By Jennifer Agress
When it comes to legendary restaurants in Miami, few places compare to The Forge on Miami Beach. Built as a blacksmith’s forge in the 1920s, founder Dino Phillips knew his target customer – Miami’s elite – and he outfitted his property in decorative iron gates and sculptures to lure them in. In the 1930s, he indulged his patrons even further, turning his beloved shop into a fancy supper club, dance spot, and casino, where Miami’s finest could wine, dine, and dance under the stars. Over the years, the hotspot fell into disrepair and eventually shuttered, causing Florida attorney Alvin Malnik to buy it out and turn it into the icon it is today.
By 1969, The Forge had reopened with a million-dollar makeover that made the restaurant and lounge visibly sparkle. Malnik himself was an aficionado of European art, so with the renovation came original Dali and Rousseau paintings, wall sconces from Napoleon Bonaparte’s own bedchamber, a chandelier from the Paris Opera House, hanging Swarovski crystals, intimate tables with majestic “Mad Hatter” chairs, English oak paneling, cathedral-like ceilings, and large Tiffany stained-glass panels.
The crown jewel is, of course, the eight-room underground wine cellar; it has more than 300,000 bottles of the world’s finest vintages, together valued at millions of dollars and all cared for by The Forge veteran and sommelier Gino Santangelo, who knows every bottle like members of his own family. Its allure is so jolting that it’s not uncommon to find celebrities like JC Chasez hosting extravagant dinner parties in the wine cellar’s private dining room, and even after nearly 50 years in operation, its cachet earned it a James Beard nod for “Outstanding Wine Program” in 2018.
As Miami flourished in the 1980s, The Forge was where everyone and anyone wanted to be. Today, now run by Malnik’s son, Shareef Malnik, not much has changed. Eat or drink here, and you’re amongst “the greats.” You could be sitting at Sylvester Stallone’s favorite table, toasting your week with the same drinks Judy Garland or Frank Sinatra used to order, or talking about the world’s headlines over The Forge’s perfectly-made filet mignon, much like Richard Nixon once did. If you’re celebrating a special occasion, you’re not alone. Jessica Biel and Justin Timberlake did the same for Biel’s birthday dinner in 2014.
There’s just something magical about this historic place, and you feel it as soon as you walk through its heavy wooden doors. It’s been through fires, shootings, devastating hurricanes, and even incriminating headlines, and its reputation has never tarnished. The Forge isn’t just a restaurant; it’s a Miami Beach dynasty. And to find out more about its past and present — and what’s made it such an icon over the years — we went to the source: Shareef Malnik.
You have been here in Miami since its boom in the ‘80s. What was it like then compared to now? Specifically, how has the dining scene changed?
Miami has changed so much since the 1980s. In the ‘80s, Miami Beach was just a little village, and very little was happening hospitality-wise in the city of Miami. There were very few choices as far as dining was concerned. Now Miami and Miami Beach are an urban center thriving with diversity, quality, and options. In fact, there are so many options and so much diversity that you can’t even say one genre of restaurants is prevalent. One can dine in a different restaurant every night of the week and have a completely different experience each time.
When your family first took over The Forge, what was the vision? Has that since changed?
The Forge was founded because of the limited choices there were for fine dining and good food. Although that’s no longer applicable, maintaining fine dining and good food will always be our creed. I think the main reason The Forge has thrived for so many years (50 years, in fact) is due to the fact that we care, we are part of society, and our guests feel like they’re part of our family.
What’s your favorite thing on The Forge menu? Your go-to drink order?
My favorite thing on The Forge menu is our chopped kale salad with olive oil, a little lemon, pine nuts, and Parmesan cheese. I’m actually addicted to it and eat it five nights a week. My go-to glass of wine is a glass of Caymus.
Where’s the best seat in the house?
Everyone has a different idea of what their best seat in the house is, but mine is Position 4 on Table 38. It’s in the main dining room, it’s in the corner, and from there, I can see everything that’s going on. Others may like the wine cellar or the library — it’s really a personal choice.
When is the best time to go?
I love Fridays at The Forge because it’s the Veuve Clicquot Happy Hour, so there’s a lot of energy, a DJ, and just wonderful people-watching.
Let’s talk about the wine cellar. Did you or your father ever envision it becoming what it is today? Is there one bottle in your private collection that you’re saving for a special occasion?
My dad began our wine collecting and cellar 50 years ago. The vision has always been the same, to wit: creating a collection and ambience that is a world-class experience. My favorite bottle in there is the 1822 Château Lafite Rothschild. There are only two known bottles in existence in the world.
You’ve had so many celebrities and interesting personalities come through those doors. Is there one memory at The Forge that stands out from the rest?
The most interesting night was when Madonna and Ingrid Casares were at one table, Michael Jordan at another, and Michael Douglas, Wayne Gretzky, KD Lang, and Dennis Rodman at their respective tables. They were not to be outdone by Sylvester Stallone, Niki Taylor, Billy Corgan, and Hulk Hogan at their respective tables… and then, Bono walked in. They were all in one room, on the same night, for one of our then-legendary Wednesday night parties.
Guests of Acqualina can experience The Forge with the Top Chefs Tour led by Jennifer Agress. One of the resort’s recently debuted Acqua Experiences, the tour takes you to four of the city’s most renowned restaurants, each with chefs recognized by the James Beard Foundation.
*All photos courtesy of The Forge.
About the Contributor
Jennifer Agress is a freelance writer covering food, drink, and culture. When she’s not combing the streets of Miami for a bagel and a latte, she’s likely covering luxury travel and dining for Dining Out Magazine, Private Air Luxury Homes Magazine, Haute Living Miami, Upscale Living Magazine, and Epicurean Charlotte.