Sad but not surprised at Tortilla Flats closing

The Ernest Borgnine booth at Tortilla Flats six years ago, after the actor’s death, when a memorial was added, including small Day of the Dead-style sugar masks, votive candles, flowers and a T-shirt. The far West Village bar was famous for, among other things, its regular Ernest Borgnine Night.

BY MICHELE HERMAN | In April, in honor of National Poetry Month, I was named first poet laureate of Tortilla Flats, the Tex-Mex restaurant that has anchored the southeast corner of 12th and Washington Sts. since 1983.

My duties have been light: I gave a few readings between rounds of Monday and Tuesday evening bingo. Given how rowdy it can get in there, the audiences were surprisingly welcoming and attentive. I still wear my title proudly. I love the way it perfectly sums up the goofy, irreverent vibe of the place and its staff, under which lies a lot of decency and thoughtfulness.

Last Thursday I bumped into Matt Chiasson, the friendly manager and bartender who was so warm to me in April. When he asked me if I’d heard the bad news, my stomach sank to the cobblestones. I hadn’t, but I had a pretty good guess.

The restaurant, which occupies the ground floor of an old townhouse owned by the William Gottlieb Real Estate company, is closing its doors at 4 a.m. Sat., Oct. 27, a few days before its current lease runs out. The owners are not saying much beyond the fact that they were unable to reach an agreement with the landlord for an extension. It’s clear from their shell-shocked reaction that this happened unexpectedly and at the last minute.

I was heartsick but not surprised. For years the far West Village has been undergoing a creepy metamorphosis. Take the large building three doors down from the restaurant on Washington St., which has transformed from photo agency to inscrutable super-high-end store. It’s called Chrome Hearts — though there’s no sign outside and no chrome or hearts inside. The store specializes in very heavy and expensive rock-star-style jewelry. The merchandise is all in the back, mostly locked behind glass. The vast, lavishly renovated front half of the building, originally a garage, is empty except for a stuffed black-leather brontosaurus as big as a car, with spikes made of gold finials. There’s a bouncer in a dark suit, which seems slightly aspirational given the fact that the store is so often empty.

It’s in this climate that my husband and I have alternately consoled and spooked ourselves by saying, while crossing our fingers for good luck, “At least Tortilla Flats is still around.”

Jean Bambury and Andy Secular, who have had a happy partnership as co-owners since 1991, are heartsick, too. But they’re also proud that they kept the restaurant up and running and still popular for 35 years, an almost unheard of feat, especially for a place so much of its kitschy ’80s moment. I stopped in Thursday evening around 9 to learn more, and the joint was so packed with jolly customers that I could hardly move.

The owners have plenty of reasons to feel disgusted by the irony of being forced out by a neighborhood revival that they helped create. When we moved to 12th St. in the ’80s, people would often ask if I was afraid to walk home alone at night. I always answered no, because there were restaurants on every corner, with Tortilla Flats the final beacon leading me safely home. Secular and Bambury have plenty of reasons to be angry, too. But they prefer to go out on a high note.

“It’s been crushing,” said Secular. “My take is that we’re grateful to the people who’ve supported us for 35 years. We’re grateful for the memories we’ve made and the people we’ve touched. We have never taken for granted that that door would open, and I think that’s why there are so many warm feelings for us.”

Bambury added, “The reality is starting to sink in. We’re out of Hornitos [tequila] and won’t be reordering. We’re still trying to make sense of this. Our staff are devastated. The hardest part will be saying goodbye to our wonderful neighbors.”

Concerned about the fate of their staff, Bambury has put out a call to other restaurant owners who might be hiring. I spoke to day-shift cook Nelly Dilone, only one of many extremely loyal employees, but maybe the one with the most dramatic story. Tortilla Flats was her first and remains her only employer. Both her parents and her brother have also worked at the restaurant. She began as a dishwasher in 1988 when she was 22, and worked her way up. Growing up in the Dominican Republic the oldest of 12 children, she learned to cook early on to help her mother out.

She looks like a kid herself, but has four kids of her own, her youngest being 9-year-old twins. She is also grandmother of a college student. She readily admitted that it’s hard working in a tiny un-air-conditioned kitchen, but she never wanted to move on.

“I didn’t try to look for another job because they were so nice to me,” she said. “It’s like family. It’s like working at my own house. They try to make you feel comfortable. I feel very sad — all my life has been here.”

There are three other major old-timers, all familiar faces around the neighborhood: bartender John Rowan, busboy Luis Nunez and waiter Royston “Roy” Scott, who is also an award-winning filmmaker. (Matt, the aforementioned manager, is also an accomplished working musician.)

Bambury added that even the “rookies” have 10 to 15 years under their belts.

“We have a core staff of around 30 and a summer crew of around 40,” she said. “We’ve had over 500 employees since we opened, and probably 100 of them were teens having their first job.”

E-mails have been pouring in as the news spread. One plaintive one came from a neighbor who wrote: “The kids were supposed to get their first jobs there — now what?”

Bambury and Secular don’t have any immediate plans. Speculation is running high about will happen to the building. A few years ago the landlord did structural work on the exterior. But the second- and third-floor interiors have been empty for years, and are currently uninhabitable. The building is within the Greenwich Village Historic District and sits on a small footprint, which means it would be hard for anyone to propose tearing it down or putting an addition on top. Neil Bender, the Gottlieb nephew who now runs the company, didn’t respond to my request for an interview.

Now that I am not only the first but the only poet laureate of Tortilla Flats, I would like to follow the lead of these two dedicated local businesspeople who have become dear friends to so many of us, and go out on a high note. But I can’t. I’m feeling too sad and bitter at the unnecessary loss of a neighborhood anchor that practically defined the word “vibrant.”

2 Responses to Sad but not surprised at Tortilla Flats closing

  1. So sad!! I was mad when Blind Tiger on Hudson closed too!! The Village will never be the same!!

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