Ah, the selections: turkey or roast beef with sides of boiled spinach, buttered beets or asparagus on toast. Nary a spice or exotic herb to be found. True, they went a little wild with “Fricassee Oysters” and the English Plum Pudding Hard Sauce.
Yet who’s to complain? Dinner cost a dollar, and it beat the fare at the boarding houses. That’s the story from the restaurant menu, circa 1918, at the Hotel Gilbert on Brickell Avenue.
It took nearly a decade for barbecue and chili to make their appearance in the city. Joe and Lucille Hudson, whose grocery store had been destroyed by the 1926 hurricane, opened Joe’s Bar-B-Q on Las Olas Boulevard in 1929. Their sauces soon earned a reputation up and down the coast, and the place thrived until 1958, when it fell victim to the city’s expansion in the form of the New River Tunnel.
In the early 1930s, Ivy Stranahan leased out the first floor of The Stranahan House to a series of restaurants, the last being The Pioneer House. During this same period, a floating hotel and restaurant called The Amphitrite sailed in and stayed for 12 years. Named after a Greek goddess, it offered upscale dining, with broiled lobster dinners going for $2.50.
A number of establishments came and went, though a few – like Brown’s Restaurant – had staying power.
A Coast Guard officer on the lookout for gunrunners – a man known as “Two-Gun Perry” – opened the “Soda Smoke Sandwich Shop” on Andrews Avenue for his wife to operate. However, as these things can go, Mrs. Perry didn’t really care for the work. So Perry asked the realtor Logan Taylor Brown to sell it for anything – he just wanted out. Brown agreed, but the real estate market after the 1926 hurricane had dried up, and before Brown knew it, he “had accidentally” invested $1,000 of his own money in the mortgage. So he and his wife opened a little patio restaurant called Brown’s Good Food. Six years later, Brown bought a bigger property on SW First Avenue, where Brown’s Restaurant became the place for the town’s movers and shakers.
“About noon they would come strolling out of downtown office buildings,” a local journalist wrote, joining “anyone who mattered at the time.” Doctors, lawyers and businessmen sat at the circular, 20-seat “Pot Roast Table” – reserved for men (a bachelorette table was added). The extensive menu included “fresh-fried Spanish mackerel or bluefish,” fried oysters, hot-buttered baby lobster and roast fresh pork with fried apples. As if the idea of a “Pot Roast Table” wasn’t odd enough, there was also an unwritten rule that you never said anything nice about the food. Once, a customer was banned from the table for uttering: “That coffee was not as bad as usual.” Brown’s, which actually had excellent food, survived until 1960.
In the 1940s, a New Yorker visiting Gene Harvey at his rustic home on Griffin Road lamented the fact that he couldn’t find “good steaks” down here. Not long after, Harvey converted his house into an 1,800-square-foot restaurant. When it opened in 1949, Tropical Acres Steak House had 15 employees and 90 seats. By providing a uniquely “family” atmosphere – and good steaks – it carved a niche for itself. Today it seats 450, has a staff of 70 and boasts 15,000 square feet.
The Mai-Kai opened in 1956 on what was then a cow pasture on Federal Highway. Robert L. Thornton, the founder, was inspired by the long lines he’d witnessed at Tropical Acres. Also, as part of his course work at Stanford, Thornton had studied every aspect of the Trader Vic franchise. His love for Polynesian culture was the final ingredient in the concoction. First came Asian cuisine and all manner of rum drinks; then the dancers and numerous expansions followed.
Thornton’s attention to detail carried over into every aspect of the restaurant. He once fired a Tahitian in the Mai-Kai chorus. “She’s very nice,” he said. “But she can’t dance.” The dancer worked on her moves, regained her job and eventually married Thornton.
Today, the Mai-Kai is as popular as ever, thanks to the current nostalgia for the ’50s, but also our more worldly palates, which have come a long way from asparagus on toast. Picadillo, pad Thai or volcano roll, anyone?