Sunday, March 30, 2008

End of an Era- The Rascal House

I can think of few things more identifiable with Jewish-American culture than the Jewish delicatessen. These public purveyors of gourmet Jewish (sometimes kosher, sometimes not so much) cuisine are a staple in the Jewish experience. Ever since I can remember, there were kosher dill pickles, corned-beef, rye bread, deli mustard, kosher salamis, bagels, white fish, lox, etc. around our house.
When the occasion called for a trip to the delicatessen for a family meal, there was always a very short list of favorites where I grew up in suburban Detroit. However, when our family made the annual trek from Detroit to Miami every year for our school's spring break vacation (usually by car- don't ask) there was only one answer- Wolfie Cohen's Rascal House.
In it's heyday, The Rascal House was THE place in Greater Miami for fine Jewish deli food. Their menu was super-extensive, everything from home-style brisket to the typical deli-combo sandwiches to soups to potato latkes to broiled fish. In the "snow bird" months (December through April) the place was so crowded that the lines literally wrapped around the block, hence the metal barricades and clear party-size organizational signs.
This was usually a full-blown family experience, often complete with impatient Jewish grandparents bossing around the uniformed wait-staff that had appeared to have worked there their whole lives. They were totally used to it, and part of the show.
I know that its just a restaurant, but this place is special to me (and many people like me that I have talked to about the House) for a few reasons besides just the food and character. First, to a Jewish person- or a person who grew up in or around a Jewish family- a Jewish deli, anywhere in the world, feels like home (whether its Katz's in NY, Canter's in LA or Steve's Deli in MI). I don't know exactly what it is, but something about being in a Jewish deli feels comfortable, instantly familiar, and safe. As soon as that pickle-and-mustard-and-corned beef smell hits your nostrils when you walk in, you feel like you are instantly at home (and if you don't know this unique smell by memory then you have never been to a real Jewish deli). I don't mean to make anyone feel excluded here who's not Jewish- on the contrary I have plenty of non-Jewish friends that enjoy pastrami and Jewish delis as much as or more than myself- but there is a certain intangible, almost spiritual connection for a Jewish person in a Jewish deli. Second, of course, this place held a lot of family memories for me in my childhood. Third, the Rascal House is an absolute time capsule in every way- it must have looked almost identical from the day it was opened in 1954 to the day it closed (today) 54 years later. It's a shame such a gem won't be preserved.
I was fortunate enough to be in Miami this weekend for some Winter Music Conference stuff, and this week I just happened to take a look on-line to see if there was any news about the Rascal House's rumored closing. Of course, as fate had it, I had a few days left to enjoy one last trip, take some photos, and say goodbye. (One trip with my partner LV turned into a second with our client DJ AM, because when he heard that LV and I went on Friday, AM demanded a chance to say goodbye on Saturday to the wonderful deli and relive some memories as well). I've always fantasized about owning one of the (pictured below, right) hand-crafted Rascal logo statues that once sat in the booth dividers between the counter area and the second dining room. So, I asked some folks that worked there whether they are selling some of the other random pieces of this sacred deli. It turns out that the Rascal statues were moved to Jerry's Famous Deli on Collins in South Beach a couple of years ago (Jerry's bought the Wolfie Cohen restaurants some time in the '90s), but for anyone that wants to buy one, they will gladly sell you one for $10,000. Also, tomorrow at 1 P.M. the doors of the restaurant will open to the public for a cash-only sale of various items therein, pre-priced at the owners' discretion of course. The glass wall panels with the Rascal logo on them (like the one above my head in the photo above) are going for $2,500. Fortunately, I had the foresight to lift a menu from there a few years back (with the aid of the ever-reliable Labelle). I'll scan it in and post it one day before it gets framed.
I'm super-glad that I got one last chance (well, two actually) to visit the House. But you could definitely feel a sense of sadness and despair in the establishment amongst the workers and patrons. The waitstaff wore forced smiles and the patrons were all snapping pictures like myself and walking around the room in a stunned disbelief remarking to each other "so sad" and "well, what are you gonna do?"

What, then, will become of this fantastic shell of a bygone era? They are going to build a 15-story mixed use office and retail center that will include an Epicure market, whatever that is. Whoop-dee-doo. So, if you ever happen to drive by on a balmy March day in Sunny Isles, Florida around Collins Blvd. and 172nd St., listen closely for the voice of the late, great Grandpa Marvin Rosenberg ordering the broiled white fish and french fries- and if they ain't hot, he's sendin' em back.


magic8ball said...

Remember when we went to FL over spring break in law school, Pauly? You took me to Wolfie's, remember? We crashed the Fountain Bleu pool (my Budweiser towel was a giveaway that we weren't guests....)

Remember the hot Israeli girls working at the swimsuit shop and "Stunt Team Nike"? And smoking Cubans in your dad's Volvo? Lyle the parakeet and kosher NY strips?

Remember the 49 dollar-a-night room on the beach? I'm pretty sure that's when I was exposed to tuberculosis.

What a nightmare. I'm surprised we're still friends.....

Hell Yup! said...

Great post... thanks for taking me there...
End of an era, where do they think they are? Manhattan???