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By Bill Wisser
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Last Night at the S&S Diner, the 1987 Mel Kiser/Corky Irick flick about pretrendy Miami, brought national fame to this classic counterspace-only eatery, along with an unending rush of trendy directors seeking instant authenticity. Most recently scenes for The Versace Murder were shot there.
But the S&S Diner had been a solid hometown hit long before the Hollywood honchos found it, since 1938 in fact, when the place evolved from a humble sandwich shop to a full-scale 24-stool restaurant. (The diner's real name, according to its Deco-era sign, is the S&S Restaurant, but no one ever calls it that.) Advertisements from the time describe the new diner as, "the last word in efficiency and sanitation" -- clearly a class joint.
Actually the surrounding neighborhood once was considered pretty classy. Right across the street, in the landmark City of Miami cemetery, for instance, founding mother Julia Tuttle is buried, as well as a whole slew of Burdines. In 1922 Miami's first synagogue, historic Temple Israel, was constructed on nearby Nineteenth Street for well-to-do residents. The temple remains, but worshippers drive in from afar these days.
Although stylish new signs just a block east on Biscayne Boulevard proclaim the area "The Arts and Media District," NE Second Avenue sports far more litter than literature; the neighborhood long has been in decline. And when the S&S was sold recently, foodies feared further decline.
From 1946 until last year, the diner was owned by Greek immigrant Charley Cavalaies and his wife, Jeannie. She ran the front of the room, meaning the cash register and the door, which closed at 7:00 p.m. always. Jeannie once explained to me, firmly: "We need time for our family." She paused, and sighed. "Except when Miami Heat fans show up after a game, at 7:10, so hungry.... Well, what're we gonna do?" Naturally. Because the S&S always has been the sort of place where everybody, or at least anybody who behaved in a cordial, civilized manner toward other diners, was family.
Meanwhile in the tiny back kitchen, Charley turned out some of America's best diner food, especially on Fridays, when he'd make crabcakes and macaroni and cheese. Although I didn't favor the cakes personally (they were the old-fashioned potato-packed kind), most patrons adored them. And the mac and cheese was justly a local legend, as custardy rich yet light as the best crème brûlée. The skyscraperesque BLT wasn't a sandwich, it was a construction project. The biggest surprise (considering the S&S was not, after all, a fancy-schmancy SoBe spot) was the "catch of the day," invariably some of the freshest locally caught fish in town. The real mashed potatoes were comforting. So were the waitresses.
I was introduced to the S&S several years back by someone going through a bad breakup involving an ex who was threatening to withhold child-visitation rights. "Women get crazy about kids, ya hear me?" commiserated one of the S&S senior waitresses, Yolanda Quiñones, who simultaneously was dishing out similar no-nonsense gab (and grub) to twenty other customers. "Ya gotta give her time; it'll get better." What made the experience seem so bizarrely charming to me is that my friend receiving this regular lecture was female, a lesbian co-parent -- definitely not regular, by average middle-American standards. But the S&S's brand of mothering always was truly equal-opportunity all-American. Diners from all walks of life walked out feeling the waitresses had satisfied their souls at least as much as the food had satisfied their stomachs.
So it was reassuring to find Yolanda still behind the counter when I returned recently, after a long absence, to check out the place under the new chef and general manager, Frenchman Bertrand Labarriere. "Your friend's seein' the kids now," she nods as I walk in, continuing the conversation interrupted a year or two before. "What'd I tell ya? So, what'll ya have?"
"Are the crabcakes still good?" asks my partner.
Yolanda silently busies herself with the coffee cups.
"Right," says my companion. "Well, the fish specials were always great. How're the sea scallops?"
"Stand up," Yolanda commands. We spring to our feet. "You with the sea scallops," she yells to a customer across the horseshoe-shape counter. "How are they?"
"Yum!" he says.
"So you'll have the sea scallops," Yolanda explains to my partner.
"The macaroni and cheese," I say. "Aaah, ya don't want that," she shakes her head adamantly.
"But it used to be soooo good," I whine. She throws up her hands.
The sea scallops, though actually bay scallops, are a huge portion mixed with fresh mushrooms in a rich cream sauce, served over linguine -- quite yum. The mac and cheese is quite orange. "So? Next time ya gonna listen to your waitress?" Yolanda scolds with some satisfaction, whisking away the nearly full bowl of overcooked Day-Glo glop.
As in the old days, most winner items are from the daily specials board, not the menu. But there are exceptions. While not nearly as awesomely towering as it used to be, the BLT still is probably the best you will find for the price in South Florida, assuming you have it Yolanda's way. "Mayo. On whole wheat toast?" This last alleged inquiry, delivered with the kind of eye contact that would elicit an immediate confession from any serial killer, obviously is not a question, nor should it be; the grain toast's nutty texture and flavor (this is notdense upscale-bakery bread) is essential for standing up to the juice of the ample tomatoes, and balancing the greasy goodness of the ample bacon.
Additionally breakfast, the benchmark for true diner aficionados, still satisfies. Omelets feature fresh, not canned, vegetables. Scrambled eggs ordered soft come moistly perfect. Waitresses butter your toast while it's hot, so you don't have to stress your bleary self coping with leaden lumps of ice-cold butter. And orange juice is fresh squeezed. The breakfast's sole drawback is that it's only served until 11:00 a.m.
Most lunch/dinner entrées come with two sides. But get there early, before 1:30 p.m. or so, to score an order of the almost-as-good-as-ever coleslaw, crunchy and slightly sweet. If you miss out on the slaw, the salad, surprisingly, ain't bad. It also ain't mesclun. But instead of standard diner iceberg, the S&S serves dark romaine accented by at least three or four other chopped veggies. As ever the only available dressings, aside from separate cruets of DIY oil and vinegar, are old-fashioned pink French and a creamy Italian that is tastier, or so anyone with post-1970 tastes would think. I go for the French when I'm in a Brady Bunch kinda mood, and it's easy to fantasize about impossibly ideal concepts of family life at the S&S.
The other stand-out side dish is the gravy-topped mashed potatoes: real potatoes and real good, as they always were. I'd pass on the rest of the cooked sides, but don't listen to me. Listen to your waitress.