Scheck said. “I was told this was the busiest restaurant in the world.”
Busy it was, and for good reason. It wasn’t just the oversize portions, the no-nonsense waitresses or the comforting ambience, like the framed poster of Jackie Gleason, the fading black-and-white photos of the beach and the wooden counter where familiar faces gathered day after day.
What most diners yearned for were the heaps of food that were handed out with every meal: rolls, pickles, muffins — and, in years past — coffee cakes and an assortment of pastries, including five different types of danishes. Visitors included celebrities like Clark Gable and Judy Garland.
The restaurant’s lure continued through the years. Last January, for example, Rudy Giuliani stopped by for a cup of coffee and some cereal as part of his unsuccessful presidential bid. In 1996, Cohen sold his restaurant to the Starkman family — father Isaac and brothers Guy and Jason —- which runs Jerry’s Famous Deli. The Los Angeles-based company was looking to expand after going public, and the Rascal House was a good fit, Jason Starkman said.
“Wolfie created something really special here,” Starkman said. “We never bought this place with an intention to ever shut it down.” But things are different now.
A combination of the changing demographics of the area — younger residents, more South American and European tourists — and an upscale development boom in the city and neighboring Aventura started to cut down on demand. Prices climbed and the baskets of free baked goods got more meager, said
Micah Goldstein, 45, the youngest face among the breakfast regulars. “Man, oh man,” remembers Goldstein, a children’s entertainer from Miami Beach known to the other habitués as Ziggy. “That’s when you knew the end was coming.”
In late 2006, the Starkmans revealed a plan to turn the restaurant into a 15-story tower that would include an Epicure Market, office space and condos. Since then, the housing market slowdown has forced them to scrap everything but the Epicure. Condos are still a possibility down the road.
The restaurant will be gutted, but the Epicure will keep the original kitchen and a few of the beloved recipes. It also will retain 35 of the restaurant’s 100 employees, who were offered the opportunity to stay with Epicure or relocate to Jerry’s Famous Deli in Miami Beach.
Most of the Rascal House décor will go to the city of Sunny Isles Beach, which has taken to preserving the vestiges of its old identity. Some special requests will be honored, like the group of longtime diners who asked Starkman to carve out their corner booth.
Countless groups of friends have met at the restaurant through the years. Scheck, for example, regularly eats with Norman Lipoff, 71, of Coconut Grove and Kenny Schwartz, 81, of Hollywood.
They ride their bicycles and meet at 9:30 a.m. sharp. Lipoff loves the lox, eggs and onion; Schwartz sticks to the oatmeal.
Scheck says he has a weakness for the cheesecake.
“It’s not going to be easy to replace this,” said Lipoff, who has been eating at the restaurant for more than 30 years.
Since 1954, the restaurant estimates it has sold about 60 million meals, including 12 million corned beef sandwiches and 6.7 million pieces of stuffed cabbage.
Prices have more than kept up with the times. In 1973, a corned beef sandwich ran for $1.95. Today it costs $14.75.
Even so, the restaurant barely breaks even, Starkman said.
The new Epicure will be ready by early September, Starkman said. Parking spots out front will be converted into a patio for outdoor eating, with 40 tables.
The 25,000-square-foot interior may include a small cafe or breakfast spot sporting the Rascal House name, but certainly not a full-scale restaurant. The company also owns the Wolfie’s and Pumperniks brands, and may one day reopen one of those delis, he said.
“The property itself will go through a pause, but the heart will keep beating,” Starkman said.
Many lives will be changed by the closing, but perhaps none as much as Lorraine Willow’s. Willow, 53, is a white-haired, tough-as-nails waitress who has served at the restaurant for 22 years. She met her husband at Rascal House. She has memorized everyone’s name and preferences.
George Melnick, she said, is not supposed to eat eggs, but he tries to order them every now and then. She knows which of her customers will, come Monday morning, stay home and cook for themselves.
But ask her how she feels about the restaurant closing and the regulars moving on, and she’s at a loss. Her eyes well up with tears as she covers her face and walks away.
