You have probably passed 219 North 21st Avenue hundreds of times. And you may know that the building, which sits across from the tracks just north of Hollywood Boulevard, has some historical significance. It did house the first Hollywood Police Station and City Hall.
But as it turns out, the two-story structure has many more stories hidden behind its unassuming facade. An internet search revealed almost nothing about the building or its most famed tenant, the celebrated World Famous Hemmingway’s. So once again, we turned to our trusted source, the Hollywood Historical Society, for photos and information, and reached out to some local folks who were around in the early days of the city.
According to a 1924 edition of the Hollywood Reporter, the magazine Joseph Young created to introduce his new city to the rest of the country, 219 N. 21st Avenue was established in July 1924 as the headquarters of the Hollywood Publishing Company, which published the Reporter and the Hollywood News. Less than a year later, Young donated it to the city and it became Hollywood’s first City Hall, Police Station, and jail. It continued in that capacity, as well as the city meeting hall and the courthouse, until 1928. It was declared a historical site by the City of Hollywood in 1997.
Throughout the years, the location has housed bars, restaurants, heavy metal clubs, and even, we hear, a bondage dungeon. Among the clubs were The Continental, the Monster Rock Cafe, Club X, and the gay bar Mankind, which opened in September 2000. Local lore says that the building was a bordello in the ‘40s and ‘50s, complete with the ghost of a prostitute who hanged herself and is rumored to still wander the premises.
But 219 North 21st Avenue was never more splendid than it was when, from the late 1970s until well into the ‘90s, it was the restaurant and music venue known as World Famous Hemmingway’s.
Famous contemporaries of the time included Young Circle’s Top of the Home, Fort Lauderdale’s Yesterday’s, The Down Under, and Christopher’s, and Miami Beach’s Café Chauveron and The Forge.
But none was grander than Hemmingway’s.
Both the staff and the clientele dressed in the finest styles of the era. Managers and waiters dressed in suits and black tie. Outside, the line to enter would often go around the block, well at least if you didn’t have a reservation or know the right people.
“Jackets were always required, and Alex was the maître d’, the main man, night and day,” recalled Hollywood artist Jorge Palacios, who was a waiter at the Hemmingway’s in the early ‘80s. “Every top politician, every top city official, every big shot in South Florida was there. There was lots of cocaine, and special private parties that started at one in the morning and went on through the night almost every night.”
Tables were held for all the local elites and notorious. Some were dining for celebrations while others were having their last meals before heading “up the river”.
It was South Florida’s cocaine era and mob heyday. No one ever asked what one did for a living at these places. According to Hollywood real estate broker John DeMarco, who represented the owner in a recent sale of the property, Al Capone was said to have been a silent partner in the club.
Hemingway’s motto was “Meals, Mead and Mirth,” and for over two decades, it brought great food and some of the biggest entertainers in the business to South Florida. It was both a restaurant with white glove service, as well as a musical venue that featured some of the biggest names in Jazz and Pop. Among the many stars who performed there were Dave Brubeck, Little Anthony, Buddy Rich, and Nat King Cole.
Non-concert nights showcased some of the finest live bands in the region, playing top 40 and disco music while patrons danced the nights away. Popular local DJs, a famous Onion Soup and Steak Tidbits, and a commitment to throwing a great party drew a crowd that packed the place every night.
Daytime entertainment featured a piano player for the power lunch crowd. His name was Phil — I really don’t know why I remember this, but I do!
During the late ‘70s, the house band at Hemmingway’s was legendary Miami R&B singer Wayne Cochran & His CC Riders. It has been said that Elvis Presley stole much of his routine from Cochran, one of our area’s first nationally recognized performers. He performed brilliantly with a full band and dancers. Cochran performances were classic blasts of high energy R&B that attracted people from not only around the region but from around the world.
Cochran’s performances were in a revival style, as at the time he was transitioning from performing on the national music scene to becoming a full time Baptist Preacher in Hialeah. During many a performance, Cochran was known to jump on one of the tables and start smashing bottles and preaching an anti-drinking sermon!
These were truly evenings and performances not to be missed and sure to be remembered.
While Cochran’s trademark foot-high pompadour haircut was a sight to see, he was not even the most eclectic performer at the Hemmingway’s. That honor easily went to Tiny Tim of “Tiptoe through the Tulips”. He became a part of Hemmingway’s usual line-up, with a traditional booking of one week every year in the main room.
One of my more memorable visits to the “Upstairs Room” saw us close the facility late one weekend night. With a desire to continue the evening, we took several revelers, including Tiny Tim, to the old Palm Bay Club in Miami. For the entire ride south, he regaled us with the tale of his marriage to Miss Vickie on the Johnny Carson show.
Just another night in the big city.
Palacios recalled that almost every big name in entertainment in the ‘80s, including Gloria Estefan and Billy Joel, played there too.
“Hemmingway’s was a blast!” said former waiter Peter Richard Viens. “Owner George Young was crazy and fun. Tuxedoed waiters, table side service, live national bands. Nothing else in the area was like it.”
“First of all, the food was delicious,” remembered Hemmingway’s patron Hilary Smith, “and the ambiance embraced the nostalgic era of the ‘40s.”
Added former Hollywood Commissioner Sue Gunzburger: “I remember going there for many nice events upstairs, as well having many dinners there that were very enjoyable.”
“What fun; it was quite a place,” recalled Susie Smith, who worked there during her college days in the ‘80s. “Wayne Cochran & the CC Riders performed during most of my time there, and Buddy Rich came in for a gig.”
But what struck her most was the attention to detail out of the kitchen.
