LUNCH WITH LYDIA – Miami Herald
In the 1990s, at the height of the post-renaissance party on Miami Beach, long before the market crashed and the real-estate free-for-all reached judgment day, the crowd at The Forge guzzled $700 bottles of bubbly as if it were tap water. Tap water was an indignity. The Bentleys, Ferraris and Lambos double-parked at the valet line told the story:
Excess was king. And the hedge-fund-slash-real-estate slicksters, so long as they were buying, were rock stars who always got the girls. No one dared cast stones at anyone else’s hustle.
But the storied, blissfully overwrought steak house on Arthur Godfrey Road, which, during its 41 years has enjoyed more than one heyday and survived more than one slump, was grinding down again when owner Shareef Malnik closed it for renovation in April 2009.
“The real estate guys, the venture capitalists . . . most of them were gone,” Malnik says on the night in late March when The Forge, sporting a $10-million renovation designed to update the place while toning things down to meet a more decorous 2010, opened with little fanfare but a full house.
Among the mucketies present: Mel Dick, head of Southern Wine & Spirits; German developer Thomas Kramer; high-powered trial lawyer Jim Ferraro; music executive Charlie Walk.
“We could have done one more red-carpet party to reopen,” says Malnik, a globe-trotting playboy when his dad Al handed him the keys in 1991 after a fire had forced the place to close. “We’re experts at red-carpet parties. But that’s not where my head is anymore. And that’s not the direction of the restaurant anymore. We did a 180-degree turn.”
The Forge, stuffed with antiques, oil paintings, Tiffany glass, murals and all manner of rococo-ish touches, dressed its waiters like penguins and sent out steaks and lobsters under giant silver domes. Iceberg wedges were the way to start, and creamed spinach was the side dish of choice. The cool kids who ran off the blue-hair set in the early 1990s didn’t seem to mind that the place was stuck in a time warp — or get the fun irony they helped create once a DJ started cranking club tunes loud enough to make the notorious walls shake.
THE RAT PACK
Once a hangout for Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, not to forget the wiseguy contingent, and in the 1980s something of a clubhouse for cocaine cowboys (upstanding types have always liked to live large there, too), The Forge, with all its dimly lit gaudiness, became a hipster hangout again. Ground Zero for Madonna and Stallone and company; the B list would loiter at the velvet ropes for hours, begging to be let in to blow a mortgage payment on champagne and shrimp cocktail.
This is, after all, the place where, in 2005, local girl Amber Ridinger celebrated a bat mitzvah with performances by Ja Rule and Ashanti that set her parents back $500,000. The eighth-grader wore a $27,000 Dolce & Gabbana gown.
“The world is different today,” says Malnik, who can barely get out a sentence before another Forge regular comes to his table to offer air kisses and congratulations. “By the time we closed last year, just about everything on the Beach was slowing down. We were slowing down. When you’re running an ongoing business, and you’re stuck in something that you want to change, you don’t know how to get out of it. But when you close, and you wipe the slate clean, you get a chance to rethink everything and create a place that will be here another 20 years.”
Not that the new Forge has returned modest and low key. The place is still lavish with its new trippy Murano glass chandeliers; ash-wood wall coverings with elaborate millwork; black-lacquer this and stainless-steel that, plus a “glass bubble wall” before which waiters decant fancy wines and the private, class-encased “board room” where big spenders will dine around a massive wooden table so heavy 20 guys had to carry it in. Surrounding it are 11 giant wing-back chairs that could be mistaken for thrones.
But that $700 bottle of Cristal? It sells for $294 now. Perrier Jouet Grand Brut is a merciful $65 a bottle. It used to go for closer to $200.
“By and large, nobody is spending that much money on a bottle anymore. The guys who were showing off at $700 before are still showing off. But they’re doing it at $300 a bottle now. And we have eight beers on tap now. I never realized I like beer so much,” says Malnik, 52, who, like his restaurant, has mellowed a good deal in recent years.
THE PARTY’S OVER
For one thing, he decided not to reopen Glass, the adjacent nightclub that kept him in party mode well past 4 a.m. most days. Also gone: the Wednesday night dinner party. Or any other kind of blowout.
“The Wednesday night party went on for 17 years, and it made a few million dollars in revenue every year. It was always slammed. But in a way, it revolved around me. And I don’t need anything to revolve around me anymore. I had to be here, and I had to be part of the party,” says Malnik, who orders a bunch of items from the new menu for you to taste but touches nothing but Evian.
“I’m not saying I didn’t have fun. But there comes a point when you say, `I can’t do this every night. I can’t drink every night.’ ”
You’d never guess unless you interacted with him, but Malnik is a relatively understated, easy-going guy. He’s into martial arts. And spirituality. He had a feng shui master give The Forge a once-over after renovations were completed.
“She walked through every single room with these little rods that detect energy and said the energy was great now, just off the hook,” Malnik says. “It’s very open now. There’s better light. Everything is new, and there’s no old smoke clinging to anything. But, beyond that, I do believe energy exists in everything. Can you imagine all the energy that was here? This place was ready to blow. All the stories. The love and the hate that had been absorbed into the walls and the air-conditioning vents. It’s all new now.”
Like his father (“the most important person in my life”), who had alleged ties to mobster Meyer Lansky, the younger Malnik won’t talk about the gangster days. He also won’t dispute that a bunch of colorful characters have come through The Forge over the years.
“If you’re a popular restaurant, everybody is going to hang out. It’s never been a gangster hangout, but we’ve had our share of them coming through the door. We didn’t market for that demographic. All kinds of people come here. I’m not going to microanalyze the integrity of every character who comes here, including the priests, rabbis and politicians. Even O.J. Simpson came in here. I’m not his biggest fan, but I’m not gonna tell somebody they can’t come into the restaurant.”
In fact, The Forge is all about inclusion these days, Malnik says.
“We still have our wine cellar, and you can come here and spend thousands on an amazing bottle of wine. But you can also come here and have a glass of Charles Lafitte champagne for $7 a glass. I don’t want to be just for an upper-crust crowd anymore. I’m not saying there’s going to a lower-class crowd here now. But, yes, we want the more money-conscious to come. And everybody is money conscious now.”
In The Forge’s kitchen today is Dewey Losasso, a founding member of the 1980s-era Mango Gang of South Florida chefs who got inventive with tropicals. More recently he ran North One 10 on Biscayne Boulevard. And while he kept some of The Forge’s signatures, such as chopped salad ($13) and oak-grilled “Super Steak” ($52), he revamped the general concept to focus more on locally grown produce and lighter, more modern fare. Among the new dishes: a lobster, peanut-butter and onion-jelly sandwich ($15); a “Burger and Bordeaux” of Angus sirloin topped with boneless short ribs and lobster marmalade and served with a side of truffled fries and a tasting of Bordeaux wine ($20); kale and spaghetti ($19); steamed snapper in a bag with veggies ($24).
“I’ve always had a higher culinary ambition for The Forge than it being just a steak house,” Malnik says. “So I’m very happy about our new direction. But The Forge will still be more than just a dining experience. People will come and hang out at the new bar. There will be that great Forge energy. Just no more over-the-top partying. That’s just passé.”