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.
El Sombrero Restaurant—known to one and all simply as "The Hat"—is the last bit of the old Lower East Side to grace the northernmost block of Ludlow Street. Not the old, OLD Lower East Side; that neighborhood is still represented by Katz's Delicatessen, which still anchors the street after 125 years. I mean the old Lower East Side, the gritty, pre-gentrification neighborhood, when the streets at night were still forbidding and empty.
At the time it opened, in 1983, The Hat was a necessary outpost of cheap, decent food, a place where both locals and the various young people who had moved to the Lower East Side for the cheap rents (can you imagine such a time?) could fill up for very little money. Because of that, and its highly visible location and late hours, it became an instant hit among downtown denizens. Today, it looks quite quite of place, surrounded as it is with trendy bars and restaurants that outclass it in both food and price. You can see the swanky Stanton Social down the street through The Hat's long double wall of windows. So, it wasn't much of a shock, then, when it was announced that the place would close. (A waitress told me it might hang on until January.) I'm surprised it actually lasted this long in the current economic environment.
I used to go to The Hat quite a bit, but roughly 15 years had passed since my last visit. I was a bit stunned to see that almost nothing had changed about the joint. The dining room was still a collection of utilitarian tables, some designed for large parties, many covered in plastic. A few sombreros and bad painting adorned the walls. The not-terribly-potent frozen margaritas were still flowing. The menu of Mexican-American standards was the same, and I'll be damned, but I think the prices were, too. (Taco and enchilada and beans and salad: $9.) The food, I have to say, was not as good as I remember it. I never thought it was fantastic Mexican cuisine, but I did find it satisfying in a humble sort of way. Maybe the quality's gone down over the years. Or maybe I was just hungrier back then.
Also the same, roughly, is the crowd. The Hat still attracts young people, as it did in the '80s and early '90s. Back then the neighborhood was brimming with scruffy, upstart theater companies like Nada and The Piano Store, and indie boutiques, and the talk at the tables was often about creative matters. That's no longer the case. It's just plain, vacuous, table talk now. On the television was the World Series. But, when the customers weren't watching, the staff would change the channel to a Dominican baseball game.
Sibling owners Josephina Diaz and Palmerio Fabian's decision to close their restaurant down is their own. Apparently, they've had enough. (They bought the business in 1990 from their uncle, Jose Suriel, who founded it.) El Sombrero will be replaced by a branch of the Artichoke Pizza chain, which softens the blow a bit. At least it's a local chain. The Hat may not have been a great restaurant—apart from its excellent name—but for a long time it was a necessary one. It was a place where a poor twentysomething with $40 in his pocket could eat and drink like a king on a Friday night, and, for one hour, not think too badly of the way New York was treating him.
· All Coverage of El Sombrero [~ENY~]