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A visit to the 'Moonlight' diner

In the final scenes of the Oscar-nominated film “Moonlight,” two black men — one a muscular, prison-hardened drug dealer, the other a scrawny line cook — find each other at Miami’s Jimmy’s Eastside Diner, and the restaurant fills with tension.

Estranged for a decade, Chiron the dealer drives from Atlanta to Miami to reconnect with Kevin the cook, the only man who’s ever touched him sexually. Kevin retreats into the kitchen to fix Chiron the “Chef’s Special,” the Latin dish pollo a la plancha, or grilled chicken breast paired with black beans, white rice and chopped cilantro. When Kevin is finished cooking, both men settle into a red booth. Is the chemistry still there?

“It’s a beautiful scene. And we’re the perfect place,” Edna Cadigal, manager of Jimmy’s Eastside Diner, says of “Moonlight,” which is up for eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, ahead of the Academy Awards broadcast Sunday, Feb. 26, on ABC.

“Moonlight” is an unflinching portrait of growing up gay, black, poor and bullied in Liberty City. It follows Chiron, who is tormented about his sexuality at three different stages of his life. But the movie has special resonance at Jimmy’s Eastside Diner, a greasy spoon in the city’s Little River neighborhood. The diner, where the third act of “Moonlight” takes place, has seen a surge in foot traffic since the Barry Jenkins-directed drama opened in local theaters in October.

Since then, and more recently as the Oscars near, business has picked up about 5 percent, Cadigal says. Interest is especially strong with locals, who scout out the same pleather booth where Chiron and Kevin sat. “Moonlight” fans have also been spotted snapping selfies in front of the “Moonlight” poster hanging next to the entrance, and in front of the diner’s rainbow flag flapping below the yellowing restaurant sign, which reads, “Your Friendly Neighborhood Eatery.”

“When the movie came out, tons of people came in and started snapping pictures everywhere,” says Cadigal, who’s seated next to at a countertop where an inexplicable collection of plastic chickens are perched. “There’s new faces every day.”

And heavy traffic. The homespun restaurant opened sometime in the late 1960s — Cadigal, its manager of 14 years, doesn’t know exactly when — but has defiantly kept its old-school vibe and locals hankering for eggs and Jimmy’s meatloaf sandwich.

Now, with “Moonlight,” Jimmy’s, with its wood-paneled walls and mosaic-glass lamps, has become a symbol of unpolished Miami, an old-fashioned stalwart in a rapidly modernizing town of sleek high-rises. 

“It’s a different, more sincere view of Miami, one that refuses to change,” says Kareem Tabsch, co-director of local independent theater O Cinema. “Jimmy’s isn’t some chichi lunch spot you’d see in South Beach with surf and palm trees. It’s a working-class place, and ‘Moonlight’ is about working-class people.”

Tabsch, who says "Moonlight" is "the greatest film made in or about South Florida," will host a free Oscar watch party 6 p.m. Feb. 26 at O Cinema Miami Shores. He’s visited Jimmy’s on weekends at least twice a month for the past decade. He says “Moonlight” captures the harsh struggles within inner-city Miami. He loves the diner scene, and the way Kevin prepares the “Chef’s Special” for Chiron.

“There’s a special intimacy to the act of preparing food,” Tabsch says. “You put so much of yourself into it when you’re doing it for someone you care about. It’s a form of expressing affection.”

A waitress who would only identify herself as “Shorty,” and who has worked at Jimmy’s for 48 years, says the Chef’s Special is “movie magic”: pollo a la plancha isn’t on the menu. So is the nighttime setting in the film: The restaurant closes at 4 p.m. daily.

On a recent Monday morning at Jimmy’s, regulars streamed through the Biscayne Boulevard-facing entrance. Each was greeted by Cadigal’s husband, J.C., who told them, “Welcome to paradise.” Behind him are photos of late Bee Gees singer Maurice Gibb, another Jimmy’s habitue.

Jimmy’s has attracted the glare of celebrities and Hollywood cameras for decades. Cadigal beams as she recalls a Ford commercial that used the diner as its backdrop, as did rappers Kardinal Offishall and Akon for their 2008 music video “Dangerous.” Miami Dolphins players have passed through, as has “Moonlight” director Jenkins, whom Cadigal describes as “a very humble, simple man.”

The diner has also attracted negative press. In January, the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation found three live cockroaches and raw, unseparated meats at Jimmy’s.

Still, Jimmy’s employees are proud that “Moonlight” has thrust their diner into the spotlight. So are the regulars. Justin Berry, 36, visits the diner every Monday with his husband, Brian Neilan, 52. They have seen “Moonlight” twice together, and recall being shocked when they spotted their favorite hangout on film.

“To see it in the movie is remarkable,” says Neilan, a Miami resident. “This diner is home. It’s a place where you can be who you are, and it’s not elite or shiny.”

Adds Berry: “I can relate to [Chiron and Kevin’s] relationship. Being gay and African-American is hard. They called me the same racial slurs when I was growing up in Georgia, and you just have to stand your ground, and let people embrace you for you.”

pvalys@southflorida.com or 954-356-4364

 

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