Then she’s back, composed. She has an answer.
“They’ll still remember me, and that’s what counts,” she said.
Died April 2002
For 50 years, Wolfie’s catered to the likes of Jackie Gleason and Liza Minnelli — as much a part of the Miami Beach landscape as the sun and surf and the snowbirds who flock here every year.
But on Sunday, the landmark delicatessen known as much for its pickles and pastrami as its famous walk-ins, closed its doors — at least for now.
David Nevel, who co-owns the property along with his late father’s estate, says he’s in talks with developers to bring an updated Wolfie’s to the same corner at Collins and 21st Street.
“This Wolfie’s was for the last 50 years,” Nevel said. “We want to build a Wolfie’s that’s for the next 50 years.”
Wolfie’s opened on Collins before World War II and survived several changes in ownership and the changing fortunes of the Beach - even a 1985 fire. But the decline in post-Sept. 11 tourism, a troublesome street-improvement project that left many businesses floundering and the changing nature of the area surrounding Wolfie’s meant it was “time to take a break,” Nevel said.
Sunday, however, was for the old-timers — many of whom posed for pictures under the familiar neon sign and tearfully shook hands with busboys and waitresses. One pair of regulars: Mike Lantz and his seeing-eye dog, Lexus.
“I’ve got fond memories of this place and the late, great Joe Nevel,” Lantz said. It was Nevel who allowed Lantz to sell his trinkets at Wolfie’s counter for years, and it was Nevel’s staff that gave the blind man water and ice when Hurricane Andrew cut off power to his neighborhood.
“This was the first place I brought Lexus when I got her,” Lantz said, awaiting his order of lamb shanks — one of the few items left on the menu. “We’re wiped out,” Nevel said.
Shelves once stocked with Wolfie’s “World Famous Cheesecake,” bagels and macaroons held nothing but crumbs by night’s end.
“So many people have come by to tell me how they came here on their prom date, for their honeymoon, when they were little kids,” Nevel said. “My dad would have been so touched by all of this.”
For the staff, the busy last day was a reminder of the restaurant’s heyday.
“It was like the old days,” longtime cook Joey Williams said. “That was when you never knew who was going to walk through that door.”
Williams even spotted reputed mobster Meyer Lansky several times, sitting near the door, facing the street.
“He put a man on guard at the corner and would order corned beef and soup. Very polite,” he said with a laugh. “It was like a soap opera. No place like it in the world.”
DID JULY 1993
The Hallandale Pumpernik’s — the last in a landmark South Florida chain that lavished its customers with Jewish food and bargain, late-afternoon dinners — closed Wednesday without warning. The signs in the entrance say “Closed for Renovation,” but customers and employees say the restaurant has served its last plates of pickled tomatoes.
“I tell you, when I kissed the night manager goodbye Wednesday, she had tears in her eyes, and I did too,” said Leo Coslow, who ate regularly at Pumpernik’s for 22 years. “It was a real institution for Hallandale. It was a legend.”
The legend began in 1954 when restaurateur Wolfie Cohen opened the first Pumpernik’s at 6700 Collins Ave. in Miami Beach. In the era of the Carillon Hotel and Nathan’s, Pumpernik’s was a hot spot for a kosher-style bite, the site of Larry King’s early radio shows, and the subject of Jackie Mason’s humor.
As South Florida grew, the Pumpernik’s chain stretched from South Dade to Pembroke Pines, but the owners after Cohen couldn’t keep the franchises open.
The Hallandale Beach Boulevard shop became the final bastion of corned beef when the Suniland location went belly-up in 1990. The last Pumpernik’s customers — who ordered from behind enormous menus stocked with kosher-style delicacies — flocked from the high-rise condos that rose in Hallandale after the store opened in 1972.
Rumors about impending disaster flew through the city this winter when Art Brown, the last heir to Cohen’s kingdom, began negotiating with Walgreens to build a drug store on the restaurant’s site.
As late as March, Brown promised, “We are going to be here for a long time.”
