The Bonfire Restaurant Story
A true story written 2010 rewritten 07/2015
This true story about Bonfire Restaurant were related to me by my good friend Richard Schneider who actually had reopened the restaurant.
However the beginning of this story is based on common knowledge, known by anyone that was living in South Florida at the time, around 1965. By 1965, I had already been living in Florida for well over two years, having arrived in Miami in November of 1962.
At the time you couldn’t help but notice, every evening on TV, that there was a particular restaurant that was always seemed to be mentioned on the local news, it was called the “Bonfire Restaurant”. And, for some reason unknown to me, The Bonfire was mentioned on the news as being one of the best barbecue restaurants in all of South Florida. I always thought that the hype over the restaurant appeared excessive. Any time some famous entertainer or a politician came to South Florida, the news channels would always mention that they had eaten at the Bonfire Restaurant. You just had to wonder why this particular restaurant got so much free advertising.
I had heard the name Bonfire so often that I no longer paid attention to it, but for some reason I always thought the restaurant was located somewhere on Miami Beach.
Back then my family often drove to South Miami Beach because my mom lived there, so as we drove, I always kept half an eye out looking for the Bonfire, barbecue restaurant, but for some reason, I just never seemed to run across it.
One day while we were driving to Miami Beach by the way of NW 79 Street, we passed through a small town called “Sunny Isles.” Now Sunny Isles is hardly more than a wide strip of land that attaches the mainland of Miami, to Miami Beach, It only had lots of upscale condominiums and restaurants, but there was another reason the town of Sunny Isles was famous, it was because it was constantly in the news, always involved in one scandal or another, usually it was something involving gangsters or their corrupt police force.
At one time I remember, Sunny Isles hit the headlines because there was a Mafia style hit that happened on the main drag, in a restaurant called, “The Place for Steak”. They said some mobster was at the bar having a drink, when a hit man walked in and shot him right in front of everyone. At the time that really made Sunny Isle infamous. The news media played it up big, inferring that Sunny Isles was some kind of a magnet for the Mafia.
So as we drove through Sunny Isles, I was looking at all the restaurant signs when I saw a strip mall on my right, and there, low and behold was the Bonfire Restaurant, I was very excited to have finally spotted it.
Now that I knew where it was, I wanted take my family there for supper, I wanted to see what all the hype was about, not to mention they always said it was the best barbecue place in town, and who doesn’t like barbecue. Also, I thought we might get lucky and spot a celebrity there.
There was a big neon sign over the front of the restaurant, it was depicting a bonfire and barbecue ribs cooking over it, what could be better, we had great expectations for a spectacular barbecue meal. However, once we were shown to a table and looked over the menu, we were disappointed to find little or no barbecue on it, as a matter of fact the menu had very little of anything exciting to offer at all, I saw that there was nothing on the menu that couldn’t be found at any other restaurant. Then as I looked around, the interior of the restaurant, it was somewhat formal, not what you would expect for a barbecue joint. But, I knew there had to be something special about the food, especially after all the years of hearing about it on the news.
But unfortunately it turned out to be a real let down, there wasn’t anything special to be had there. The restaurant had a long bar that could seat perhaps thirty people and then there were tables for perhaps another hundred people. There was no hint of a barbecue pit or anything barbecue for that matter, even the décor was really nothing special. So after our meal, we all left disappointed, and we thought that it was pretty obvious that whomever owned the Bonfire restaurant had something going on with the news Media that give them all the free advertising they were getting. We put the Bonfire restaurant on the “Never go back again list”.
Several months passed, and one day, the local newspapers and television personalities were just bursting with news about the Bonfire restaurant, it appears they had been raided by a task force of the FBI, and the restaurant was closed and the doors locked up. The headlines said that the Bonfire was Mafia owned and the head Mafioso Meyer Lansky ran the restaurant. They said
That the restaurant was a hub for the numbers rackets, prostitution, extortion, money laundering and a whole list of other crimes including bookmaking and loan sharking. The list of reasons that they had raided the restaurant for was pretty long.
Everyone in South Florida, knew all about Meyer Lansky, as he was the Mafia finance man who once ran the mob’s casino’s in Cuba. Meyer was always in the news, he had been indicted several times for various crimes, I’m not sure, but I don’t think he was ever convicted of anything, but it was big television news when Meyer attempted to leave the United States and go to Israel and become a citizen, he tried doing it to avoid being indicted. I remember seeing him on television returning to Miami, as Israel would not let him in.
After that, my aunt Lillian (My mom’s sister) told me that when she took the bus on Miami Beach, she would always see Meyer walking his dog in front of his condo building, but eventually it was reported that Meyer had died of a heart condition, while he was still living on Miami Beach. After Meyer’s death no one ever mentioned anything about the Bonfire Restaurant anymore, it was closed, boarded up and forgotten.
For several years, just out of curiosity, every time I drove by the Bonfire restaurant I would look to see if anything was happening there but it just remained boarded up, closed for good.
Now enter into the story my friend Ritchie Schneider.
