Locals loved this Caribbean take out spot in Miami Gardens. Now it’s bigger and better

Lorna Westmoreland (l) and her son Matari Bodie, owners of the Lorna’s Caribbean and American Grill.
Lorna Westmoreland (l) and her son Matari Bodie, owners of the Lorna’s Caribbean and American Grill.

A lot has changed recently about Lorna’s Caribbean restaurant, a neighborhood favorite that’s been popular with Miami Gardens locals — and local celebs — for more than a decade.

It’s got a new location a mile north.

It’s got a new vibe, no longer a take-out spot for brown stew chicken, fried Jamaican dumplings, conch stew and jerk-everything, but a lavish and sleek new sit-down restaurant with a full bar and live music.

The one thing that hasn’t changed, though, is the most important: Lorna.

Lorna Westmoreland, 70, is still in the kitchen just after 4:30 a.m. on the weekends, putting her particular touch on her unique mix of Jamaican, Bahamian and Southern black American favorites.

“The authentic flavor from the country is the best. And I want to make sure the country flavor is in the food,” said Westmoreland, who was born just outside of Kingston, but honed her kitchen skills in the Bahamas.

If Westmoreland is the secret behind the food, her son Matari Bodie is the secret behind the restaurant’s success.

Bodie, 44, born in the Bahamas but raised in northwest Miami, turned a negative into a positive when his family learned in 2016 that the landlord at their previous spot on Northwest 27th Avenue was selling the building — and Lorna’s was out.

He found a new location with a new idea about what he wanted for the neighborhood in which he grew up: a Caribbean restaurant that wasn’t another tasty takeaway spot, but an upscale destination restaurant.

Oxtail with rice and beans and macaroni cheese from Lorna’s Caribbean and American Grille in Miami Gardens Pedro Portal

He chose the Northwest 27th Avenue corridor where new shopping, dining and stores have remade a section of Miami Gardens.

“People don’t expect this kind of spot in our area,” Bodie said. “I wanted a place where people could sit, relax and have a drink. That’s what we wanted to bring to this city.”

The gamble is whether their fans will embrace this change. But Bodie and Westmoreland have a history of making the right bets.

Kingston born, Bahamas raised

Westmoreland, who immigrated to the United States in 1984, spent 16 years as a certified nursing assistant, often working double shifts ­— 3-11 a.m. then 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. — to support her son after her husband, Jackie Westmoreland, died of stomach cancer at 46.

“You’ve got to do what you have to do to make ends meet,” she said.

In between, she cooked the kinds of meals for a young Matari that she learned growing up in Jamaica and then as a young woman in the Bahamas.

In Kingston, she and her father’s family lived at the People’s National Party headquarters, where her stepmother cooked meals for local and visiting diplomats.

“Her food was so good. I used to watch everything she do,” Westmoreland said.

There she learned the secret of fish boiled in a seasoned broth and served over grits, Jamaican oxtail and jerk, coconut rice and fried Jamaican dumplings so doughy on the inside and crisp on the outside that they were perfect for soaking up gravies.

In nearly 10 years in the Bahamas, where she met Bodie’s father, she learned the secret to conch that had been fried, stewed and curried — not to mention the Johnny cakes that were worlds different than her Jamaican dumplings.

Chicken curry with green beans and white rice from Lorna’s Caribbean and American Grille Pedro Portal

On weekends, she would cook for Bodie and his friends, fusing those two cultures with the black American favorites of her son’s friends, crispy chicken wings, toasty mac and cheese casseroles and potato salads.

It was Bodie who heard about a restaurant suddenly coming for sale in Miami Gardens and encouraged his mother to quit her grueling jobs and make her home-cooked meals for the neighborhood.

“I had no idea what I was getting into,” Westmoreland said.

“I said, ‘Trust me, mom. It’s going to be hard. But it’s going to be good,’” Bodie recalled.

You know those stories where a new business survives making $11 on their first day? This isn’t one of those stories.

The restaurant opened to a packed house thanks to word of mouth and they sold out of food. They took home $497 in profit, Bodie remembers. By the end of the week, they’d quadrupled that.

“We were shocked. We got so much praise from the people,” Westmoreland said.

Carol City rapper of legend Rick Ross told a radio station during an interview that Lorna’s was one of his favorite spots in Miami and word got out. Soon rapper Flo Rida was there for the stewed conch and boxer Floyd Mayweather was stopping in for oxtail (and Instagram pictures).

When the shopping center was suddenly sold, Westmoreland figured her run was over. But Bodie, ever the entrepreneur, instead thought bigger.

From takeout to sit down

He found a favorable 15-year lease on new construction near the stadium where he felt crowds would come.

Where so many Caribbean restaurants in South Florida are geared to grab-and-go, Lorna’s is designed for diners to stay.

There’s a live band Tuesdays, Caribbean music Wednesdays and a poetry slam on Fridays. And the restaurant itself is a spectacle. Moody teal and purple lighting glows beneath and beyond a sleek marbled-wood bar. Striated wood tables with clean, modern lines make an inviting and open space.

A blue velvet cake dessert from the Lorna’s Caribbean and American Grille in Miami Gardens Pedro Portal

On football game days, the restaurant is packed with fans from beyond the neighborhood.

“They pass all those restaurants to come to Lorna’s. That means a lot,” she said. “It makes me glad that I’ve lived long enough to see this happen. And makes me want to live long enough to see what’s next.”

Lorna is teaching her secrets to new cooks. But she still oversees the weekend rush and bakes the sweets (purple sweet potato pie, a blue velvet cake, sweet potato poundcake) just as you’d expect at the restaurant with her name on the door.

Lorna’s Caribbean & American Grill

19752 NW 27th Ave., Miami Gardens

Miami Herald food editor Carlos Frías won the 2018 James Beard award for excellence in covering the food industry. A Miami native, he’s also the author of “Take Me With You: A Secret Search for Family in a Forbidden Cuba.”