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.

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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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5 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.

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