Anyone else might have tossed the square cloth, found lodged between two walls during renovations, in the trash. But Shareef Malnik, proprietor of the The Forge located in Miami Beach, framed the napkin and delivered it to his father.
Shareef knew something as small and seemingly insignificant as discarded linen would mean as much to his father, Al Malnik, as any expensive antique they salvaged from the restaurant.
How The Forge began, is a similar story. Nothing extraordinary happened the night Al’s friend, Jay Weiss, suggested a friendly wager, but it was an evening that set the course for how Al would spend much of the next 40 years.
“This was Miami Beach in the 60s. We dined out quite a bit. Always had a great time, but just about every place we went, I’d find something that wasn’t right,” Al said. “I thought having great food in a restaurant was easy. If everything wasn’t perfect, I’d complain.”
Maybe Jay became tired of listening or just wanted a break from the constant restaurant critiques. Either way, the pair made a bet. “Jay challenged me to create a restaurant that would meet my own expectations,” Al said. “He didn’t think I could do it. I was certain he was wrong.”
A 1968 real estate deal set the wheels in motion. Al purchased a run-down building, gutted it and then transformed the space into his vision of the perfect dining venue.
He filled the restaurant with artwork, antiques, artifacts and treasures collected from around the world. “I am in inveterate collector. Wherever I go I collect things.”
Each object displayed at The Forge tells a story and contributes to the overall style Al envisioned. “I think, without exception, I was best at design – creating what I felt was the perfect space for a fine dining experience and bringing in entertainment that drew a crowd.”
Al’s unwavering confidence in knowing what worked played an important role in his success. It didn’t matter what anyone else thought of his ideas, if it was what he wanted, he did it anyway. Within reason, he’s quick to add.
Take the six-foot by five-foot painting of a nude woman displayed prominently in the restaurant’s main dining room. The painting turned more than a few heads back in the early days of the restaurant. “As soon as I saw it, I knew immediately that the painting belonged in the main dining hall,” Al said. “People said I was crazy. They told me I couldn’t hang a nude painting there. They would never bring their children around to see something like that.”
Miami Beach was changing rapidly at that time, but for some long-time residents and patrons of The Forge the “risqué” art choice didn’t sit well. But the painting stayed and a steady flow of people, both young and old, kept coming.
Not everything was easy, though. The bar was popular from the start, but initially, the food was a different story. With a carefully selected party of ten at his table on opening night, including Jay – the challenger, Al readied himself to graciously accept Jay’s admission that he had lost the wager.
But opening night didn’t go well. It didn’t take Al long to realize perfection wasn’t quite as easy to pull off as he thought. “We waited more than an hour for our food and the relief I felt when the waiters finally headed towards our table was short-lived.
We ordered shrimp cocktail – that’s hard to get wrong. I took one look at the shrimp – they were tiny, just hanging limply off the side; probably the most awful-looking shrimp I have ever seen – and knew Jay had won the bet. He had the last laugh – but only on an interim basis.”
During the months that followed opening night, Al learned that delivering great food, great service, and a great experience was a formidable challenge.
His friends would say they’d filled up on bread as an excuse not to eat when they dined at The Forge. Or they’d go straight to the bar or come in after they’d already had dinner. “Even Jay wouldn’t eat there, and he was not a picky eater – but bad food, that was a different story.”
Al ended up cleaning house – replacing the entire staff and taking a hands-on approach to managing The Forge. “It took an entire year to overcome the bad reputation I had created and really become known as not only a hot spot for entertainment, but a high-quality food restaurant as well.”
By all accounts, things worked out incredibly well. For more than 40 years, The Forge has been known as much for its high-quality food as it is for the celebrities, politicians and high-powered names and faces it attracts every night of the week.
While Shareef is known for bringing the wildly popular Wednesday night parties to The Forge, Al hosted many head-turning guests at his table for years as well. In fact, the Forge was known as a “home away from home” for some of the world’s most famous people.
Jose Ferrer, an actor, was fascinated by the décor and wanted to meet Al. “We became good friends,” said Al. “He was living down here and we used to have dinner together. It was a sad time for him, though, because he had just gotten divorced from his wife, singer, Rosemary Clooney.
I have many fond memories of the celebrities who frequented The Forge: Harry Karl, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, an English actor – Laurence Harvey. I could keep going on. Many of them are dead now – back then I was known as the young guy who owned the restaurant.”
At about the same time Al was hosting after-hours parties late into the evening and early morning hours, he became a regular afternoon guest at Jilly Rizzo’s houseboat located across from the Fontainebleau Hotel. Think of Frank Sinatra’s houseboat when he played Tony Rome, which was set in Miami Beach; or the popular private eye series, “Surfside 6.” Replace the detective and far-fetched plots from the series with real-life celebrities, politicians and a cast of good-looking, well known characters looking for a place to unwind and you’ve got a good idea of who stopped by on a typical afternoon.
Every night back in those days, just as they do today, lines of people wrapped around the building waiting to get into the bar. Top bands, singers and comedians drew record numbers of tourists to Miami Beach. The Forge became the after-hours venue of choice.
“We were the only place with a license to stay open until 5 a.m. so all the entertainers would finish their shows, then come over afterwards,” Al said. “It was really something, to walk in at 2:30 in the morning, look up at the stage and realize that was Liza Minnelli singing. It was like that just about every night.
I was good at choosing the right groups and really getting it all together so that it was the hot spot to go to. We had three bands performing every night. Miami Beach had a very strong Latin influence back then and we booked some big names and others that would go on to become famous. Willy Chirino, “The Judge’s Nephews,” they were both fantastic.”
Connie Francis first heard the Judge’s Nephews at The Forge. She loved their sound so much she had her manager arrange bookings in Las Vegas for the group. Band member Carlos Olivera went on from there to collaborate with Emilio Estefan right about the time he and Gloria Estefan formed the Miami Sound Machine.
Like any successful restaurant The Forge was, and still is, in constant motion – changing and improving to meet the needs of their clientele. As the years passed, other restaurants changed ownership and style, but The Forge was different.
The sole ownership change occurred when Al passed control of The Forge to Shareef in 1991. Shareef implemented changes that earned accolades and praise for his innovative approach, but the style and goal of both father and son remained constant.
Now, just months after celebrating its 40th birthday, The Forge is getting a makeover – not in a cosmetic surgery manner, but major, substantive changes. When the doors reopen, patrons will see new furniture, new china, new uniforms and a new layout. Every detail of the renovation was completed with the intention of having the changes last for the next three or four decades.
Shareef has been quiet about most of the changes – saying only that when The Forge reopens it will be well worth the wait.
The fate of the gallery-quality collectibles that filled each room? There are a few things people will recognize. Others have been shipped to Al’s warehouse which he admits is already busting at the seams. “I’m building a second storage building but I have no idea what I’ll do with any of it.”
It would be impossible not to feel some sadness seeing things go, but Al feels it’s correct that they went. “I selected and loved everything that was in there,” he said. “The chairs were 42 years old. I had them redone several times but they were the same chairs that I started with. If I didn’t like something, I would have changed it.”
That’s probably the reason Shareef framed the napkin found between the walls and delivered it to his father.
Today, both father and son are confident The Forge’s new style, and what it represents, will continue creating many long-lasting memories and new stories.
If the walls could talk, they’d have a lot to tell.