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The Greatest Floridian Restaurant in the World

A Passover trip to the Sunshine State brings back memories of Wolfie Cohen’s Rascal House

Marjorie Ingall
April 14, 2017

I send this dispatch from Florida, which for me as a parent is indistinguishable from Orlando. Florida is Maxie at 2, screaming in terror at seeing a giant costumed human-dog hybrid advancing upon her (it was Pluto); Josie at 3, pupils dilated with pure joy and sugar as she rode the Bug’s Life train and licked a lollipop shaped like Mickey’s iconic head; the girls at 5 and 8, chasing their Brazilian cousins around the turn-of-the-century-Coney-Island-evoking BoardWalk as wee cousin Michel yelled at Max in Portuguese and frustration, “Why can’t you speak Portuguese?!”; the girls at 8 and 11, screaming like game show contestants at the entrance to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal studios, realizing that we were taking them there (in addition to the Magic Kingdom) as a joint birthday gift.

But ’twas not always thus. Florida used to mean my grandparents in Hallandale. My Papa’s white Sansabelt trousers with a crease; my grandma, brown and beautifully wrinkly, doing powerful laps in the apartment complex’s pool wearing a swim cap with a chin strap; the potent sense memory of the elevator, every year, with buttons that were such an honor and responsibility to push and the powerful scent of chlorine and old people; watching boats on the causeway and eating marinated mushrooms on their balcony. Unbeknownst to me, the man who would become my husband was often visiting his grandparents in Hallandale, too; they lived across the street from mine, on the ocean side, in the iconic (then) Hemispheres. Jonathan and I both went to the racetrack with our grandfathers: Jonathan at Gulfstream, me at Hialeah. And both of us were taken to Wolfie Cohen’s Rascal House, the best restaurant in the world.

A neon sign for Wolfie Cohen’s Rascal House in Sunny Isles, Miami, Florida, 1996 (John Shephard/Flickr)
A neon sign for Wolfie Cohen’s Rascal House in Sunny Isles, Miami, Florida, 1996 (John Shephard/Flickr)

Wolfie Cohen’s Rascal House was the brainchild of Wilfred “Wolfie” Cohen, who started his foodie career as a busboy in the Catskills. In the late 1930s he moved to Miami Beach and bought a sandwich shop, which he turned into a destination; Al Jolson and Milton Berle both ate there. Then, in the ’40s and ’50s, he built an empire. There was Pumpernick’s deli (also frequented by Jonathan’s and my grandparents, but his did eat-in and mine only did takeout, for reasons lost to history), The Bull Pen, Mr. Mahzik (a mahzik is an affectionate Yiddish word for a troublemaker) and the Rascal House. He sold the rights to the name “Wolfie’s” after starting a restaurant with that name in the ’40s; at various times there were two Wolfie’s in Miami, one in St. Petersburg, and one in Fort Lauderdale. (There was a Wolfie’s in Brooklyn that was no relation; the Florida Wolfie’s sued; Brooklyn protested that their name was merely a reference to the owner being a wolf with the ladies. Brooklyn lost and changed its name.)

By the time of Wolfie Cohen’s death in 1986, he only owned the Rascal House, his fave, which he left to his daughter Robin, known by the delightfully-archery-inflected stage name of Robin Sherwood. (She co-starred in Death Wish II with Charles Bronson, modeled for Oleg Cassini, had a small part in Brian De Palma’s Blow-Out, and appeared in horror films.) She managed the Rascal House for a decade, then it changed hands a few more times, then it was bought by South Beach hipsters who hoped to make it appeal to a new generation. But SoBe hotties do not want giant onion rolls (caaaarbs), huge wads of corned beef, or omelets containing a half-pound of cheese. The restaurant died in 2008. And of course, the Jewish snowbirds of North Miami are gone. All four of Jonathan’s and my grandparents are gone. PanAm airlines, which offered Wolfie’s famous cheesecake on flights between New York and Miami, is gone. The Golden Girls, who invoked Wolfie’s hallowed name with great frequency, are all gone except Betty White. (NEVER DIE, BETTY!) Hallandale is now Hallandale Beach. Two-thirds of the area’s residence speak a language other than English at home, according to The New York Times.

But the images remain — in grown grandchildren’s heads, at least. The huge old-school sign and giant parking lot for giant 1970s grandparent vehicles! Waiting in giant lines with elaborate numbering systems according to the size of your party! (My math geek husband always noted how much faster the Party of One and Party of Two lines moved.) The stainless steel pickle buckets! The huge baskets of onion rolls, “salt sticks,” and danish galore! (Some people’s grandma’s wrapped them in a napkin and dumped them into their purses, but mine was classy.) The leather corner booths we always wanted! The sheer deafening volume of the place! The achingly sweet blueberry blintzes! The pies that were taller than we were! The brusque beehived waitresses! The folksy slogans and photos of unrecognizable-to-a-seven-year-old black-and-white celebrity photos! And the Rascal House wasn’t kosher, so you could have a tongue sandwich AND the neon strawberry cheesecake if you swung that way!

The place inspired exclamation points, and so do its memories. On a website called “Restaurant-ing Through History,” commenters share fond reminiscences and former waitresses, bakers, and busboys reconnect. Grandchildren seek family history of relatives who worked in the various bits of the Wolfie empire. A commenter named Barbara (no one under 60 is named Barbara) posted in 2014:

I knew Rosie she worked as a waitress when I worked there! She loved to eat roast-beef and raw onion on rye bread!!! We weren’t allowed to eat roast-beef so we had to sneak it!!! I worked at Wolfies in the late 70’s and early 80’s! Phlylis and Marina (the Cuban lady who sold jewelry on the side) were waitresses there, and Billy was the head-waitress at that time! There are so few of us left! Used to wait on Meyer Lansky, He sat by himself and his bodyguard driver waited outside! He ate bagel and cream-cheese and coffee for breakfast! Would leave 2 to 5 dollars as a tip! People would stop at his table to say hello, but they never sat down to chat! He was soft spoken and nice! I also waited on the Dundy brothers from boxing, Red Buttons and many more famous people! They all liked to sit at the three tables in the section up against the wall looking towards the front! where It was always so packed with people! The best onion rolls ever were baked in the bakery upstairs!! Mr Lazman and Mr Crouse were the owners at that time! Later on I went on to work at Rascal House!

The city of Miami and various collectors have a bunch of memorabilia. The rest of us have memories.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.