OCEAN CITY– An iconic Ocean City restaurant is celebrating five decades of providing families with a quality dining experience.
The Bonfire Restaurant, located on Coastal Highway at 70th Street, is celebrating 50 years of business in 2023. The 425-seat restaurant, known for its buffet, has undergone several changes over the years but continues to focus on good food and fair prices, a practice the Leiner family says isn’t changing. The Bonfire’s owners, Mark and Donna Leiner, said they were grateful for the loyalty and support both residents and visitors have shown the business over the years.
“They work hard for their money,” Donna Leiner said. “That they choose to spend it with us is a privilege.”
The Bonfire opened in 1973 at what was once the Golden Bull. Mark Leiner said his father, Richard, and his Great Uncles Sam and Irv Taustin agreed to buy the property at the end of 1972 and opened the Bonfire in the spring of 1973.
“My uncle wanted to lease but my father said they were going to buy the land or he wasn’t interested,” Leiner recalled. “That was the best move ever made.”
He remembers the restaurant’s early years–back when appetizers started at 95 cents–when his father would start the day at Candy Kitchen, be at Embers by 4 p.m. and then spend the evening at the Bonfire.
“He was a force,” Donna Leiner said.
While the family remodeled the Golden Bull before opening it as the Bonfire, they maintained the facility’s fine
dining menu. What is now table seating was a dance floor and patrons flocked to the Bonfire’s night club. Bands would start at 9 p.m. and play until the early hours of the morning.
“This was the place to come,”said Bartosz Rafinski, the Leiners’ son-in-law and now the Bonfire’s chef.
Mark and Donna, who started waiting tables at the Bonfire on the same night, got married at the restaurant in 1984. Under Mark’s guidance, the restaurant gradually evolved. After he studied Chinese cooking, they added that to the menu.
“The food was delicious,” he said.
The family decided to begin transitioning the Bonfire to an all-you-can-eat Prime Rib and Seafood Buffet, while still offering an a la carte menu.
“It was just seeing the writing on the wall,” Leiner said. “We had labor problems back then. Staff quit by the second week in August. Buffet seemed the way to go.”
Today, the restaurant, which offers diners views of tropical aquariums and vibrant flowers, features a 150-foot buffet. Diners can choose from seafood, prime rib, soups and salads, fresh fish, home smoked meats and barbeque ribs, fruit and fresh baked desserts, and much more. The Leiners credit dedicated kitchen staff, guided over the years by Mark Leiner, Phil Wenker and later by Remo Moffa, with establishing the restaurant’s reputation for high quality food. Rafinski, who started at the restaurant in 2006, said he learned under Wenker and Moffa, whose own children worked at the restaurant. The Leiners’ five children also have all had roles at the Bonfire over the years.
“This is like a second home for all of us,” Rafinski said. “It’s hard working, loyal people behind everything.”
While other buffets in the resort area have closed their doors, the Leiner family says diners still see the value in what is offered at the Bonfire.
“The place looks nice, the staff is friendly and the food is great,” Mark Leiner said.
His wife noted that the restaurant even survived the pandemic despite the fact that buffets were one of the last places allowed to reopen and when the Bonfire did reopen, servers had to bring diners their food from the buffet until restrictions were eased.
“You have to evolve and be what you need to be,” Donna said.
Her husband agreed.
“There’s a bond that grows with your staff when you go through something like that,” he said.
With a staff of more than 100 employees every summer, many of them are international students, here with J-1 work and travel visas. That’s how Rafinski, who is from Poland, got his start at the Bonfire.
“This place has helped a lot of people,” Rafinski said.
Staff have quit to take jobs elsewhere, only to return a year or two later.
“It’s a good place to be,” Rafinski said.
Donna Leiner said some former employees have gone on to launch their own eateries in Ocean City. “It makes me proud there have been so many success stories,” she said.
The family hopes to reconnect with former workers this fall when the Leiners host a 50th anniversary alumni and current staff party in October. In the meantime, they plan to continue providing resort visitors the best food and service they can offer.
“We hope the families that have been bringing their kids will have their kids bringing their kids for another 25 years,” Rafinski said. “We are looking forward to providing the best dining experience possible for our customers. Great, homemade food and good friendly service. That’s what keeps us going.”