If one could create a timeline of one’s life using restaurants and bars as the only measurement, Tortilla Flats would occupy a very happy and specific chunk of my life from the late 1990s into the early 2000s. Perhaps that’s why, amidst all the bad news stories one could share on any given day in late October 2018, the story I chose to group text my family was “Tortilla Flats is closing.”
Located since 1983 on Washington Street in the West Village, just a hop, skip and jump from the Meatpacking District, the Standard Hotel, the Whitney, and the beautiful, stylish Santina, Tortilla Flats has begun in recent years to look like an outlier, a relic of another time. The frozen margarita machine kept churning at the bar, the salsa came in small plastic saucers, and the water in tall plastic cups. The booths had old vinyl car bench seats with duct tape to cover up the tears. Then again, I might be getting some details wrong as it’s been a while since I last was there. But when asked to call up memories of Tortilla Flats, in the pre-hotel, pre-museum era, I have no trouble at all.
Tortilla Flats managed to be a communal party restaurant, but without being full of jerks. It was intimate without being exclusive. And while not cheap, it was affordable enough to welcome lots of different people. There was no private room, which meant that when bingo started, the whole restaurant played bingo. When the hula hoop contest began, you could either join, watch, or keep eating. The hosts not only showed you to your table but worked double-duty as MCs to keep the party moving and happy. There was tinsel and color and lights.
For a spell of a few years in the late 90s, my oldest brother gathered his friends and siblings to celebrate his birthday at Tortilla Flats. We’d find a Saturday afternoon in early November, with a chill in the air and the sun just giving out. Some years, we’d sit inside at the long table in the back. Other years, we’d opt for outside hoping the plastic sheet covering the patio would keep us sufficiently warm. If the sheet didn’t do the trick, the margaritas and chili con queso certainly did. We’d start early to avoid the crowds, relishing the freedom of youth with an afternoon buzz and burritos.
More recently, within the past few years, I've shared celebratory meals with friends and family at Barbuto, directly across the street from Tortilla Flats. Barbuto is known for its delicious pastas and roast chicken. The chef and owner is Jonathan Waxman. The garage doors open on to the streets on summer evenings. The meals were delicious, the company fantastic. I’ve returned again to Barbuto a few times since. It’s an odd, bittersweet feeling though, like cheating on a friend, by entering the wrong door to the wrong restaurant to meet the very same people I had celebrated with at Tortilla Flats years before. Now Tortilla Flats is leaving and perhaps a more austere restaurant will open in its place. Or another jubilant restaurant, but without the bingo. Or, more likely a bank. Either way, next time I find myself at Barbuto I’m going to order a margarita. While I’m sure it will be delicious, it won’t taste as sweet.