The fall — and rise? — of a neighborhood restaurant

Posted: September 27, 2012 by shawnfury in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

The news first appeared last month on a Twitter account.

La Estufa, a restaurant in Inwood, was closing. According to the citizen’s tweet, people were removing furniture from the space it occupied near 215th Street on Broadway in Upper Manhattan.

In Inwood — and I suppose anywhere in New York, and, actually, anywhere in the country — you can never be completely surprised when a restaurant goes out of business. Family-run diners can close overnight and chains can shutdown in the middle of the day, sometimes right when a customer is biting down into a hamburger. But we thought La Estufa was safe. The restaurant, which opened in 2007, has been one of our favorites in the neighborhood. It’s 132 steps from our building’s front door to La Estufa’s entrance. We went there for the skirt steak and the fries during the week and the brunch on Sundays. We marked some big occasions in the cozy confines of the restaurant. Anniversaries, career successes, birthdays. When my parents visited a few years ago, we took them there for dinner on one of their last nights in the city.

Awhile back it even expanded, taking over part of the abandoned building next to it. They added outdoor tables and chairs and it was normal to see moms having lunch in the afternoon sun, their strollers nearby. Now it was closing?

I did a quick search on Twitter to see if anyone else had mentioned the closing, and all I saw involving La Estufa was a tweet from the restaurant’s own account, posted an hour before the person said everything was headed out the door. No mention of closing. Perhaps, I thought, they were simply getting new tables or chairs. In the weeks before the apparent shutdown, the restaurant had been closed on Mondays, so maybe this was part of a renovation.

A week later, it appeared to be official, even without an official explanation. The space looked abandoned, the restaurant’s main sign still dangled in the front but there was no other sign of life, or of what used to occupy the space.

But then… A Facebook post from the restaurant said they were simply renovating. That was a few weeks ago and it still looks the same. In the past few days, though, a large sign went up in the window, promising a return with better service and a quality experience for the neighborhood.

Who knows what really happened. Maybe the place expanded too quickly or maybe personal financial issues cropped up for the owner or maybe something bizarre happened and it all came to a temporary end in a matter of hours.

I really hope it does return, that the social media teases aren’t just that, and that the sign is a promise and not just a hope. It would be a big loss for the neighborhood, certainly. Even though several new restaurants have opened in the past few years in our little slice of the Apple, Inwood is still not known for its fine dining, or, as a neighborhood flag proclaimed a few years ago, “fine dinning.” But it’d be a much bigger loss for the people who made their livelihoods in that small space at the bottom of the famed 100 steps. On almost all of our trips to La Estufa we chatted with the owner, a friendly, hard-working, outgoing gentleman who personally — and masochistically — responded to negative reviews on Yelp, thanking the harsh critics for their insight and promising to do better on their next trip to the restaurant. It’s about three steps above defending yourself in YouTube comments, but that’s how much he cared for his restaurant. What happened to him that led to the temporary closing, and what will happen now to his family? What about our favorite waiter, who always talked up the sauce used on the free bread diners receive when they sit down? Did he know it was coming, and will he return? And the same goes for all the waitstaff and the delivery guys and the chef.

The whole thing also is very Inwoody. Odd things happen here. There was once a stationery store below us. It was always a mess inside but you could find printer cartridges or paper if you looked hard enough and battled through the dust. One day I walked past and saw several copies of my book Keeping the Faith on sale on the counter. Why were they selling my book? Instead of inquiring I simply went into my apartment, convinced that somehow the owner — who didn’t even know my name — had bought some copies of my book and was now reselling them, doing his part for a local author. Uh, no. It turned out my publisher had mailed a box of my books to me but we weren’t home so the UPS man left it with the store. This happened with other packages but they always left a note or the store let us know. No note. The store opened the package and started selling them, oblivious to the, I don’t know, is theft too strong of a word? Sadly, I don’t think anyone bought one. Eventually that store closed — and inexplicably moved into a third-floor apartment in our building, a move you might see on a failed sitcom pilot but not in real life. They didn’t last there either.

Countless places close every year, most permanently, whether it’s a spot at 207th Street that seems to rotate new businesses in every six months or the Chinese restaurant right across from us on Broadway that closed one day and was replaced a few days later by… a different Chinese restaurant. Shortly after we moved to the neighborhood in 2004, a brightly lit restaurant/kids’ joint opened up a few buildings north of ours. Great meatball subs. Think they lasted about a month, gone on a moment’s notice, rarely spoken of again. It became a studio at one point, now is home to some type of health-field business.

The city eats the businesses up and offers up opportunities for new contenders and dreamers. Residents move on, hopeful that a unique restaurant or store replaces those that have closed, while silently expecting another chain pharmacy to take up residence.

When I first saw the tweets about La Estufa shutting down, I called the restaurant, hoping to catch a worker who’d say it was a mistake. The phone rang and rang. The dial tone seemingly signaled the end of La Estufa. Now I simply hope those were temporary setbacks, but still, every time I walk past I wonder, what happened, and what is happening inside those walls?

There are a million places to eat in New York. But there are still only a few places that make you feel at home. For us, La Estufa is one of them. Hopefully they’re soon back in their own home.

  1. Rich Jensen says:

    Re: Restaurants closing.

    Joel Hodgson nailed it in “Comedians in Cars”. “The guy who makes all the money is the guy who sells the equipment” (@5:40)

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