Gourmet Groceries Trump Rascal House

03Apr08

Not too long ago I read an article reporting on the closing of Wolfie Cohen’s Rascal House Restaurant. Yes, after 54 years anchoring New York-style, Jewish-American culture into the bedrock of South Florida, the establishment has given way to South Beach’s premiere gourmet superstore, Epicure Market. Once independent businesses, both Epicure and Rascal House were acquired by the National Deli Corporation (or Jerry’s Famous Deli, Inc.?), whose bottom-line was ostensibly effected by Rascal’s diminishing clientèle. So, just as New York recently fortified its stronghold on South Florida with the opening of Gansevoort South, it has relinquished control of Miami Beach’s northern perimeter. Or has it? Jewish-American cultural icon replaced by gourmet groceries. Come to think of it, that sounds a lot like New York.

I am loathe to see Rascal House go. Not only will I never again have the opportunity to use the “secret door,” which opened at 4:00 and allowed patrons in-the-know to duck the ridiculously long dinner lines that wound around the property — lines full of shaky perfumed hands with paper-thin skin, fingers adorned with oversized, 1950’s dinner rings, all braced for the weight of oversized pastrami sandwiches served just beyond the glass doors — but I will never again sit among whimsical 6-ft. plaster statues of “rascals,” little white devils that watched over us from pedestals above and between our booths.  I will never again sit in those orange, vinyl-upholstered booths and wait anxiously, hungrily, for the bread basket, which would always come filled with small onion, challah and pumpernickel rolls that my grandmother would later slip into her white leather “pocketbook”, along with some packets of Sweet’N Low.

Most upsetting about the closing of Rascal House is that it represents the end of an era and the end of a generation, both in Florida and in New York. In Florida, it signifies a shift in status from God’s waiting room to yuppie paradise.  Long gone are the days when pastel, stucco hotel/motels lined the beaches, when traffic wasn’t congested, when small, blue-haired ladies would weed through roasted chickens and loaves of rye bread in Publix.  South Florida, however, isn’t the only place that has changed. The gentrification of the Lower East Side of Manhattan has resulted in a watering-down of the Jewish-American culture there, as well.  While Rascal House will be missed by many, it is just one in a number of businesses that have disappeared along with their fading generation of cheerleaders.

Just as turnover in communities is inevitable, so is the nostalgia that comes along with it.  For some Jewish-Americans, seeing Rascal House shuttered was like kissing their grandparents goodbye one last time.  The only comfort for this writer is a small hope that restaurants and people share the same afterlife — because I am sure that my grandmother has been waiting for that chicken in the pot.

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One Response to “Gourmet Groceries Trump Rascal House”

  1. 1 Rob

    As a native south Floridian and a Jew, seeing the Rascal House close is like losing a family member. I will miss the pastrami, the bread baskets and certainly taking away loaves of challah or rye and some cookies to boot.

    Most of all i will miss the building and the sign (although the sign was replaced a few years ago with a smaller one) – They were an iconic part of south Florida.

    Wolfie Choen’s Rascal House will be missed.


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