NEW PORT RICHEY — When Armando Marchena opened his first restaurant two months ago in the old Cafe Grand, this is what he envisioned:
Latin dishes of empanadas, roast pork and a Puerto Rican entree called mofongo. Salsa and flamenco classes, poetry readings and a domino league. It would be a family business; his son, Armando Jr., a.k.a. DJ Suave, would play meringue and bachata. The place would evoke his New York childhood. He called it Da Bronx Cafe.
"This was my lifelong dream," Marchena said. "There was nothing like our restaurant."
But last week, as Richey Suncoast Theatre director Charlie Skelton stood across from the cafe on Grand Boulevard, this is what he saw:
Closed doors. Empty tables. Movers hauling out sodas and ice.
"They were loading everything," Skelton said. It was Friday, a show night — on nights like this, with the Cafe Grand, couples once waited in line. "It was a shame."
Marchena and his landlord, Jackie Ryan, disagree on what led to the cafe's closing after only a month. He blames faulty equipment that sapped his budget. She said he didn't pay rent.
But Da Bronx's downfall hints at a bigger problem, something that's affected this corner for years:
Why can't this cafe — once the heart of downtown — come back to life?
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The Cafe Grand, opened in 1990 by owner Joe Catania, was once a downtown icon. The bistro, which served mangrove snapper Milanese, salmon Rockefeller and homemade carrot cake, doubled in size within a year of its grand opening.
When Catania retired in 2004, the space began a downward spiral through a host of new owners promising to maintain the menu while adding new garnishes, like a Sunday champagne brunch. None lasted. The cafe closed for good halfway into 2009.
Marchena, who managed real estate, met with Ryan to share his ideas. His restaurant would be something different. He would renovate, add black porcelain flooring, serve drinks from a marble and granite bar. He was new to the business, which worried her, but he also seemed attentive to detail. In May, she gave him the lease and a word of advice.
"I couldn't have made it clearer — you've got to have money for a year. You won't make money for the first year with a restaurant," Ryan said this week, from her home in central Vermont. "We didn't want to have another failure there."
Ryan's Pasco Building, which she has owned with her husband since Catania had his cafe, needed all the help it could get. Besides Da Bronx, the two-story building holds two storefronts: Karen's Gifts and Boulevard Beef and Ale. The vacant second-floor is plastered with for-lease signs.
Ryan gave Marchena three months of free rent — he says two — but his problems were just beginning. Refrigerators leaked, he said. Sewer lines cracked. Walls were falling apart. The repairs zapped his starting capital and, in September, the first and last full month of business, kept him from paying his rent.
"We were bleeding money, but we still wanted to keep trying," Marchena said. "The money has to run out sometime."
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The curtains were closed this week at Da Bronx. The kitchen was in pieces. In the window sat an old award of excellence from Greater New Port Richey Main Street, itself in financial doubt. The cafe looked disrupted mid-dinner — tables set, ashtrays full, gold star cutouts hanging from the ceiling.
Marchena said he has been asking family and friends if they'd like to buy in for a new project, information unknown. An ad seeking investments for a "restaurant/bar/nightclub" showed up last week on Craigslist. He likely won't come back to his home city's downtown, though.
"I want to go somewhere with peace of mind," he said.
Joe Nordon, who founded Boulevard Beef and Ale next to the Cafe Grand 14 years ago, said the corner has been plagued by inexperienced owners for years.
"That place, with the right place going in, could make it easily," Nordon said. "I don't really think they gave it a long enough time to do that. When you don't open the doors, it's hard to give the customers the opportunity."
Ryan isn't that confident. Trying to make something of the building has become more than she can stomach.
"I'm just so ready to sell that building," Ryan said. "The whole entire building. I've had it."
Contact Drew Harwell at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6244.