Death of a Deli.

Wolfies Rascal House: Miami Beach


As I see it, there are two kinds of people in this world; People who love delis, and people you shouldn’t associate with.”   – Damon Runyon

You cannot talk about Miami Beach without mentioning, perhaps the most famous Miami Jew to have settled on the beaches; Wolfie Cohen.  He breezed in from Illinois in ‘47 and set about opening his first Deli; Wolfie Cohen’s , a one storey corner restaurant on 21st & Collins with a menu no Jew or Gentile could argue with for a thousand miles around.

The original Wolfie’s servicing the “Snowbirds” who came  down from the frozen  North to  Miami Beach where  they  enjoyed   their retirement in warmth.

On the opening day, Wolfie gave away the food for free, thousands of pastrami and corned beef sandwiches were woofed up till it was gone.  Nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd; and Woolfie’s name took off.

A few years later, Wolfie opened another up in North Miami Beach “Wolfie Cohen’s Racsal House”.  This was an all together bigger, brasher venture catering to largest Jewish community outside of New York City.  Parking for 250 cars, seating for 420 people and the queue would stretch half way round the outside of the building.  Nobody minded, the food and atmosphere were worth the wait.   Some said that Wolfies was “built with a queue”

Slide into one of the red leather booths or red-topped chrome counter stools and you would be met with a bowl of sweet bread rolls and jars of pickle which you were free to eat whilst perusing a menu that offered every imaginable Jewish delicacy; comparable to anything New York had to offer.   They didn’t make sandwiches, they would serve you a pound of corned beef or chicken and accidently slap some bread around it.  The Turkey legs came with a pile of Mash that was a mile high.  Breads and cheesecakes were made fresh daily in the back of the Deli as fast as they were being eaten out front, 24 hours a day.

Frank Sinatra and his buddies used to dine there after performing down in Miami Beach, as did Jackie Gleeson, Cassius Clay – the stars mingling with the locals and the tourists, attracted by one of the best roadside marquees in America. Standing 45 feet high and visible from 8 blocks away, The Rascal House motive had become a classic with a changing weekly slogan like “If you can’t find your mama, she’s in our kitchen doing the cooking”  and testifying to the informality of Wolfie’s; “The only thing that needs to come dressed is our chickens!”

After fifty five years the original 21st Street Wolfie’s finally closed its doors.  The shock of 9/11 reduced the flood of tourists to a trickle, and there just wasn’t enough from the local, shrinking elderly clientele to keep the 24 hour operation going.  The new, young visitors to the beach didn’t appreciate the six egg omelettes filled with a half pound of cheese; slaw and pickles.  They couldn’t get out of bed in time for the early bird breakfast special, a dollar 99, with streaky bacon, eggs over-easy, potatoes, sour cream, bread rolls and endless coffee.  The early bird special dinner was the saviour of so many old,  living or just surviving on a dwindling budget.

The Early Bird Special ensured that every seat was taken in Wolfie’s                                   Pic: Barry Lewis

The last stragglers of an era were dying off.  The Spencer Tracey, Jackie Gleeson, Judy Garland and Katherine Hepburn photos from the “Celebrity Corner” were auctioned off to regulars and the menus appeared on eBay.  So – without much fanfare the restaurant was gone.

Whereas the first Deli on South Beach was very much a local place, The Rascal House up in North Miami Beach was a national, almost international in its accumulated fame.  In the new century it was still going strong but ailing somewhat.  Wolfie had long since died.  The current owners had grown tired and sold out to new-comers to South Beach who had opened a very successful local Gourmet food shop, and a deli restaurant called Jerry’s.

At first, not much changed, but then people started to complain; the standards were slipping, the portions getting smaller and the bills larger.  It emerged that these new-comers from California – where old age had been outlawed – had plans for the Rascal House that didn’t involve preserving the restaurant and it’s half a century of history, but instead, closing it, opening another Gourmet Food store and building a money comb of apartments.

In 2005 Hurricane Wilma swept through damaging the restaurant and tearing down the road-side marquee.  It was replaced by a cowardly six foot slab of nothing very much, which failed to preserve this loved example of a bygone era of American highway culture.

