When you think of your hometown, a few things always come to mind: the kids' sports leagues, schools, friends and a great local restaurant. For many in the Pinecrest area, Suniland Shopping Center’s Wagons West is their favorite place to eat. And with good reason…
For 25 years, Jim Smith (of JAS Group Architects Planners) has come four days a week for his lunch. Why? “It’s predictable, the food is great, the hostesses are the best and there’s always Wally, the entertainer. It’s where the elite meet to eat,” boasts Smith. “I’ve closed more business deals here than anywhere else, including our office.”
Russell, Joyce & Wade Langley have been eating here since 1974 when it was the Suniland Luncheonette. “Wagons’ food is consistently good, the coffee is wonderful, Walter is a great guy and the staff is marvelous,” said Joyce.
My wife's family, the Morrisons, have been eating at Wagons since it opened in 1981. Before I moved to Miami, they would proudly take me to Wagons West, calling it South Florida tradition.
Wagons West is a “water cooler” spot. Even more than the great American food, it's the place for local news and gossip. It's impossible not to be recognized and warmly greeted when you walk in. There’s a strong sense of consistency and staying power, punctuated perfectly by the original redwood outdoor sign which now proudly hangs over the kitchen area.
The owners, Walter and Steven Muench, came to the United States from Germany in 1958. They moved to South Florida in 1971 and operated two restaurants that preceded Wagons West. From 1981 to 1989, the two brothers cooked everything at the restaurant themselves. Walter (or Wally as most people call him) looks back on those days with pride and satisfaction. “There was nothing like working the kitchen and turning out great food for all my patrons. Their smiles and support was all I needed to know we’d done good.” Brother Stephen retired in 2010, but Wally continues the family tradition.
To this day, Wally is comfortable in his restaurant and he’s made countless others comfortable as well. The staff, who are more like family, are Saturnan Auguste (29 years), Dawn Crawly (10 years), Lin Farres (14 years), Vanessa Gomez (17 years), Joan Greenberg (8 years), Stephanie Keough (3 years), Laura Kurucz (8 years), Sandy Lenhardt (20 years), Danielle Penny (6 years), Susan Schroder (18 years), Vivian Schroder (10 years), Beppi Steele (20 years), Rachel Thibault (10 years), Joan Weinstein (12 years) and Freeman Williams (10 years). Once you’re in, you unlikely to leave. To the patrons, the staff is what makes Wagons West so special.
Upon opening in 1981, Wagons West was immediately given a Western theme. Wally says although the theme was definite, the name choice was not. “My brother and I were at the attorney's office to register the business and we knew we wanted a wagon as the centerpiece for our Western theme. We went in with about 30-50 relatively generic names and quickly boiled it down to four: Wagons North, South, East and West.” They ended up choosing West because they liked the phrase 'Go West young man' and they thought it best fit the theme. With a smile, Wally remembers the early decorations. “We had model wagons in the window for a while, but (he chuckles) we got tired of our patrons complaining they were facing the wrong direction. So, down they came!”
Not much else has changed. The well-worn counters, booths, tables, wall decor and floors all reflect the staying power and fun attitude of the restaurant. “People eat with their eyes,” says Wally. “We know that to stay successful, we need to be consistent...in our theme and the food's appearance and taste. The secret is stable pricing, quality product and good service.”
Wally’s son, Michael, goes to FIU and works in the restaurant on weekends. I asked Wally about the future of Wagons. “He’s got the chops to take over once I’m retired,” says Wally. “He’s 23 and has been helping out here since he was six years old. He knows how to do it, probably better than me…and faster. But I think he’s got different loves in life.”
Lots of notable people eat at Wagons West. “Yeah, we got TV personalities, Mayors, judges and big time business people,” recalls Wally. “Famous people? We got all kinds, including yourself, Hal (we both laugh hard).”
Wally reflects, “This is like Times Square…right here in our town. Everyone gets to Times Square at least once in their life. Like Andy Worhol said, ‘You’re gonna get your 15-minutes of fame’. This is where everyone gets their 15-minutes. This is where everyone comes to be part of the community. Everyone seems to pass through here.”
Russell Langley tells the real story of Wagons West’s success. “They treat me great. Since my back surgery, I have trouble getting into a back booth. Each time I come, a waitress, busboy or a backend guys will jump to help me without asking. They’re always a great help. They take care of me.”
The regulars love it when Wally or the wait staff sits down with them. Wally says, “They love the attention and they’re already like family, so why not! We ask them how things are and how they’re doing.”
As someone who regularly sits down for a good Wagons West meal, I can attest they take care of every customer every day. There’s nothing quite like getting my Wagons fix. If you're in the area, I highly recommend you grab some good American food and soak in a little bit of Pinecrest. Tell Wally I sent you. You won't be disappointed.