In 1998, Mark Soyka was driving somewhere between Miami Shores and Aventura on Biscayne Boulevard when he spotted a familiar hooker. Until just a few months earlier, she had worked in the empty lot next door to the then-54-year-old's eponymous restaurant at the nexus of Little Haiti, Morningside, and the Design District.
So he pulled over. "What are you doing up here?" Soyka asked her.
"They turned the lights on," she responded. "I can't hang around there anymore."
Switching on bulbs in dark places has been the story of Soyka's career. First on Ocean Drive with News Cafe, then on Lincoln Road with the now-defunct Van Dyke Cafe, and finally on Miami's Upper Eastside, where prostitutes were replaced by parking lots that are now regularly filled with Benzes and Bentleys.
Late last year, Soyka opened Café Roval, a mere three-minute walk from his long-standing namesake and Andiamo!, his reliably excellent pizza joint in a former car wash. Roval is the most elaborate, sophisticated, and expensive piece of his restaurant empire. And he says it's his last.
"I know what it is to open a restaurant," says Soyka, seated on the coral-rock building's back patio while sporting chocolate-tinted aviators and a billowing white linen suit. "It's a couple million dollars, it's two years of your life, it's 150 employees, and I don't want to do it again."
Nearby, a weathered bronze Buddha statue sits atop a dribbling waterfall that empties into a rock-ringed pond. Stone pathways snake among towering palm trees. At the far side of the enclosure, a few bistro tables are shaded by the maroon umbrellas that once stood outside the Van Dyke. Over the years, he has shown an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time. His sense of style has paid off again and again.
Soyka was born in 1943 in the seaside Israeli city of Tel Aviv to Polish parents who had moved to escape growing European anti-Semitism. After his mandatory service in the army, he traveled to New York City, where he became enamored of the speed, the noise, and the skyscrapers' vastness.
"Just like in the movies," Soyka recalls.
Soon he enrolled in the New York School of Interior Design. He worked odd jobs at night, met a girl, fell in love, married, and divorced. On Wednesdays, he trekked from Manhattan to roller-skate at a rink in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. It was there in the late 1970s that he met restaurateur, club owner, and developer Tony Goldman and one of his top lieutenants, Marlo Courtney. The three became fast friends.
"That Wednesday trip to Brooklyn, to the Rollerdome, became our religion," Soyka says.
Courtney and Soyka went on to open a roller rink in midtown Manhattan. The Metropolis Roller Club soon became one of the city's hottest spots. Cher, the Allman Brothers Band, and Diana Ross were regulars. So was Tony Goldman. And in the early 1980s, when Goldman bought his first building in a decaying neighborhood called South Beach, Soyka's skills became invaluable.
"He looked at me and said, 'I know you speak Yiddish. I don't know what to do with the place. Why don't you go down there for a month or two to see?'?" Soyka recalls. "Soon, Tony was coming down every two weeks to buy another building."
Soyka became Goldman's de facto general contractor. Then, on December 2, 1988, Soyka's birthday, he opened News Cafe on Ocean Drive at Eighth Street. It was styled like the ubiquitous Israeli cafés where people would meet for a bite, a cup of coffee, and a newspaper. South Beach's modeling industry began booming, and the celebrities followed. All of them hung out at Soyka's place, which today is best known for its most famous patron: slain fashion designer Gianni Versace.
Soon, Soyka bought the Van Dyke building on Lincoln Road for a million bucks. Built in 1924 by Miami Beach pioneer Carl Fisher, the olive-hued, ivy-wrapped edifice with maroon awnings was the gem of South Beach. Soyka planned to turn it into a hotel where each floor was one loft. At the time, the now-bustling thoroughfare was nearly deserted, with almost nowhere to grab a bite.
"They've always told me I'm crazy, wherever I've gone, whatever I've done," Soyka says.
