Volume 73, Number 47 | March 24 -30, 2004

Tio Pepe weathers the changes on W. Fourth St.

By David Kelsey

Villager photo by Elisabeth Robert

Jimmy and Rocio Sanz in their Spanish restaurant, Tio Pepe, which has been on W. Fourth St. for 34 years.

Much has changed on W. Fourth St. since Rocio and Jimmy Sanz opened their Spanish restaurant, Tio Pepe, in 1970. In fact, very little hasn’t changed.

To a large extent, however, Tio Pepe has not changed, at least since 1972, when Mexican dishes were introduced on the menu. “We went to Mexico for vacation, that’s where the idea came from,” explained Rocio.

“People liked it, so we expanded these dishes. But our heart was set in the Spanish flavor,” added Jimmy.

However, in order to meet the demand for Mexican fare, the Sanzes opened Burrito Loco in 1984 next door, which focuses solely on Mexican food. They also own Da Rosina on W. 46th St., and Casa Pepe in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, which is run by their son, Jimmy, Jr.

The couple has a distinguished air of elegance and grace that permeates Tio Pepe. They enjoy a core customer base that comes frequently and has done so for decades.

Dr. Sidney Spira and his wife, Anne, are going to have their 20th anniversary in the backroom of Tio Pepe. “The same place we had our wedding reception,” said Dr. Spira. “This is the best Spanish food in the area.”

Anne Spira enjoys the restaurant’s flavorful sangria because it’s “not as heavy as red wine — it’s mixed with fruit.”

The Sanzes vacation in Spain every other year, keeping them in touch with the flavor of the Iberian penninsula.

Jose Barbadaes, originally from Portugal, has come regularly since 1971, because Tio Pepe offers “real Spanish food.”

What is perhaps another draw as well, however, is the price. The Sanzes are running a paella festival, where every paella entree is $11.95. Advertised as “the most quintessential Spanish dish,” the paella is cooked in a paellera, a wide flat pan, and usually includes seafood and saffron rice. There are six different paellas to choose from.

Mercy Prieto, who had her wedding shower at Tio Pepe and is planning to have her daughter’s shower there as well, prefers to eat from the tapas menu. She recommends the gambas al ajillo (shrimp sautéed with garlic, extra virgin oil and white wine), the ceviche verde (shrimp, jicama, cucumber marinated in citrus mango-chile Poblano) and the chorizos a la Parrilla (charcoal grilled Spanish sausage). “Those are my three favorites,” she said.

Rocio Sanz is also the vice president of the Greenwich Village Chelsea Chamber of Commerce, because, as she said, “I decided to do a civic duty, because I think it’s important to voice your opinion on what happens in your neighborhood.”

And what is happening in the neighborhood is a cause for concern.

“We’re not thrilled at all by what is happening on Sixth Ave.,” said Rocio.

While there is no shortage of sex stores on W. Fourth St. itself, there are seven stores in a row on the west side of Sixth Ave. going south from W. Fourth St. that are either sex shops or tattoo parlors. “It brings the wrong element,” said Rocio.

Other longtime merchants agree. “It used to be wonderful,” sighed Ruth Kuzub, of the Silversmith, a jewelry store she has owned since 1969 and worked at since 1960. Kuzub used to be able to track her sales to when a movie ended, and regrets the loss of the Waverly Theater. “That ruined everything,” she said. The Independent Film Channel is renovating the theater which is planned to reopen next year, with a new cafe next door. The theater will show independent films.

Additionally, with the police crackdown on drug dealing in Washington Sq. Park, there has been displacement into the surrounding neighborhood, or, as Kuzub put it, “The dealers went splat all over the place”

Both Kuzub and Rocio feel that the area has changed for the worse since Times Sq., once the center of the pornography and sex industry, was “Disneyfied,” forcing the action elsewhere, partly into the Village. More locally, since the Hudson River Park Trust started closing the Christopher St. pier, which functioned as a gay hustling zone, at 1 a.m., “they [the hustlers] walk up and down Christopher St.,” said Kuzub.

For the proprietors of Music Inn World Instruments, a store selling instruments and tribal art from around the world, the best days of the neighborhood vanished a long time ago. “It was an old Italian neighborhood,” recalled Music Inn’s Jerry Halpern of a time when ties between neighbors were tighter. “Now, Uptown is coming Downtown,” Halpern said. “The Village style is small stores, crafts. It’s going by the wayside. People come to us to get a taste of what the Village used to be like.”

Famous musicians have frequented the store over the years. “Everyone,” said Halpern, naming John Lennon, Sean Lennon, Bob Dylan, Don Cherry and Aerosmith. The jazz musicians liked to eat in The Bagel, a small restaurant that closed a year ago, before stopping by Music Inn.

Jeff Slatnick, who runs the business with Halpern, explained that the cabaret rules back in the early 1960s, since changed, were what forced the creativity of the folk music scene that burgeoned in the Village. “There was a lot that you couldn’t have [in a coffee shop or restaurant],” he said. “You couldn’t have drums, and you couldn’t have electric music.”

Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, noted that the north side of W. Fourth St. is the southern border of the Greenwich Village Historic District. He said the kind of tacky neon signage that proliferates along Sixth Ave. and the south side of W. Fourth St. would probably not be allowed had these areas been included in the historic district. However, they are within the recently proposed South Village historic district.

Rocio Sanz feels that the key to a neighborhood’s revival is the landlords exercising discretion in filling commercial vacancies. She and her husband are such landlords. “We’re very careful — we would never put in a business that would hurt the neighborhood. We never have. We’d rather leave it empty than put in the wrong business,” she said.

From the looks of it, Tio Pepe has been one of the right businesses, with a longevity that other merchants and restaurant owners envy.

“I look at stores that were opened yesterday and today are boarded up,” said Dr. Spira. “That’s why I like Tio Pepe. Tio Pepe stays.”

Tio Pepe is located at 168 W. Fourth St., just west of Sixth Ave.


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