I met Richard Schneider because at one time he was involved in a similar Automotive and marine parts business as I was, then when I went into the Marine business, It wasn’t long before Richard and I became good friends, as he liked all things marine.
One day, while Richard and I were talking, he mentioned the Bonfire Restaurant. I was really very curious as to what he had to say, so I asked him about it and he related to me the following story:
As a young man, Richard had worked for his fathers paint manufacturing business in New York City, and when his dad passed away, Richard had received a substantial inheritance. He then married a lovely girl who was a registered nurse, and they moved to South Miami, where they raised a son. To earn a living in Florida, Richard started a business flying in live Maine lobsters into Florida and selling them wholesale, mostly to restaurants.
Richard told me, that he had a grandfather who was also living in Miami. His grandfather he said was about eighty years old at the time. Richard’s grandfather told him that he had formerly been the chauffeur for the famous mobster Meyer Lansky, and Richard’s grandfather still wore a pistol strapped to his ankle just like he did in the old days when he drove Meyer around.
Richard’s grandfather told him that Meyer had entrusted him with the keys and papers to the old Bonfire Restaurant, and he still had them. His grandfather suggested that he and Richard open up the old restaurant. He said that because Richard was already in lobsters business they could make the old bonfire into a lobster restaurant.
So Richard’s grandfather suggested that they renovate and open the place up again. Richard could move his lobster business there, and together they could run the lobster business and the restaurant, it all sounded like a great idea.
Exactly how Richard’s grandfather had ended up with the keys and papers to the old Bonfire restaurant, was never questioned, because he did have the keys, and the documents.
By that time the Bonfire restaurant had been shuttered for several years and the interior would require a complete renovation, and to make matters worse Richard had no restaurant experience.
But Richard did have his inheritance money, and he used it to fix up the old Bonfire restaurant building. There were contracts to be signed, furniture and supplies to ordered, and because the building had been neglected for so long, just about everything needed to be replaced. Not to mention the long liquor bar that needed to be restocked. And then Richard had to get all the new licenses, as well as set up leasing agreements for laundry and all the things you needed to do when running a big restaurant. I think Richard said that as his grandfather was a felon, his name couldn’t be involved on any of the leases or contracts he signed, so it wasn’t long before
Richard’s inheritance ran out, and he started signing for loans and leases personally.
Eventually after several months, the old Bonfire restaurant did open up again and the customers started coming.
Richard then said, that the work of running his lobster business, and then running the restaurant was endless work, and the hours were long. He said he worked all day and all night,
And on many evenings some of the local Miami drug dealers would throw big lobster parties, and those parties lasted into the early morning hours. So Richard found he was working around the clock, with little sleep and then every day new supplies needed to be ordered.
Richard found he no longer had little time for his family, the restaurant business required all his energy and attention, and it consumed all his time. That’s when Richard started to notice there was not enough money in the till to pay all the bills. He knew that he had no choice, he had to closely watch what was going on.
The first thing Richard noticed was that whenever there was a few hundred dollar bills in the cash register, his grandfather would remove a few of them and stick them in his stocking.
Richard said his grandfather’s main job was supposed to be watching the liquor bar for theft. So every day his grandfather, would go there with a ruler, and he would measure all the whiskey bottles to make everyone think he knew how much booze they had sold, he thought it would keep the bartenders and waitresses honest.
Richard started checking the bar receipts, and things just didn’t add up, so he started watching even closer. Every day the head bartender would show up for work early and put on a big show of cleaning and prepping the bar, Richard said the guy even brown bagged his own lunch. What Richard didn’t know at the time, but the bartenders brown bag contained a large bottle of Vodka that the bartender was serving Richards customers from it and the bartender was pocketing the money. It appeared that the bartender was a whole lot smarter than Richard’s grandfather and most of the profits from the bar were going to him and not to the restaurant.
Next Richard started watching the waitresses, and he noticed that some of them had actually copied the restaurants receipt book. Whenever a customer was going to pay for a big meal in cash, the waitress would write up a phony receipt for pie and coffee and turn that receipt in, pocketing the cash. Everyone was stealing from Richard and the problems were becoming too great for him to handle them all.
Then to make matters worse, Richard’s wife divorced him, and when that happened, Richard thought that he was at the end of his rope, he was considering giving it all up.
One evening Richard was laying on the floor in the kitchen, he was fixing a leaking hose under the dishwashing machine. As he loosened the old hose, the dirty water and garbage came flooding out all over his face and chest. Just as that happed a waitress came in the kitchen and told Richard that there was a drunk loudmouth customer in the restaurant that wanted to see the owner. So Richard slid out from under the machine and wiped the garbage and water off his face with a towel. As he walked out into the dining area, Richard was worrying as to how he was going to handle a drunk, complaining customer.
As he reached the table, the drunk customer asked if Richard was the owner and Richard
Richard replied that he was. The drunk then extended his hand to Richard, and said, “Best lobster dinner we ever had”. Richard said his heart stopped pounding. And he returned to the kitchen, at that point he knew he had enough, he had lost all his inheritance money, he had lost his wife, lost his grandfather, and he was in debt up to his ears.
The Bonfire Restaurant was then officially closed for good.