Seated at a prime table in the main dining salon with six of his guests, Shareef Malnik momentarily disengages from the group’s lively conversation and gazes around the opulently appointed dining room as a sinful hint of satisfaction comes over his face. And justifiably so, for it is his restaurant—The Forge—that has for the last thirty-three years maintained its position as Miami Beach’s premier destination for dining decadence.
The Forge is an American icon, a throwback to the lavish excesses of Hollywood in the 1930s and Monte Carlo in the 50s. It is a temple built to the gods of wine, women and song, and tonight is right on track to become just one more memorable evening of dining and dancing madness set to a score of too much of everything—too much food, too much wine, too much hedonism. The story of Shareef Malnik’s Forge is the story of a Miami Beach dynasty.
The cast of characters at The Forge on this particular Wednesday night is straight out of a 1930′s MGM movie—tables full of tourists from New York and Buenos Aires; local politicians smoking cigars and hamming it up; a South Beach nightclub owner and his entourage dropping in for a visit; a few tables full of individuals who could teach the Sopranos a thing or two about business; and, of course, there are the ladies, young and lovely ladies—from fiery Latinas to statuesque Nordic beauties, all dressed to the nines, with cocktails in hand.
In The Forge Bar area which separates three adjoining dining salons, Pamela Canellas and the Hot Jam dancers are up on stage dressed in flowing white outfits and gyrating wildly to the frantic salsa/disco mix that permeates all of Miami nightlife. With waiters rushing from table to table throughout the five dining rooms and with large numbers of people simply dancing in the aisles, The Forge is indeed hitting on all cylinders tonight. Its English oak paneling, impossibly high ceilings, large Tiffany stained-glass panels and bare-brick walls radiate a stately ambiance of old Europe, but the parade of Jaguars and Roll Royces lined-up out front are a testament to its hedonistic popularity.
To understand The Forge’s cache requires an understanding of the strong personalities behind it: the man who originally created it—Alvin Malnik, and the man who now controls it, Shareef Malnik.
The predecessor of the modern-day Forge was a blacksmith’s forge built in the early 1920s by Dino Phillips, who designed decorative iron gates and sculptures for wealthy Miami Beach families such as the Firestones and Vanderbilts. In the early 1930s Phillips transformed his shop into an elegant dining/dancing supper club and gambling casino where wealthy Miami socialites dined and danced under the stars in the outdoor garden area.
In 1968, after years of neglect the original restaurant/casino fell into disrepair and was purchased by Shareef’s father, Alvin Malnik, a young Florida attorney whose name—thanks to the New Jersey Casino Control Commission—will forever be linked to legendary mob financier and former Miami Beach resident, Meyer Lansky. Alvin Malnik immediately embarked on a million-dollar makeover of the restaurant that reflected his love of European art and architecture. Original Dalis, Rousseaus framing a sconce from Napoleon’s bed chamber and antique tapestries were set throughout.
Al Malnik’s redesigned Forge opened its doors in March of 1969 and was immediately heralded as Miami’s most glamorous destination filled with visiting celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Richard Burton and Judy Garland. Politicos such as Richard Nixon and financier Bebe Reboso were also frequent guests, and, yes, Meyer Lansky and the boys were often seen dining at The Forge. As a matter of fact, it was upstairs in the original casino area in 1977 where Meyer Lansky’s stepson, Richard Schwartz, shot Craig Teriaca, son of an alleged underworld figure, after a quarrel over $10. (Three months later Schwartz was found murdered in his Cadillac behind The Inside Restaurant on the Bay Harbor Islands.)
The crowning achievement of The Forge was always its wine cellar, an eight-room, underground facility containing more than 300,000 bottles of the world’s finest vintages. Among the rarest, which are secured behind floor-to-ceiling iron gates, are a 1792 Madeira and an 1822 Chateau Lafite Rothschild—the later worth an estimated $150,000. So impressive is The Forge’s wine cellar, that French financier and noted oenophile, Baron Elie de Rothchild once donated bottles from his private collection after visiting restaurant.
Al Malnik’s colorful history in Miami Beach is a matinee-quality storyline that earned him huge financial returns. But, big returns don’t come without big risks. In 1982 his canary yellow Rolls Royce was blown-up in the underground parking garage of his residence at a high rise Miami condominium called the Cricket club, which Malnik had previously developed. Speculation as to the reasons behind the attack ranged from some sort of warning to Malnik and his business associates, to an elaborate scheme to fool federal investigators who were looking into his affairs at the time.
In 1987 Malnik’s friend, pioneer speed boat builder and Formula Marine owner Don Aronow was shot to death while sitting in his car on Miami’s NE 188th Street, an area known as ThunderBoat Row. The reasons why are still unclear.