There were protests and nostalgic press articles; promises from the new owners that the spirit of Wolfie’s would remain, but eventually the wrecker’s ball swept that all away.    They are not bad people who did this.  Certainly history is not safe in their hands, but as Runyon said, it’s probably best not to associate with them.

About Bill Hayes

I have a very large sea shell collection; it's too big to keep at home, so I have left the collection scattered on various beaches around the world. Perhaps you've seen some it.
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15 Responses to Death of a Deli.

  1. Hi Bill,

    I live in South Florida (Broward County), therefore I don’t travel to Miami. I’m too scared! Anyway, I’ve never heard of Wolfie Cohen’s…sounds like a great place. I enjoyed learning about it through your words and pictures.

  2. Terrific post. Thanks for pointing me in this direction. I certainly remember Rascal House and was there quite a few times with my parents when we were in Florida. It’s unfortunate that these classic places can’t make it in today’s world.

  3. I really liked this. I’m not much of a one for nostalgia/fact blogs (though I do mash up fact with fiction on mine) but this was simply very affectionate.
    I love delis.

  4. dan lack says:

    A wonderful summary of Wolfie’s and The Rascal House…What a great time to be in Miami Beach (1950’s early 60’s), even more so if you were Jewish and from New York…alas, a long bygone era, never to be seen again

    • Bill Hayes says:

      Indeed a great time. But it was about 1999 that I last went to both Wolfies. Whenever I landed in Miami, after the hotel it would be the first place I would head for.

      Thanks for visiting.

  5. Tom Anderson says:

    I have eaten in every Wolfie’s in the Miami and Miami Beach area at least 50 times! Near the end they did forget to clean properly but the corned beef on rye was and still is the Ultimate sandwich of all time!

  6. nedhamson says:

    Reblogged this on Ned Hamson's Second Line View of the News and commented:
    Too bad the good delis die. the chain shops just serve factory food that kills the soul… sad

  7. Tiger says:

    I ate at both of them. First with Mom and Dad on vacation in Miami and later at U of Miami for 5 years. I can still taste the pastrami and corned beef sandwiches! Stacked mile high and always perfect in every way! I could finish a full stainless steel serving bowl at the table and ask for more. One dill pickle was enough for each meal as they were full grown cucumbers before pickling! What a great place to “pig” out. God Bless you for the memories.

  8. Stuart Lee says:

    The Wandering Jews have since wandered up to Boca, Del Rey, West Palm Beach.
    In Miami/Miami Beach there are few Jews. Nobody speaks English at all in Miami-Dade County. It’s truly a third world city. South America in the U.S..
    HOWEVER, in Boca, with its thriving Jewish population, there’s a MARVELOUS JEWISH DELI named, BEN’S, the ONLY REAL JEWISH DELI in South Florida. It’s a branch of Queen’s “Ben’s”. And yes, it’s worth the drive up I-95 from Miami or Ft. Lauderdale to get the “real thing”. Like the good old days, you can often expect a line out the door to get in–but they often pass out little chopped liver on rye “forschpeis” appetizer/snacks to the line.
    I am on television (whatever THAT is) in both New York and Miami. I yo-yo back and forth.
    Every time I’m down in SoFla, I make it to Ben’s Deli. Absolutely delish!
    It’s on 441 and Clint Moore Road, in a shopping center. Near all the golf clubs. You can’t–and shouldn’t miss it.

  9. Steven Rosenberg says:

    It was the greatest restaurant in America.

  10. Jerry Casale says:

    Thanks Mr. Hayes for these vignettes of a vital element of Miami’s life, only yesterday.

  11. Curt says:

    I started going to Miami Beach for work in the earlie 90s. The first hotels I stayed at wereThe Abbey Hotel the Govenor Hotel and The South Beach Hotel all on 21street so I spent a great deal of time at Wolfies. I lived on Rubin sandwiches and pickles .I would spend 2 months every year in Miami and was really heart broken when I saw Wolfies had closed. I still go to Miami Beach for work but it just doesn’t feel the same.

  12. Brenda says:

    My Grandmother was a server at The Rascal House for many years. I showed her pictures on the internet and she was so excited to show me her section she worked. I was hoping to find pictures of her working here. She served some pretty famous people in here and loved her job.

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