Last Bites: Gone But Not Forgotten
Mandy Baca is a food- and history-obsessed Miami native, who grew up surrounded by an abundance of food traditions; both traditional and non-traditional in nature. In 2013, The History Press published her first book: The Sizzling History of Miami Cuisine: Cortaditos, Stone Crabs and Empanadas; which details Miami's rich food culture.
Her second book with Globe Pequot Press to be titled Discovering Vintage Miami will be available on November 18th at Books and Books or can be purchased online at: http://www.globepequot.com/discovering_vintage_miami-978149300745
Jumbo’s, Van Dyke Café, David’s Café and just last week, Miami’s Best Pizza- this is just a shortlist of the more prominent restaurants that have closed this year. While there are only two months left to the year, a complete round up of the year’s closings is premature. Who knows what other surprises may pop up?
My upcoming book, Discovering Vintage Miami, to be released on November 18, will highlight 50 Miami establishments that have withstood the test of time. In a city like Miami that enjoys chipping away at its history, I found that even a decade is a feat. In writing the book, I had to scrap and replace a few chapters along the way. The most devastating being Jumbo’s Restaurant, a true stab to the heart. It was a rare establishment that survived not only the plight of the restaurant industry, but racial and political battles in a rough neighborhood. Most notably, in 1966, it was the first establishment to open its doors to blacks and in 1967, the first to hire blacks. Bobby Flam, the restaurant’s passionate owner, along with their famous fried shrimp will be greatly missed.
Let’s take a trip down memory lane. In a large city like Miami, it is difficult to put an exact number on the restaurants that have shuttered since incorporation. I always wonder, was it sad when Seybold’s closed? How about Miami’s first brewery, Wagner Brewing Company? Did anyone care? Even yearly round ups are not wholly accurate, as they do not take into account mom and pop establishments out in the suburbs or other foreign parts of the county.
The point being that as Miami citizens, we have been witnesses to hundreds, if not thousands, of restaurant closures and more than once it has hurt. From the newbies that closed too soon like Urbanite Bistro and Sustain Restaurant + Bar to the ones that garnered accolades and sparked Miami’s food renaissance like Red Light Little River and Michy’s. They both had a good run, but we weren’t ready to let go just yet. although we are heartened to hear that Chef Michelle Bernstein has plans to reopen Michy's sometime next year in addition to her new concept, Seagrape at The Thompson Hotel on Miami Beach this November. One by one in the nineties and early aughts, the Mango Gang’s standby restaurants closed and some even left Miami altogether. The 2011 closing of Chef Allen’s was rough. 2008 brought the closing of the last standing deli on South Beach, Wolfie’s Rascal House and 2013 saw the closing of the 50 year old Little Havana institution, Ayesteran.
The list goes on and on. In Miami, where the food scene is heavily influenced by immigration patterns, you can go through the history books and see the wiping out of whole subsections of food ways dating back to the late 1800s, when white settlers from the Northeast began settling in the area pushing out the Bahamians who had already been there for decades. Another shake up occurred in the 1960s with the influx of Cuban immigrants to the neighborhoods of Riverside and Shenandoah, now more commonly known as Little Havana, pushing out much of the largely Jewish community. We are currently in the midst of another big change, history unfolding before our eyes as historic establishments are torn down to make way for fancy, new high rises and corporate retail stores.
As you will note in my book, many places featured are in danger of closing themselves, establishments like Mainzer’s Deli in Pinecrest or Royal Castle on 79th Street, the last of a fast food empire, and many that have had close calls like S&S Diner and Beehive Natural Foods. Others, that well, their fate is still uncertain like Churchill’s Pub and Tobacco Road. Of course, this is nothing new; the restaurant industry is unstable and fraught with fickle customers, changing diets and finally soaring rents. I am not saying that there shouldn’t be progress in Miami and it is understandable that restaurants can’t live forever, but there should be integrity about preserving establishments that have history.
Soon to bite the dust is Miami’s Best Pizza. Established in 1970 by former UM football player, Al Papich, it began as the state’s first Little Caesar’s Pizza Parlor franchise. When the lease ended in 1990, Papich changed the name to Miami’s Best Pizza. However, the recipe for the hand thrown pies and penchant for heavy-handed use of fresh ingredients has not changed since the first day it opened. Did you know they top their pizzas with two parts Muenster and one part Mozzarella? The restaurant continues to be family owned and operated, with Ray Papich, Al’s son, at the helm along with partner Charles Butler. With its prominent location on 1514 S. Dixie Highway, and hometown feel, Miami’s residents are not letting this one go quietly. Every customer has his or her own favorite, but the common trend remains true about how to eat the brick oven pizza- fold it and dig in.
History has a funny way of repeating itself. Back in the late 1950’s, icon Frankie’s Pizza underwent a similar issue. Also located on US1, near Miami’s Best Pizza location, high rent prices ($175/month) forced the Pasquarellas to move locations and settle in their now infamous spot on Bird Road. In those days, Bird Road was not as popular and the road ended on 107th Avenue. Maybe there is hope for the restaurant yet.
Miami’s Best Pizza’s iconic neon lights will shine bright through mid-November. Go before it’s too late.
1514 S Dixie Highway
Coral Gables, FL.
305 666 3951
( photo credit- Facebook )