Mark Soyka called Yardbird founder John Kunkel every three months to ask him the same question: Do you want to buy my restaurant?
Kunkel would say yes, Soyka would say OK, then hang up and not call back for another three months. It went on like that for more than three years.
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On Tuesday, Soyka finally finished the conversation.
Soyka, 75, the eponymous restaurateur who used his background in interior design to create some of Miami’s most eclectic and original restaurant spaces, has sold his restaurant of 19 years to Kunkel’s 50 Eggs group. Kunkel’s company will run Soyka under the same name for the next six months before unveiling a new concept in the summer of 2019.
“He didn’t call anybody else. He called me,” Kunkel said, sitting next to Soyka at his restaurant Tuesday, along with more than 50 employees to discuss the handover.
“The restaurant needed somebody serious to take it over,” Soyka said. “It needed somebody who could take it to the next level.”
What it needed most, Soyka said, was someone who understood what he built at Soyka, how it changed the neighborhood — someone who wouldn’t change it for the worse.
Soyka, a New York School of Interior Design graduate, came to Miami in 1985 to help the late real estate mogul Tony Goldman reinvent South Beach. He never left.
He built News Café, a former Gianni Versace hangout that remains a South Beach favorite. He bought and converted the late Van Dyke on Lincoln Road into a moody, buzzy restaurant with live music and individual condos upstairs that he designed down to the art on the walls and the antique bicycle he used as sculpture.
But he had a larger vision. He wanted to convert the area across from Morningside (where he has lived for the past 20 years) into a neighborhood where locals would hang out instead of drive through.
He sold the Van Dyke for $15 million (it has since been sold as part of a package for more than $49 million) and used the cash to build what he coined as the 55th Street Station. It’s a four-block section just off Biscayne Boulevard that he bought and developed with hand-picked businesses. The centerpiece of them: Soyka restaurant.
He gutted an old warehouse he had used to store his car collection and tapped his design background to build another stunning space: exposed metal beams painted a rusted gold, exposed wood rafters, unfinished concrete walls, a massive metal chandelier, classical art on the walls and antique light fixtures he bought from a Lincoln Road vintage dealer that hang over each of the leather banquets. It was an immediate hit.
Soyka gave locals a reason to stay in the neighborhood, to invest in it. There, he opened all day, every day, adding brunch on the weekends before it was fashionable.
But at what cost? He looked back and saw his beloved Van Dyke — which financed this vision — turned into a Lululemon, its lime rock walls now lost amid the sameness of a commercialized Lincoln Road.
That would not happen to this restaurant, not while he lived, he told Kunkel. He made him promise. And to make sure, he would still own the building.
“I’m not a cook. I’m not a chef. My job is to design the restaurant and host people to make sure they are happy,” Soyka said.
Kunkel has big plans for the menu.
He recently partnered with James Beard award finalist Hedy Goldsmith and chef Jamie DeRosa (formerly of Tongue & Cheek and Izzy’s Fish & Oyster) on a new fine-dining restaurant, Ad-Lib, that will open in place of his successful former restaurant Swine in Coral Gables. The duo will revamp the dishes at Soyka and Goldsmith, renowned among the best pastry chefs in the country, will open a grab-and-go bakery as part of the restyling.
The bones of building — the reason locals love to lounge here, particularly on weekends — won’t change.
“We have an unspoken agreement that if I remove anything, I’ll box it and ship it to him,” Kunkel said, nodding to Soyka.
Sokya’s eyes reddened as he discussed selling the business, though he retains five other restaurants in whole, or as a partner: two Segafredos, Andiamo, News Café and Café Roval, an equally unique restaurant with a flowing backyard and pond built from an old water pump station just blocks up the road.
“He wanted to make sure I was who I said I was and that I would do what I said I would. And I get it,” Kunkel said.
Several employees wiped their eyes as Soyka introduced Kunkel, including one woman with a cooing baby in her arms.
Soyka, who still lives across the street, said he would still come in every morning for his daily bagel and coffee.
“We’ll have your bagel waiting,” Kunkel told him.