Wilfred Cohen was an opener. He’d buy or start up a restaurant and once it became a success he would sell it for a nice profit. The former Catskills busboy came to Miami Beach around 1940 and bought Al’s Sandwich Shop on 23rd St. off Collins Ave., selling it after turning it into a popular spot “known coast to coast.”
Overstuffed sandwiches were his ticket. In a short ten years or so he opened and sold not only Al’s but four other restaurants, among them Wolfie’s at Collins and 21st St., which would become a landmark and continue until 2002. Wilfred “Wolfie” Cohen would keep just one of his restaurants, The Rascal House, located on motel row at 172nd St. Wolfie Cohen died in 1986 but his Rascal House survived until 2008.
In the end the original Wolfie’s at 21st Street became known as “the” Wolfie’s, but at one time there were at least two others of significance, a flashier Wolfie’s at Collins and Lincoln Rd. and another in North Miami Beach. Both closed around 1983. Whether Cohen was involved with all three is unclear but I am fairly sure that the Wolfie’s, original included, were backed by financial syndicates. There were also, at various times, Wolfie’s branches or franchises in St. Petersburg, Boca Raton, Fort Lauderdale, Gainesville, Cocoa Beach, and Jacksonville. Brooklyn NY’s Wolfie’s, though, was an entirely different operation.
The boom years for Wolfie’s and all of Miami Beach’s deli-style eateries came after World War II when Jewish veterans and retirees, mostly from New York and the Northeast, flowed into Miami Beach by the thousands as permanent residents, snowbirds, and tourists. Then, lines of people often wound around the block waiting to get into Wolfie’s. So closely was Wolfie’s identified with Miami Beach that in 1959 Northeast Airlines chose it to cater meals for Miami-to-NY passengers; Lindy’s supplied delicacies to those flying south.
Wolfie’s was a 24-hour-a-day haven for the elderly living in kitchenless beachfront rooming houses (destined to be restored as art deco boutique hotels in the 1990s). It also attracted politicians looking for the liberal vote and visiting borscht-belt performers such as Milton Berle and Henny Youngman, as well as big and little gangsters and bookies with a yen for chicken livers, pastrami, and cheesecake. In the 1970s mobster Meyer Lansky, pursuing the simple life of a philosophical, Chevrolet-driving, book-borrowing library patron, was often spotted noshing in Wolfie’s.
By the mid-1980s, after the original Pumperniks closed (another Wolfie Cohen 1950s start-up), Wolfie’s was one of few, or perhaps the only, large-scale deli left on the South Beach. Pumperniks’ owner Charles Linksman attributed Wolfie’s survival to its proximity to theaters and boxing ring. That and tourism helped it get through the next decade, but a sense of decline was inescapable. The Beach’s population of Jewish retirees dropped dramatically, due to natural causes as well as a flight northward to Broward and Palm Beach counties to escape a perceived threat of crime and a cultural shift.
In its waning days Wolfie’s still managed to draw foreign and domestic tourists, such as moi, seeking vestiges of the old Miami Beach. I can’t remember what I ordered but I’m certain it wasn’t a Bowl of Sour Cream with Cottage Cheese ($4.75). I wasn’t quite in the “what’s a blintz?” category of so many patrons then, but close.
© Jan Whitaker, 2011