Over the years questions were often asked—sometimes by government investigators, sometimes by the IRS—about Malnik’s financial dealings. One case brought against Malnik by the IRS concerning his 1962 and 1963 tax returns lasted over twenty years, with Al finally winning in 1985.
But, perhaps the most interesting questions of all came with recent tabloid speculation that Al Malnik has some sort of association with pop-star Michael Jackson. A dinner at The Forge between Michael Jackson, Al and Shareef Malnik and their wives made front page news. And when news broke that Michael Jackson often stays overnight at Malnik’s multi-million dollar Ocean Ridge, Florida estate when he’s in town, headlines such as “Is Jacko Married to the Mob?” and “The King of Pop and the Mob?” popped-up in numerous publications. Reliable sources will only say that Jackson and Malnik are “personal friends,” and “they’ve been friends for years.” The official word from Malnik is “I have no present or past business relationship of any kind with Michael Jackson, nor is one contemplated.”
However out of character an association with a modern pop star such as Michael Jackson might seem, it would actually be somewhat in line with previous associations earlier in Al Malnik’s career. He reportedly served as attorney for Sammy Davis Jr. and several other members of the Rat Pack during the 1960s, and celebrities such as Russell Simmons, Benjamin Bratt, Harvey Keitel and Salma Hayek have all attended parties at his South Florida home, making Al Malnik’s association with the entertainment industry a well-documented fact.
Malnik has also apparently been a positive influence on Miami Beach’s Brett Ratner, director of “Red Dragon” and Jackie Chan’s “Rush Hour.” The relationship is sometimes described as that of “a father figure and mentor.”
Alvin Malnik often donates to his alma mater, the University of Miami, and most recently, Al and his wife Nancy were honored as lifetime benefactors by the Make A Wish foundation during a lavish ceremony at the 8th Annual Hotel Inter-Continental Ball in Miami.
Even though questions still remain unanswered, two things are absolutely indisputable: first, through a series of real estate developments from Florida to California, and associations with powerful individuals, Al Malnik has amassed a serious sum of money throughout his lifetime, and is now enjoying the fruits of his labor in a 35,000 square foot beach-front villa, Beaux Arts Mansion, in Ocean Ridge, Florida, and secondly—he created one hell of a restaurant.
Shareef Malnik was born to Alvin and his first wife, Debbie in 1958. By 1982 he had earned his law degree from the University of Miami and was living the glamorous high-life in Miami Beach.
In the early 90s, Shareef indulged his passion for off-shore racing by competing first in the American Power Boat Association’s offshore circuit and then the Offshore Professional Tour, winning the 2nd Annual Offshore Grand Prix of Miami. In 1991 he narrowly escaped death when his catamaran – The Forge – was heaved into the air at well over 100 knots, rolling over three times before finally coming to rest. Shareef’s helmet was ripped from his head during the accident, leaving him with a serious concussion and a two day trip to the hospital.
Shareef soon garnered a notorious reputation for his adventurous, thrill-seeking lifestyle which included running with the bulls in Pampalona, shark-diving in Walker’s Cay and racing a Porsche 911 in the American Le Mans Series Championship.
As if off-shore powerboat racing, auto racing and the glamorous lifestyle of a restaurant/nightclub owner wasn’t enough, Shareef has also, on occasion, accepted acting roles. In 1995 he appeared in Just Cause, starring Sean Connery and Kate Capshaw, and in 2001 he was cast in The Blackout, which starred Matthew Modine, Claudia Schiffer and Dennis Hopper. Shareef also won kudos for his portrayal of a hallucinating cokehead in the psychological drama Cafe y Tabaco (Coffee and Tobacco) produced and directed by Miami’s Michael Justiz.
With his daring style and leading-man good looks, Shareef Malnik also demonstrates a distinct adeptness for acquiring high-profile wives. During a four year period while his father was acting as chief financial advisor to Saudi Royal family member Prince Turki Bin-Aziz, son of the king of Saudi Arabia, Shareef married Sheika Hoda Al-Fassi, the daughter of Prince Turki’s brother-in-law, the notoriously flamboyant Sheik Mohammed Al-Fassi.
(Sheik Al-Fassi almost single-handedly supported the South Florida economy during his year-long stay here in the early 80s by purchasing several homes from Miami Beach’s Star Island to Golden Beach and The Landings in Fort Lauderdale, plus numerous cars and boats. At one point, the Sheik ran-up a $1.4 million bill at the Diplomat hotel in Hollywood. Miami, however, withdrew its welcome mat when Sheik Al-Fassi’s checks started bouncing. Sheik Mohammed Al-Fassi, who also gained notoriety for hiring artists to paint pubic hair and flesh-colored genitalia on the classic Italian statutes that surrounded his 38-room Beverly Hills mansion, passed away on December 24, 2002 in Cairo, Egypt.)
