John Nigro says he has no idea why his father decided to open a small restaurant in the remote reaches of west Hollywood in 1959. “There was literally nothing here,” John Nigro recalls. “There were fields and cows all around. I guess this was the only place that he could afford.”
Samuel “Sonny” Nigro came from a family that ran a bakery in Philadelphia, and he moved to South Florida after serving in the U.S. Navy in World War II. He attended the University of Miami, but flour and dough ran in his blood. With his life savings of $500, he started a restaurant where all the bread was baked fresh daily.
“He tried a little bit of everything. At first, it was a lunch counter and fountain shop with milkshakes and cherry sodas. Then, it became a restaurant with full dinner service,” John Nigro says. Eventually, the eatery, at 1857 N. 66th Ave., became known for its subs and Philadelphia-style cheesesteak hoagies, which Sonny deliberately misspelled as “hogies,” his son says, as a conversation starter.
Sixty years later, the unassuming, family-run Sonny’s Famous Steak Hogies still stands at the same spot. Sonny retired in 2000 and died in 2003, but John Nigro, 64, has stayed true to his father’s vision. He comes daily to oversee the baking of the hoagie rolls and the simmering of the tomato sauce, and he has turned down offers to open more locations or franchise.
“My father was all about humility, hard work and perseverance,” Nigro says. “We have persevered.”
Longevity and customer loyalty turned the restaurant into a South Florida landmark, and a 2009 appearance on Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” on Food Network has assured a steady flow of newcomers and tourists. On Tuesday, May 29, the Nigro family will say thanks and celebrate the restaurant’s 60th anniversary with an all-day party that will feature all menu items for $6 all day, free cake and drinks at tents set up in the parking lot, music, giveaways and a 5 p.m. ceremony. Politicians will be on hand to issue proclamations and give Nigro a key to the city of Hollywood.
“Being here 60 years, it’s a very emotional thing for me,” Nigro says. “My dad would be proud of what we’ve accomplished. People who came in here growing up, people who had their first dates here, they’re in their 60s and 70s. To see them all come back, and to see all their kids and grandkids come in, that means something.”
As I wrote in a 2017 review, Sonny’s is a glorious rebuke to our region’s typical transience and trendiness: “You feel like you’re entering a time warp, a scene from a Norman Rockwell painting. There’s a small counter, a grill with sizzling shaved rib-eye, booths with wooden tables and friendly waitresses. This is a bygone, no-frills world where the only things plastic are bowls and utensils — it’s cash only, no credit cards.”
Not that you need much green to eat well here. Most items remain under $10, and Nigro has been known to float regulars a little short before payday and send platters to those mourning relatives or celebrating births. Perhaps the shrewdest business move he made came in 2002, when he went from being tenant to landlord after buying the strip shopping center where Sonny’s is located.
His father’s stamp remains all over the restaurant, including the quirky numerical shorthand for steak subs. A “50” is a steak sub with sauce and onions (5 looks like an S for sauce, 0 is for onions.) A “9” is a plain steak sub, because 9 looks like a backwards “P.” “My dad was unique,” John says. “He liked to do things just to get people talking.”
The list of South Florida eateries that have lasted six decades (much less in the same place with the same ownership) is short. Among them: Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami Beach opened in 1913, and the S&S Diner in Miami (which moved after a brief shuttering in 2017) has been around since 1938. The original Shorty’s BBQ in Miami opened in 1951, Frankie’s Pizza in 1957 and Arbetter’s Hot Dogs (1959) celebrates its 60th next year. The Okeechobee Steakhouse in West Palm Beach opened in 1947, and Howley’s diner in West Palm Beach opened in 1950.
In Broward, Cap’s Place in Lighthouse Point has been around (with multiple owners) since the late 1920s, the Floridian diner (with multiple owners) in Fort Lauderdale since 1937, Tropical Acres Steakhouse in Dania Beach (with a hiatus after a fire) since 1949, the Geogia Pig in Fort Lauderdale (with multiple owners) since 1953, the Rustic Inn Crabhouse in Dania Beach (with multiple owners) since 1955, the Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale since 1956, Jaxson’s Ice Cream Parlour in Dania Beach since 1956 and Grampa’s Restaurant and Bakery in Dania Beach since 1957.
“We don’t take anything for granted,” Nigro says. “We feel like we have to earn our customers every day.”
Nigro has endured despite physical setbacks in the past decade, including a brain aneurysm that required a shunt inserted in his head. “I’m getting a little old, and a little tired,” Nigro says. Some family members work at the restaurant, including his sister, Valorie Sanford, and his grandson, Timothy Arnold, who intends to become a firefighter. Nigro considers his longtime general manager, Brian Harrison, like family, but he does not know what the future holds for Sonny’s.
Nigro understands that the younger generation may not want to get into the family business. It’s not easy managing workers, ordering inventory, keeping customers happy and waking up early to bake between 480 and 720 hoagie rolls daily.
“It takes over your life,” Nigro says. “You’re married to your business 24/7. But that’s OK, because I love it. I still love to work.”
May 24: Funky Buddha beer dinner at Mai-Kai, 3599 N. Federal Highway, in Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $55 plus tax and tip. Call 954-563-3272 to reserve.
May 24: Pappy Van Winkle bourbon dinner, Council Oak Steaks and Seafood, Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, in Hollywood. Tickets cost $450 plus tax and tip. Call 954-316-2900 to reserve.
June 2: Funky Buddha Brewery fifth anniversary party, 2-10 p.m., 1201 NE 38th St., Oakland Park.
June 2: Taste of Recovery to benefit Crossroads Club for addiction recovery, hosted by Louie Bossi, Old School Square, in Delray Beach. Tickets cost $40.
June 8: Sushi and Stroll Summer Walk Series, Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens, 4000 Morikami Park Road, Delray Beach. Admission is $7 adults, $5 kids in advance plus additional cost for food and drink.
June 10: Cochon 555, a competition pitting local chefs cooking pig, 1 Hotel South Beach, 2341 Collins Ave., Miami Beach. Tickets start at $130.
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