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President Reagan was finishing his second term, Rain Man was the big box office hit, and we were more than a decade away from having heard of Osama or Obama. As much as the world has changed over the past 20 years, South Beach has undergone an even greater transformation. "It was not a good neighborhood," says Tony Migaldi, "as anyone who's seen Scarface can tell you."
New York transplant Migaldi was hired as a waiter when Mark Soyka first opened News Café on Ocean Drive in 1988. Stints as graveyard shift and night boss preceded his 1995 appointment as general manager, a position he has held since. Tony's borough brogue still barrels through his speech as he describes South Beach back in the day. "There was just Mark and the Living Room [at The Strand] over at Washington. The Palace came a little later, and maybe the Clevelander and Front Porch a little after. But that was it. There was no other place to eat. Mark's mentality has always been 'If you build it, they will come.' I don't know if that's always true, but it was true on Ocean Drive."
And it still is. Tony estimates, "If it's a Saturday in March, we'll do four or five thousand people." If the number seems impossible, consider the 350-plus-seat/24-hour nature of the place, and the prime corner location on Ocean Drive and Eighth Street. Tony laughs when it is suggested that over the years he must have attended to an awful lot of folks. "Sometimes I think about that. If they'd have each just given me a quarter."
When the restaurant's 20-year anniversary and Soyka's 65th birthday were celebrated via a big block party last week, local media reminded us that News Café sparked Ocean Drive, Van Dyke Café ignited Lincoln Road, and Soyka Café and Andiamo! Pizza boosted the Biscayne corridor. Words such as pioneer and visionary were bandied about quite a bit, but let's keep it simple: There is no one in the food-and-beverage industry, or perhaps in any capacity, more responsible for the rebirth of South Beach than Mark Soyka.
He talks measuredly, words thick with his Tel Aviv accent. The News, he says, is "a sort of Grand Central Station" gathering spot for South Beach. "Some come for a glass of water, some to change into their bathing suit, some to have coffee, some to have dinner. We keep it nice, we do the best we can, and people seem to like it." Asked to name his favorite foods there, he replies he's "big on my own Middle Eastern dishes — hummus, tabouli, all that type of stuff. I like our hamburgers very much. I'm a tomato person, so I like the gazpacho and hot tomato soup."
In fact the Middle Eastern combo plate was the best thing I sampled on a recent visit. Hummus and baba gannouj were smooth, the flavors well balanced; tabouli and grape leaves were tasty too, and the pita rounds fluffy and warm. Other fixings, such as ripe tomatoes, black olives, Tuscan peppers, and cornichons, came crammed onto the platter.
I likewise relished a fresh, chunky gazpacho and a juicy, char-grilled bacon cheeseburger that was properly proportioned to bun — not too skinny, not overwhelmingly obese. French fries alongside were thin, crisp, and prespiced. Some items, however, missed the mark, such as a Greek salad short on feta and burdened by salad dressing that tasted as though poured from a 50-gallon drum.
The cheeseburger is, according to Migaldi, the biggest seller on a subtly evolving menu. "Some things come on, some things go off, according to how they sell. We currently are seeing a resurgence in the popularity of duck. So now we have pizza with duck, and quesadillas with duck." He laughs when asked his preferred dishes. "I eat the same thing every day: an egg white omelet with spinach and vegetables, a piece of toast, and avocado. Every day, every day, every day. People make fun of me."
But the food has never been central to the Soyka empire. It's the ambiance and the astounding instinct for location. Soyka pauses when asked whether he would hypothetically select the Design District, Wynwood, or downtown Miami as the next place to open a business, then responds it would depend on the restaurant. "If I was going downtown Miami, I would probably open a second Andiamo. If I was thinking Design District, I'd probably go with ... I don't really know, even though it's one of my favorite places. I like the original buildings. What helps me make the environment that people feel comfortable with are the buildings I choose. I like corners. I like big spaces...."
He just signed a new 10-year lease for News Café with longtime partner Tony Goldman, who "is gutting the entire inventory of rooms in 800 Ocean Dr., restoring it, and incorporating it into The Hotel [behind News Café]." It will be a six-month project. The café will get "new awnings and new colors" to coincide with the renovations, "so that's a nice project for us."
As for that pesky economy: "If I didn't watch TV, and I didn't know what's going on in the world through newspapers, I'd probably not know that it's as bad as it seems to be. Being in a destination where people come to get away from that lifts you a little bit."
Soyka is aware that tourism carries a price for any paradise too, but says he is "not like a lot of locals who shy away from Ocean Drive." He finds it to be "just as wonderful — maybe not on weekends when it's mobbed — but any other day sitting out at News Café is as nice now as it was then."
He is so adamant a booster for the Beach that it's surprising to hear him talk of Miami eventually seizing the spotlight. "Across the bridge, they always looked to Miami Beach as the playground, and at themselves as the banking industry, office space ... and behaved like a city without a soul, really. But Miami is growing, and I think it's got a lot of room to incorporate different things and probably accept a very large population — to go from a two-million-people city to a four- or five-million-people city. Because of its size and scale, I think Miami will take over for a lot of things that people come to South Florida to do and move in for — the arts and so forth."
Yet on a recent Tuesday, while I was breakfasting at News Café, the street was small-town quiet, with birds chirping and beach salt aroma in the air. How was breakfast? Well, the egg white omelet with spinach and vegetables was fine, just as it has been for the past 20 years.