“You know,” my sister laughs, “this place reminds me of a big Woolworths.” I study my surroundings: miniature ceramic tiles on the walls, terra cotta floor, wide picture windows. “This place” is Wolfie Cohen’s Rascal House Restaurant, a Miami Beach institution that specializes in home cooking with a Jewish flair. Bright and airy, like a sprawling old dime store, the place can seat hundreds. There’s no turnstile at the entrance, but patrons are corralled, according to party size, into lanes separated by tubular chrome rails. Like Disney World.
Shaped like the letter “D,” the counter has room for dozens of diners. This late afternoon, only two of the red vinyl stools are occupied, both by elderly gentlemen. One of them works a crossword, and on three occasions, he asks his limping, white-haired waitress for assistance with the puzzle. Each time, she glances at the old fellow before brushing him off with a curt “I dunno” and a wave of her hand.
Our spacious booth—more red vinyl—sits directly in front of the kitchen. Throughout my meal, I watch as servers rush through the dual chrome doors. In the kitchen, a half-dozen sweating cooks in white aprons shuffle between steaming grills and long stainless tables. They mix, ladle, and plate food with the precision of carnival magicians. About waist-high and a few feet in diameter, a kettle way in the back of the kitchen likely holds the chicken matzo ball soup, a staple here.
A lethargic waiter, Ken, ambles toward our table and greets us. Overweight, with unkempt, oily hair and sleepy eyes, he speaks in short phrases—“turkey’s good”; “go for the beef”; “I’ll be back.” The menu lists hundreds of choices, from chopped liver and kasha varnishkas, to bacon and eggs and seafood, plus beer and wine.
Unable to decide, we spend fifteen minutes studying the menu. In general, the prices appear high. A simple grilled cheese sandwich, for instance, costs $6.95 a la carte, while a corned beef on rye goes for $10.95. Wolfie’s charges $2.25 for a sliced tomato, $1.95 for a dollop of sour cream, and $3.50 for a side of baked beans. However, $10.95 for a full dinner seems fair.
Ken returns and leans on the side of the booth, his crumpled white shirt falling out of his slacks. With arms folded and mouth wrinkled, the waiter listens as we order, not bothering to write down our selections. He looks bored or tired, or both, like he’s been on duty here since the place opened in 1954.
We begin with a trio of relishes—average kosher dills, crunchy coleslaw in vinegar, sweet and sour pickles. The breadbasket holds crisp bialys, soft bagels, onion flavored cocktail rye, and pumpernickel, all baked in house and tasty.
Two thick slices of meatloaf, each about as broad as the sole of a size ten boot, arrive on a plastic turkey platter. They’re flavorful and moist beneath spoonfuls of creamy mushroom gravy. Whipped mashed potatoes and rich creamed spinach accompany the entree. The beef stew contains chunks of tender meat, whole red potatoes, and peas and carrots in a syrupy tomato based sauce. A generous fillet lightly browned, the grilled chopped steak tastes like a basic hamburger, minus the bun. It’s served with crisp and hot French fries. Three members of our group share their meals and still have enough food left over to fill two large take out containers. As expected from a 24-hour diner, the strong coffee tastes great.
The extensive dessert menu could rival the offerings of any neighborhood bakery. It features classics like lemon meringue pie, strawberry shortcake, and pound cake, plus specialties such as coconut macaroons, bobka, and rugalas (walnut filled cookies). Dessert prices range from $2.50 for a single black and white cookie, to a whopping $5.95 for a slice of pie.
Full-page advertisements in local publications laud Wolfie Cohen’s Rascal House as “voted Best Delicatessen.” The ads emphasize the “fabulous home cooking,” and picture the busy storefront after dark. Also pictured is an attractive long-legged blonde in short shorts, a halter-top, and high heels. I expect—and hope—to find her type pouring coffee and balancing trays at the Rascal House. Instead, I find Ken and an equally sloppy wait staff in a fifty-year-old restaurant that has never seen an upgrade.
But the food at this Miami Beach landmark is good and plentiful, and just walking through the door feels like an about-face in time. F.W. Woolworth would feel right at home. Well, until he noticed the prices on the menu.