After Shareef’s marriage to the Saudi princess—a period where he and his father spent much of their time residing in the Saudi Royal Family Palace—he returned to Miami and later married his fourth wife, the beautiful fashion designer and former MTV Latin America veejay, Edith Serrano. However, after four years of marriage they were recently divorced.
In the summer of 1991 an early-morning fire did an estimated $7 million in damage to The Forge. When it re-opened in November, Shareef Malnik had assumed ownership of the business replacing his father at the helm and has controlled The Forge’s ever since.
In August of 1992, less than a year after Shareef took control of The Forge, Hurricane Andrew tore through South Florida, leaving in its wake a devastated city without water or electricity. For most businesses this was an inconvenience, but for The Forge it spelled disaster—the restaurant’s multi-million dollar wine cellar, which had been maintained at an optimum temperature for decades, was ravaged by Miami’s August temperatures that soared well into the 90s.
Over the next year, sommelier Gino Santangelo kept meticulous records of which vintages were rejected by diners, and it soon became painfully obvious that many of The Forge’s oldest and rarest wines had suffered damage and were failing to live up to the restaurant’s world-famous high standards.
In November, 1993, Shareef Malnik hired renowned British wine expert Clive Coates to evaluate the 300,000-bottle cellar for evidence of degradation. Coates uncorked 50 select bottles, some of which dated from the early Nineteenth Century, and determined that many of The Forge’s most desirable vintages were hopelessly degraded.
When The Forge’s insurance company only offered to pay a mere $450,000 for damage to the cellar, the Malnik’s sued their primary insurer Assicurazioni Generali of Italy and Transamerica Insurance Company for $5 million dollars for the loss of 25,000 bottles of classic Bordeaux and Burgundies. $3 million of the total amount was for the loss of some extremely rare vintages.
When Shareef had first assumed control in 1991, The Forge’s clientele was predominantly Miami’s aging upper-social class. Anticipating the South Beach renaissance of the early 90s, Shareef set a course to dramatically transformed The Forge from a haven for old-money Miami to an exquisitely hip destination for a new breed of social animal pouring into South Beach as it transformed itself into an international hotspot.
In 1996 Shareef opened Cuba Club, an upscale private smoker’s club that catered to celebrities. To this day the club’s walk-in humidor contains private locked-boxes with names such as Sylvester Stallone, Quentin Tarantino, Matt Dillon, and August Busch IV engraved on them.
Shareef also partnered with Pepe Horta to bring Little Havana’s famed Cafe Nostalgia to The Forge, and again transformed his club in 1997 by beginning an association that lasts until this day, with legendary Queen of the Night, Regine, to open Jimmy’z at Cuba Club.
Regine (who was once given a twelve-foot boa constrictor as a gift by friend and famed film director, Federico Fellini) is one of the most successful and prolific nightclub creators of all time. Her first club, Chez Regine, opened in Paris in 1958, and at one time she owned 19 nightclubs in Paris, Monte Carlo, Rio de Janeiro, Saint-Tropez, New York, Santiago, Cairo, Kuala Lumpur and London.
Jimmy’z is a three-room complex that operates like an old-time speakeasy, complete with front-door peep-hole for screening guests. The club’s infamous “Drop Your Pants and Forget Your Name” punch is legendary for its effects, and the list of celebrities seen at Jimmy’z is endless—michael Jordan, Madonna, Sir Paul McCartney, Robert DeNiro…on and on.
The result of Shareef Malnik’s stewardship over the last fourteen years is that The Forge has been transformed into a dining and entertainment venue that rivals the best in the world. Its renowned cuisine and white-tie service attracts top-tier diners from all over the world. Wine Spectator Magazine has bestowed its “Grand Award” on The Forge every year since the honor was instituted in 1981, and where old-money Miami socialites previously dined, it’s now often hard to determine if The Forge is really operating as a restaurant or a nightclub. But, on this particular Wednesday night, it’s a question that no one is really concerned with.
It’s just before midnight and the late-night party crowd begins to arrive. House manager Joe Day shouts instructions to four of his assistants as they position large sections of elevated flooring right through the center of the main dining salon to create a runway where svelte models will momentarily present designer Ema Savahl’s spring collection to the guests. As the girls take the stage one by one, people push forward for a better view.
Toward the front at the entrance to Jimmy’z, a bouncer is besieged by three young beauties as he apologetically explains that the doors to the nightclub won’t open for another thirty minutes. With sultry smiles the girls coyly suggest that they’re willing to do anything to get into Jimmy’z tonight, but the bouncer holds firm.
And back in the main salon, as Shareef Malnik gazes on, the music plays, the liquor flows, and the party rolls on…
Malnik/Jackson Photo: Seth| Browarnik/Red|Eye