This is the latest edition of Who Goes There? a regular feature in which Lost City's Brooks of Sheffield cracks the doors on mysteriously enduring Gotham restaurants—unsung, curious neighborhood mainstays with the dusty, forgotten, determined look—to learn secrets of longevity and find out, who goes there.
The thick-haired manager of Tio Pepe, the Spanish-Mexican place on W. 4th Street in Greenwich Village, all but drags customers into his restaurant, leaping to the sidewalk whenever he sees a couple showing interest in the menu posted outside. But he doesn't really need to do much cajoling. A great many are more than happy to enter the small, but deep, restaurant, with its cheesy Iberian-flavored decor (barrels half-buried in the wall, cast-iron chandeliers). Some are tourists wandering the Village. Some are locals who have gotten used to Tio Pepe always being there. Many, however, are Spanish and Mexican visitors who somehow know about the place and begin an all-Spanish dialogue with the manager and waiters the moment they walk in. "This is Greenwich Village," said one waiter about the surprisingly international crowd. "Everyone comes by here."
Tio Pepe was founded in 1970 by Jimmy and Rocio Sanz, who still own it and the building its in. They also own a couple neighboring buildings which contain Burrito Loco and Las Ramblas, two other eateries in their local mini-empire, which also includes Casa Pepe in Bay Ridge. You wouldn't guess Tio Pepe was 40 years old from the interior, which has obviously been glossed up in recent years. "You have to give the people something," explained the manager. The only giveaways are the old, illuminated yellow sign hanging above the restaurant, with the figure of a chef holding a lobster in one hand and a bota wineskin in the other; and the floor inside, which shows its age by sloping and drooping a bit at the corners.
Tio Pepe has a direct view onto W. 4th and, in good weather, the entire glass frontage is opened, leaving about six inches of air between you and the various Village characters who pass by. Good people watching, in other words, and in both directions.
I suspect many patrons return here because of the unflaggingly attentive and polite service. If business ever falls off (and it never seems to, based on my hundreds of walks past Tio Pepe over the years), it won't be because they didn't try to keep a customer. The menu is half-Spanish, half-Mexican. The Sanzes added the Mexican back in 1972 after a trip to Mexico. The food is plentiful and decent, if extremely salty. Nothing is special, but nothing is terrible. It's the Spanish version of a red-sauce Italian joint. Paella is prominent. And guacamole is a special attraction. Order it and they'll roll out a cart and make it tableside, cutting and mashing the vegetables in front of you. Whenever this happens, it stops the restaurant. Every customer stops and stares for a moment.
—Brooks of Sheffield