The owners don’t know what they are going to do now, Brown’s partner, Manny Zinn, said Friday. He didn’t want to discuss plans, and former employees said their bosses didn’t disclose the closing until Wednesday.
Several waitresses had found other jobs earlier this year, and they stayed at Pumpernik’s because the owners said their jobs were secure.
“They denied the rumors right up until we were told at 3 p.m. that it was the last night,” said Jodi Reynolds, a waitress for five years.
Friday afternoon, the parking lot normally filled by diners enjoying the early-bird dinners was vacant except for a string of full-sized American cars gliding through to inspect the darkened doors.
Frank and Lil Racher heard rumors about the closing, so they drove from their Hallandale home to see for themselves.
“From the chicken to the brisket, everything was delicious,” said Lil Racher, who ate at Pumpernik’s Tuesday night without knowing it might be her last chance. “They were friendly people. We want them to reopen.”
That decision will be up to Brown and Zinn. Walgreens spokesman Michael Polzin said the Illinois company is interested in the land but doesn’t have a contract to build yet.
DIED MARCH 1996
It’s one thing for North Miami Beach to share a landmark with the folks in Broward County. It’s quite another for Broward to steal it away.
But very soon, perhaps as early as tonight, Corky’s restaurant will close its home of 38 years forever, taking its signature potato pancakes to Pembroke Pines.
Customers are making contingency plans.
“I just bought a microwave,” said 10-year veteran Sam Schwartz, a cartoonist who draws Archie comic books. D-Day for the mauve-and-lavender hangout a la Happy Days will come as soon as owner Seymour Paley gets final approvals for the new place, 671 NW 100th Pl. in Pembroke Pines.
Paley is sad to go, certainly. He says he had planned to keep the North Miami Beach operation running even after the Broward shop opened. But times have changed since he first opened the place as a drive-in with an army of pretty young carhops.
“My market has moved to Pembroke Pines,” Paley says.
Once, he stayed open until 1 in the morning, feeding young Jewish families after their nights out at the movies or trips to the big, new shopping center on 163rd Street. Now, he closes at 8 p.m.
“No one comes to dinner after 5 o’clock,” he says. “The past eight years have been a steady decline.”
All of his crew will come with him, Paley says. Nancy Quinn, a hostess for 22 years, can’t wait.
“I live two minutes from there,” she says. “It’ll be a pleasure to walk to work.”
The restaurant also will be close to Century Village, a big potential customer base.
“They ought to build a monorail,” offers diner Albert Yuni, a retired retailer. Rachel and Clifford Horton, who have been coming to Corky’s every day for more than two decades, can understand why Paley is leaving.
For a while now, they’ve been thinking about moving themselves. Until then, they’ll commute to Corky’s for the generous helpings and the not-too-high prices and the waitresses who know that Clifford Horton’s favorite meal is a sandwich stacked with an inch of corned beef.
They’ve had Corky’s cater events over the years, too, whichis a big part of the restaurant’s business. It was the catering, in fact, that finally persuaded Paley to give up the carhops and become a regular restaurant, he says.
“People would say to me, ‘It doesn’t sound very good that my daughter’s wedding was catered by Corky’s drive-in.’ “
Three decades ago, Wolfie’s, another popular deli, tried to move in on Corky’s turf, and it was making headway, too. That’s when Paley came up with the gimmick of giving away the potato pancakes with every meal.
To handle the volume, he invented a latkemaker out of a commercial doughnut machine. It took a while, but “all the business came back, and they closed up,” he says, still satisfied.
A new sideline was born, too: The restaurant’s second floor was given over to the wholesale business, selling to Publix and Winn-Dixie supermarkets.
The new place won’t have as much seating, but it’ll stay open late again, and people like West Palm Beach limousine driver Howard Charatz will make their special trips to Broward instead of Dade. Charatz, who used to eat at Corky’s before school at North Miami Beach High, stops in whenever he’s in town for the No. 1 seller — the beef tenderloin sandwich known as the Zaftig, which means “hefty.”
“I’ve always remembered it,” he says.