“If the manager walked out and a plate went by without all the proper garnish — two toasted pumpernickel garlic bread chunks on a skewer, a sliced bell pepper circle and a strawberry — that server was fired instantly. Not one server that worked there when I started still worked there when I left. There was tremendous staff turnover.”
But it was exactly that attention to detail that made it so good. To this day, memories of the Onion Soup still run through my head and evoke memories of that magical place.
Then alas, one day, the doors closed and the party ended.
And like so many other fun and iconic South Florida places, World Famous Hemmingway’s simply moved out of the daily dialogue and become folklore or faded from memory.
The rumor mills say that Hemmingway’s sudden closing had something to do with a drug deal gone wrong, coins owed, and “people who were being watched,” said Palacios. But no one really knows.
Today, the building houses a Peruvian restaurant called Runa’s, and the adjacent bar, called the Tavern, still holds remnants of the glitz and glamour that was the original Hemmingway’s.
The marble floors, high ceilings, crystal chandeliers, and reportedly original Tiffany stained glass recall the grandeur of its glory days. The long, beautifully-embellished, mahogany bar, which local chatter claims came from the original Yankee Stadium in New York, was, according to realtor DeMarco, supposedly a gift from Capone to his partner in the establishment.
“Google It” is our answer to every request for information these days. Yet there is not one mention of Hollywood’s first City Hall/Police Station/Jail, nor of the Hollywood Publishing Company, nor of the historic World Famous Hemmingway’s, the grandest inhabitant of them all.
As always, we thank the Hollywood Historical Society for their unceasing efforts to catalog and preserve the precious memories of the city that Joe built.
An earlier version of this story suggested the Al Capone was known to frequent Hemmingway’s. The Hollywood Historical Society took issue with this assertion and added context and in a detailed inquiry below. We appreciate the support of the Hollywood Historical Society and their assistance in our historical features.
We have been putting together a response to this article, but have been delayed in sending it due to out of town travels and the like. But late or not, we would like to respond, since the Hollywood Historical Society has been thanked for assistance with the piece which suggests that Chicago gangster Al Capone spent time in this building which had been Hollywood’s first City Hall. Unfortunately no dates or documents are provided to support this notion.
It is certainly time that research was done on the “World Famous Hemmingway’s.” And while not providing much in the way of dates (like months, years), the quotes from people who worked there and were customers are good reading and give a nice sense of what it was like to be at Hemmingway’s during its time in the former city hall. But it really isn’t clear just when this took place. There is a reference to people who were around in the “early days” of Hollywood, but they seem to have been here in the 1970s and 1980s, hardly “early” since Hollywood was begun in 1920 and Hollywood’s history from 1920 to at least 1950 has been carefully documented. There is, for example, a brief reference to when “the place” was a speakeasy. We would dearly like to know what years this was. We are not even certain who owned the building when it ceased to be City Hall, but most likely it continued to be owned by the city. Hollywood was full of empty buildings in the Thirties through the Fifties. Young built to last, so very possibly it was just another dusty, hollow building until it became Hemmingway’s in the Seventies. This might well be the first time the former office building was transformed into a restaurant.
Some statements to question, however, include local lore that the building was a “bordello” in the Forties and Fifties. But there is no record of a group of prostitutes hanging out in downtown Hollywood at that time. This is not because no one thought to mention it. Hollywood did have other offbeat/criminal activities downtown during those years, specifically gambling, but this is all documented, in public records, as well as local lore. For example, on Hollywood Boulevard from David’s Place to Breeding’s Drugs to the Rainbo, gambling from slot machines to fancy tables to horse wires took place, was noted in the news, condemned by Hollywood’s religious leaders and citizens in general, closed down (and sometimes reopened). But the former city hall is never mentioned as one of the sites of sin and iniquity. As for prostitutes, at one point the county took a census of everyone’s occupations in the 1930s and 1940s. This list was in the County Historical Commission before it was removed to the county library. There is a listing for prostitutes, but their places of work were in unincorporated Hallandale. This old-timer, born and raised in Hollywood walked or biked past the old city hall regularly to get downtown. I was warned by my parents not to go into the back room at David’s Place. But was never told to avoid the old city hall.
Another thing–the article suggests that Al Capone, who had a home in Cicero, Illinois and another on Palm Island in Miami Beach, was part owner–of what, exactly? And Capone is now said, based on recent rumors, to have frequented “the place.” Again, which place? Dates and names are really lacking here. There is plenty of documentation (books!) about Capone, so here is what is relevant to his supposed frequenting of maybe Hemmingway’s? in Hollywood. Capone was born in 1899 and moved to Chicago in 1920. In January, 1928 he first went to Miami Beach and bought the Busch mansion on Palm Island, which he proceeded to fortify. Beginning in 1929 Capone was in various prisons, including Alcatraz. Upon his release in November, 1939, he returned to Palm Island, ill with syphilis and not entirely sane. He died there in January, 1947. Moreover, while info about Capone and the city hall is lacking, we can and have documented the existence in Hollywood of a number of members of the New York gambling syndicate headed by Meyer Lansky. No rumors are required. Their homes (Jake Lansky, Potatoes Kaufman, Jimmy Blue Eyes Alo, and more) are documented, in fact several were on various HHS home tours. If you do any studying of US gangsters, it becomes clear that New York syndicates do not share with Chicago gangsters. Kaufman was on the run from the Chicago mob when he took refuge, so to speak, with Lansky. So it hardly seems likely that both the Lansky organization and Capone shared the streets of then-tiny Hollywood.
We do very much appreciate your articles on historic Hollywood. We would just like to see some specific dates and perhaps serious published sources. And of course you are welcome anytime at the Hollywood Historical Society’s Research Center, open ALL YEAR every Friday, where volunteer archivists will be happy to help with your research projects.
the archivists of Hollywood Historical Society