By David Minsky
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By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
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By Laine Doss
My dad's reply coincided with both the manager's and my own: Not here, you don't.
The Gourmet Diner, the first sibling to the legendary dining institution in North Miami Beach, is officially a "smoke-free diner." Willful disobedience aside, patrons should have difficulty at either location not knowing this, since the phrase is inscribed everywhere from the plate glass on the door to the cover of the menu. Owners Sia and Nicole Hemmati designated it that way, as is their prerogative, when they purchased the NMB location from its original owner, Jean-Pierre Lejeune, a few years ago and converted the venue in Weston, a former fast-food restaurant, a couple of months back.
Regardless of the Hemmatis' preference -- unlike setting age requirements, choosing to have a nonsmoking establishment is perfectly legal -- the potential lung-cancer victim may soon be saved despite himself. The amendment to outlaw smoking in public places is on the November 5 ballot, and the only side I see campaigning is the health patrol. I won't be voting for the mandate, primarily because I don't want our hotels and eateries to lose the resort business from European and South American visitors, many of whom smoke prolifically. (Also because as far as questions of self-destruction go, I prefer personal choice to governmental mandate.) Unfortunately for the restaurant industry, my gut feeling, not to mention the sensation in my heart and lungs, is that this too shall pass -- and stay.
The amusing thing is, pro-smoker or anti-, not many of us frequent the Diner for the "breathe friendly" atmosphere. We go for the little-bit-of-everything mixed salad with traditional French vinaigrette; the simple but always excellent roasted half-chicken and skinny, greaseless pommes frites; the countless blackboard specials that rotate often enough that you can find your favorite veal Bolognese rigatoni almost every visit except one, during which -- poor darling -- you're forced to order the linguine and white clam sauce, aromatic with the essence of seafood. We go because both children and elders are welcome, with no detectable impatience (usually) on the part of the staff at the antics of either. We go for consistency (fresh, crusty baguettes with plenty of sweet cream butter) and reliability (half bottles of wine for solo diners always in stock) and because they finally accept credit cards (all major).
And we visit repeatedly, albeit in spurts. With its French-American bistro fare, mostly reasonable pricing, and you're-obviously-a-regular service, the Gourmet Diner is the girl/boy-next-door on whom you get a proverbial, lifelong crush. Your attention may be diverted by the freshest pretty face on the block, but in the end, you always return to your first love.
The Gourmet Diner has unequivocally earned such status. The first of its kind in South Florida, the upscale diner began in north Miami-Dade County in 1983 as kin to a wooden shack, located next to railroad tracks, that would threaten to crumble every time a train passed. Despite its almost immediate popularity, when it was a decade old, the restaurant was forced by the redevelopment of Biscayne Boulevard (and eminent domain) to relocate to a prefab stainless-steel structure, which Lejeune positioned across the street from his original site. The traditional rail-car dining décor begged the question, Why did the Gourmet Diner cross the road? To prove that all that glitters really is gold, apparently.
One of the few restaurants in the history of South Florida restaurateuring to move and change its look completely but maintain old clients while developing new ones, the Gourmet Diner went on the block when Lejeune decided to retire. Happily for him and his followers, the restaurants' current proprietors have maintained his standards, retaining certain key recipes like the one for the opulent custard-fruit tart, which you must order at the beginning of the meal if you want to be assured of a slice.
Indeed, in some ways, the Gourmet Diner has become even more savvy and market-oriented. I couldn't think of a more perfect town for expansion than Weston, with its custom-designed community and comfy Stepford values. The residents may like conformity, but for the most part, they're sophisticated, educated clients with enough disposable income to dine out even in this uncertain economy. A geometric tiled floor, set with tables in the center and surrounded by booths, seems deliberately uncrowded; the spacing allows intimate spots for couples and large spaces for families or groups.
Quality has also not only been carried over but built upon. Even with the decade of expectations I carried into the Weston link, I was impressed by such basics as the crabmeat salad, pure lumps of mild, white crabmeat juxtaposed against red and yellow heirloom tomatoes, fleshy but not mushy, and hunks of iceberg lettuce -- cool, crisp, refreshing -- that justified its moniker. Shaved red onion added potency, along with the perfectly balanced, Dijon-scented dressing.