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BY MICHELE HERMAN | If the far West Village were a sovereign nation and Tortilla Flats its capital, the flag would be flying at half-mast this summer to mark the death of 95-year-old actor Ernest Borgnine. Through his unlikely friendship with
the long-lived Tex-Mex joint at 12th and Washington Sts., Ernie was our honorary neighbor who happened to live in L.A.
The relationship began as an in-joke, but tellingly it was never a mean one. Sure, just saying the word “Borgnine” — so perfectly matched with the famously ugly, gap-toothed mug — wins an easy laugh. Not long after the restaurant opened in 1983, then-manager Steve Pagnotta (the tall, goofy one in the pj’s), took to paging Ernest Borgnine during lulls in the music for no particular reason beyond this: “He always just reminded me of the real people I grew up with. They were more like Ernie Borgnine than Paul Newman or Charlton Heston.”
Some families collect duck decoys; at Tortilla Flats they began collecting Ernie paraphernalia. They anointed the red booth against the back wall the Ernest Borgnine booth (across from the black-lit Elvis booth). In 1993 they began the annual Ernest Borgnine nights, with Ernie haikus and look-alike contests and “Pin the Grin on Ernie.” Prospective waiters knew to bone up on their Ernie trivia or they wouldn’t get the job.
Ernie eventually got wind of all this and stopped in unannounced to find out who these Borgnine-worshiping nuts were. The party occupying his booth immediately made way. Legend has it that everyone stood and clapped for 10 minutes.
After that, Ernie came by whenever he was in New York. He flew the place’s managers to L.A. for his birthday parties and treated them like royalty. Jean Bambury, the no-nonsense, golf-playing co-manager and co-owner, came home looking increasingly glamorous after each trip — Ernie’s wife, Tova, has her own cosmetics line. Jean, who writes the hilariously literary descriptions of the nightly specials (which some would argue are better than the specials themselves), developed a happy side career writing copy for Tova’s company.
Like Ernie, you wouldn’t necessarily peg the managers as big-hearted at first glance. Co-manager and co-owner Andy Secular can often be seen looking put-upon while talking into his cell phone to his suppliers or the plumbers or his relatives (whom he loves). Jean has a cool and cerebral manner, and after years of working the Saturday night shift, she has (understandably) taken to working in the nice quiet office. But we’ve lived across the street from the restaurant since 1985 and (mariachi buses and generations of squealing bachelorettes in tight dresses notwithstanding) we know them as the best kind of neighbors — kind and decent and generous.
For me, it all began with a step stool. Andy won’t remember this, but 20-odd years ago he was standing on one outside the restaurant fixing something. It happened to be the same model we have, lopsided because it was missing the same foot ours was missing. He didn’t even know me, but he pried off the remaining foot and gave it to me, so both our stools would be balanced.
The friendship was cemented over the kids’ menu, which used to have pictures of dinosaurs. One day our older son wrote in big letters along the border, “This menu is boring.” Jean came by and agreed. Create a better one, she said (including his younger brother in the offer, because she’s no dope) and I’ll pay you $100.
Their menu, still in use after many years, was rich with connect-the-dots, a word search and riddles. True to her word, Jean whipped out a wad of cash and counted out the bills. We tried to repay Jean and Andy by baking them birthday cakes. They comped our entrées. We planted flowers in their tree pits. They brought us free margaritas. We sent them postcards from vacation. They kept refilling our chips and salsa. We had the kids update the menu. They showered us with calendars, toys, a Jose Cuervo pool float. We knew we were licked.
The regular rhythms of far West Village life: Gay Pride, the Westbeth basement sale, Hula Wednesdays at Tortilla Flats, pumpkin-carving night the Wednesday before Halloween. When late winter settles in, I find myself composing Ernie haiku during idle moments.
A good friend of ours who moved to Virginia eons ago still describes his dream evening this way: eating a big plate of gooey, cheesy Tortilla Flats food and playing a round of bingo.
A sweet little girl in our building looks forward to her regular weekend brunch all week; “quesadilla” was among her first words.
We’ve watched generations of wait staff come and go, and can still name our favorites: Wilson, Judy, Julie, Marantha, Roy. The year-round staff is remarkably stable — John’s been the bartender and Luis the busboy forever. All these years of living right across the street, all these years of loud rock-and-roll mix tapes inside the doors, and they’ve never kept us up at night, something we wish we could say about our other Washington St. neighbors.
I learned of Ernie’s death on Monday morning, which felt right because Mondays Andy works the lunch shift. I stopped by while walking the dog, as I do every Monday, and offered my condolences. I thought about how we all came to Ernie in different ways: Kids knew his sillier TV work that spanned the half-century from “McHale’s Navy” to “SpongeBob”; movie buffs admired the seemingly effortless way he could play the gentlest butchers and the meanest S.O.B.’s; and those who felt trapped inside an unfortunate exterior saw him as a poster child for grinning and accepting what you’ve been given to work with.
I realized that the long entwining of the restaurant and the actor was far more than a goof. The people who have kept this place going for almost 30 years — long after the other inexpensive, kitchy ’80s places of its cohort faded away — knew a kindred spirit when they saw one. Andy had been talking to reporters all morning, so he had had time to sort through his emotions. When I told him I was sorry for his loss, this is what Andy had to say: “He was just the nicest, most decent and genuine guy.”