MIAMI BEACH - My impatience with the lack of attention being paid our table at Jerry’s Famous Deli in trendy South Beach was beginning to show when a server came up from behind and assured me: “I’ll be right with you, sir.”
Another 10 minutes passed before Manny returned, out of breathe because “my asthma is killing me … had an attack the other day … but like you care? What will it be?”
The feisty ex-New Yorker’s voice was dripping with sarcasm. He spoke with a slight lisp and looked and talked like the Nathan Lane character from the movie The Bird Cage, which was filmed here.
Manny was soooo South Beach – stylish (with his goatee and jelled hair); chic (dressed in trendy black); and edgy (a bittersweet disposition). But, just as liberal South Beach appears out of place in conservative Florida, Manny’s restaurant stood out like, well, a New York deli in this glitzy Miami neighbourhood of posh Art Deco eateries where they charge up to $300 a plate for gourmet cuisine.
“For god’s sake, don’t read the whole menu honey, there’s over 600 items on it,” said Manny as he impatiently tapped his pencil against his writing pad waiting for us to place our order.
“Let me give you some suggestions – the cobb salad is excellent … with the feta cheese dressing, not the ranch …; all our pizzas are fabulous and the poultry salad – chicken salad to us northerners – is really good, too.”
We decided to take Manny’s recommendations - the Cobb (with the feta dressing) and the poultry salad.
Manny smiled and disappeared into the vastness of the Collins Ave. restaurant that looked like it had served a much grander purpose in its earlier heyday.
Left: The artisans of Espanola Way are a very creative lot. Right: The beaches of South Beach are just a few blocks away.
Mirrored columns ran the length of the eatery that was filled to capacity the day we visited. A handsome bar, with a sign that read “Opened in 1978” hanging over it, ran down one side of the restaurant. People lingered on a balcony at the end of the restaurant where black and white photographs of some prominent old entertainers hung in a makeshift museum.
Within minutes Manny was back, his arms buckling under the weight of the plates he was carrying. (Tip: When you visit Jerry’s, unless you’re a BIG eater, just share something – the portions here are massive.)
We mentioned the sign hanging over the bar and Manny quickly corrected our assumption that the sign indicated its official opening.
“Oh no, this place has been here since the early ’20s,” Manny said.
“It’s served many roles … it was a glitzy nightclub back in the ’20s and ’30s; then it became the China Club; then it stood empty for many years; then it was a gay bar for at least 20 years; served a number of other roles over the years; then became Jerry’s in 2002.”
Manny was now in full tourist guide mode – other customers would have to wait - and he let us in one some of the secrets of South Beach.
“Forget those restaurants along Ocean Drive (the ocean side street where South Beach’s famous Art Deco hotels and restaurants are located). If you really want to get the flavour of South Beach, you have to visit the areas north of Ocean Drive, off Washington and Collins avenues.
“The Argentine, Brazilian and Colombian restaurants there are just fabulous – and a lot cheaper than along Ocean Drive,” Manny emphasized. “You can get an all-you-can-eat meal for two for about $30, and that includes a bottle of wine.
“Some of the better ones are in Espanola Way. It’s just up the street. You’ll have a lot more fun there than along Ocean Drive.”
With that, we finished our lunch, asked for a doggie bag to take the excess back to our hotel for a midnight snack, and headed out to see the “other side” of South Beach.
Jerry’s Famous Deli is located on Collins Ave.