Irony of ironies: It was apparently the $125,000 wine-by-the-glass dispenser Alvin Malnik put in six months ago to make his wines more accessible to the public that nearly destroyed his $10 million wine cellar and the entire Forge Restaurant he had spent the past 22 years creating. At least that’s Al Malnik’s belief. Federal, state and Miami Beach investigators said they aren’t sure what caused the Wednesday morning fire at the landmark Miami Beach restaurant, but they do not suspect arson.
Al Malnik was distraught. “It’s just awful. The Pharmacy (dining room) is just completely destroyed. It’s just so personal with me. I designed and built every inch of it.”
He said the loss was not insured. “I’m a self-insured guy.”
But he vowed to rebuild quickly, with his own money. In fact, Malnik’s son, Shareef, 33, said the restaurant might reopen “within days” with at least half of its dining rooms back in business.
In its early days the restaurant attracted such celebrities as Arthur Godfrey, Judy Garland, Jackie Gleason, Sammy Davis Jr., and Frank Sinatra and gossip columnist Walter Winchell. Former president Richard Nixon also was a customer.
More recently under Malnik’s ownership, it attracted Richard Burton and Pia Zadora, and director Brian DePalma shot several scenes for his movie Scarface inside the ornate dining rooms. Investigators put damage at $7 million. Shareef Malnik called it “nowhere near that,” and said seven of the restaurant’s nine dining rooms suffered no more than smoke damage. The 300,000-bottle wine cellar and museum were untouched by flames, and its usual 62-degree temperature never rose above 70, even though its electricity was out for several hours, he said.
He illustrated the point with an hour-long guided tour. The Pharmacy dining room was a soggy mass of shattered glass and charred timbers. Its dome-shaped, stained glass ceiling had collapsed in thousands of pieces onto the long, granite Moroccan table and 10 high-back chairs from the estate of heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post.
Miraculously, in the Sports Room 10 feet away, neatly folded cloth napkins on the tables were not even scorched. The room’s 30-foot high, domed, stained-glass ceiling and collection of 19th Century European sports posters were intact.
“No fire is good,” Shareef Malnik said, “but we’re feeling pretty thankful.”
In the Cabaret a few feet away, the Cruvinet wine system, a 120-bottle dispenser that served wine by the glass from $4.50 to $39, tilted crazily, its wiring ripped out from the back wall. The fire apparently began there and traveled through a false ceiling to the Pharmacy dining room, he said. The rest of the restaurant – the Main Dining Room, with its colorful Beardsley Rousseau parrot mural, was smoky but intact, as were the Gallery, with its life-size bronze goddess statue by John Nast, and the Library, with its 1907 Tiffany window and 250-year old crystal chandelier from James Madison’s White House.
Plunging into the wine cellar with a flashlight, Shareef showed that the 1822 Chateau Lafite Rothschild listed on the wine list at $75,000 was undamaged, as were the 1929 Chateau Haut-Batailley, the 1962 Chateau Margaux and 1797 Madeira. The room was cool, not smoky.
The elder Malnik vowed to recover. “The Forge represents 22 years of my life. It will be back, resplendent in every way, better than ever.”