Though the hotel idea imploded, in 1994 the first two floors became the famed Van Dyke Cafe. The rest of the building became offices. Soyka sold it for $15.5 million in 2007 with an agreement for a lease on the café. The money set him and his family up for life. When new owners acquired the Van Dyke for $16 million in 2012, the beloved café was forced out.
"I'm a big boy. I figured that's life," Soyka says before letting out a sigh and noting the building is for sale again, this time for a reported $45 million.
His next stroke of genius (or good fortune) came around the time the Van Dyke opened. Soyka's family outgrew South Beach, so he moved across the bridge to Morningside. At the time, he was looking for a place to consolidate his sprawling, million-dollar-plus car collection, which included a Bentley, Jaguars, and other high-end hardware. A barn-like building on NE 55th Street right near Biscayne Boulevard seemed perfect.
But after three years, Soyka began selling off his cars. Soon the building was nearly empty, so he decided to make it a full-service restaurant. He opened it in 1998, and it has stayed afloat for two decades, serving an approachable menu that ranges from burgers and pastas to pizzas and chicken schnitzel.
"I wanted to have a family restaurant," says Soyka, who admits he doesn't cook.
His pizza place, Andiamo!, opened a year later across the street.
Café Roval is something very different. Located in an old pump house but redecorated in an elegant, tropical way, it is a place for "oysters, caviar, and champagne," he says. All three are on the one-page menu of this 120-seater. Otherwise, the menu is just as familiar as the one at Soyka.
A dish called terrazzo pulpo is an exemplary permutation of carpaccio. Thin, meaty slices of the tentacles, which have been braised in court bouillon and then marinated in chorizo oil, are laid on a plate like circular tiles. On top is a predictable smattering of diced tomatoes, micro-arugula, and red onion. The success lies in the octopus, which is tender without being rubbery, salty, or watery.
Those who remember Biscayne Boulevard's Metro Organic Bistro will be happy to know that place's chef, Nuno Grullon, is running the kitchen here. He has even brought along his sprouted chickpea cakes. Part falafel with a crispness reminiscent of a potato latke, Grullon's fritters are fragrant with cumin, cilantro, and garlic. A pair of them arrives stacked with snappy tomatoes, avocados, and corona beans, all brightened with a hard squeeze of lemon juice.
The entrées are both formal and casual. The $14 oxtail bun bulges with the decadent braised meat, watercress slaw, pickled red onion, and translucent jalapeño pepper slices. The accompanying waffle chips are less impressive. They might have been culled from a snack-aisle bag.
There's also a pricey butterflied yellowtail snapper with charred cherry tomatoes that accent the juicy flesh. The paste of garlic, paprika, lemon, and thyme used to season the fish unfortunately prevents any crisping of its skin, but the aromatic runoff does double duty in seasoning supple coins of confit Yukon Gold potatoes.
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An $18 quarter-chicken is just as well executed, though the price does sting a bit for such a small portion. At least the kitchen has the good sense to send out dark meat, which is gently braised in a Dominican-style sofrito of charred red onion, cilantro, garlic, parsley, and tomatoes. This yields crackly skin that's ingeniously drizzled with honey. The roasted carrots on the side have a deep, intense flavor amplified by the skin, which is slightly charred.
The food in all of Soyka's places, including Café Roval, is reliable. And the atmosphere is comfortable yet cool — not at all intrusive. This recipe has allowed Soyka to outlast many of those who found fame in Miami back when the Beach was still dominated by Yiddish. There have been many changes since the 1980s: the modeling industry has diminished; Sly Stallone, Rosie O'Donnell, and Oprah are gone. But Soyka is still here. Asked how he does it, he answers, "Consistency." Then he introduces a long line of employees who've worked alongside him for more than two decades.
5808 NE Fourth Ct., Miami; 786-953-7850; caferoval.com. Daily 5 p.m. to midnight.
Terrazzo pulpo $16
Sprouted chickpea cakes $14
Oxtail bun $14
- Butterflied yellowtail snapper $32