Arco Iris owners bidding tearful farewell to iconic Cuban restaurant in West Tampa

The doors will be closing one last time Monday at Arco Iris on Columbus Boulevard in West Tampa. The lease ran out on the business after more than 30 years in the same location. [CHRIS URSO   |   Times (2012)]
The doors will be closing one last time Monday at Arco Iris on Columbus Boulevard in West Tampa. The lease ran out on the business after more than 30 years in the same location. [CHRIS URSO | Times (2012)]
Published Dec. 28, 2018

TAMPA — There will be less boliche served on so-called Boliche Boulevard with the announcement this week that the iconic Arco Iris restaurant is closing its main location.

Arco Iris has been a mainstay for three decades along a stretch of Columbus Drive in West Tampa that, with all its Spanish-speaking businesses, has come to be known as boliche for the Cuban dish blending eye-round roast, chorizo sausage and tomato sauce.

The landlord is not renewing the lease and Arco Iris, popular for the personal touch of its owners and a menu that includes a Chinese twist, will close its 3328 W. Columbus Drive location on Monday, New Year's Eve.

"He didn't tell us why or what he was going to do with it," said Madelin Gonzalez, who owns the restaurant with her husband Jorge Gonzalez. "We asked for an extension but were given an eviction notice."

The landlord, Angel Perez, could not be reached for comment.

A second, smaller Arco Iris location will remain in business a mile away at 4001 N. Habana Ave. The Gonzalez family opened the location 10 years ago when Perez first informed them he would not renew lease on the Columbus Drive location, Madelin Gonzalez said.

Perez later had a change of heart and signed Arco Iris to a decade-long extension.

"I hope everybody continues to support us," Madelin Gonzalez said, choking back tears. "We have a lot of customers who are like family after all these years."

She is worried that the Habana Avenue location cannot serve a customer base that has grown up from two restaurants, with 104 seats at the original site and 68 at the second one. Only four or five of the 15 Arco Iris employees will keep their jobs.

"It breaks my heart," Madelin Gonzalez said.

The family might expand the Habana restaurant or seek a new location, but there are no clear plans yet.

"We are so upset," she said. "It is our home. ... Everybody keeps telling us we can't close because it is a landmark."

Tampa City Councilman Guido Maniscalco, who represents West Tampa, said this description is spot on.

"It's been there for as long as I can remember," Maniscalco said. "It's a staple of that neighborhood. It's one of those places everybody goes."

The Gonzalez couple — Madelin, 54, and Jorge, 63 — are natives of Cuba. She moved to Tampa with her parents when she was 5 and he came to Tampa via the Mariel boat lift in 1980.

Jorge Gonzalez was a chef in Cuba, where Chinese food grew popular in the 19th century with immigration from the Asian nation. In Tampa, he found work at local restaurants — one of them Chinese — before he and his wife ventured out on their own in 1984.

The spot they found on Columbus Drive was a shuttered eatery already named Arco Iris, Spanish for rainbow.

"We were young and had no money and couldn't afford to change the name," Madelin Gonzalez said. "By the time we could, it was already known so we didn't want to."

A menu including Chinese fried rice helped Arco Iris stand out in a West Tampa community flush with Cuban restaurants. The business prospered.

A few years later, they received a good offer, sold out and left to take over Blanco's Restaurant on Cypress Street. But in 2000, they sold Blanco's and bought back Arco Iris.

The formula for success there is simple, in the view of Tampa City councilman and West Tampa native Charlie Miranda.

"It's not a popularity contest," Miranda said. "This is not politics. This is reality. They are good people who serve good food at a reasonable price."

Maniscalco echoed that sentiment.

"The owners are always out greeting the customers and talking to folks," he said. "It feels like family. It's a place where all the customers feel like friends and know each other by name."

The 10-year lease ended a year ago and since then, the Gonzalezes have operated on a month-to-month agreement as they sought another extension from landlord Perez. In October, he informed them there would be no extension but still, they held out hope — until the eviction notice came last week.

"We cannot force someone to give us a lease," Madelin Gonzalez said. "We are devastated."

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