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Last Supper For A Foodie Pioneer

by Thomas MacMillan | Mar 5, 2014 4:51 pm

(15) Comments | Commenting has been closed | E-mail the Author

Posted to: Arts & Culture, Dining, Business/ Economic Development, Food, Downtown

Thomas MacMillan Photo Three regulars raised their glasses for a final toast to an institution that helped transform downtown New Haven’s upscale food scene—before the scene even existed.

The toast took place Tuesday evening at Ibiza restaurant.

Doug Smith, Richard Formica, and Sanjay Kapoor (pictured), three Yale physicians, were the first customers seated at the High Street restaurant on Tuesday evening, Ibiza’s last night of operation

The doctors came as soon as they heard the news. Ibiza owner Sonia Blanco had sent out an email Tuesday afternoon announcing the restaurant’s abrupt closure and word spread fast among New Haven’s foodies.

Ibiza closed due to personal family problems and a dispute between the landlord and restaurant owners Sonia and Ignacio Blanco.

Ibiza, which serves upscale Spanish cuisine, was consistently listed among New Haven’s top restaurants. When it opened in 1996 as Pika Tapas, the restaurant was a pioneer of fancy food at a time when New Haven was known for its “apizza” but not for gourmet small-plate delicacies.

Shortly after the restaurant opened for its dinner service at 5 p.m. Tuesday, fans of the restaurant started coming in to say goodbye, to have a last drink or meal, and to ask why.

Sonia Blanco, who owned the restaurant with ex-husband Ignacio Blanco, said “the landlord wanted more money and we couldn’t really afford that.”

“He sent an eviction notice,” she said.

“They weren’t being evicted,” said John Wareck, the landlord. He said he didn’t raise the rent. “There was a settlement after many months of them trying to meet their expenses. We were doing everything we could to accommodate them.”

Wareck said the restaurant was a great tenant for many years, since it opened in April 1996, after the building was converted from a garage.

“This is a great restaurant,” Wareck said. “We’re just incredibly sad about it.”

Blanco said Ibiza’s 22 workers found out on Tuesday that it would be their last day at the restaurant. She said she had learned only the day before that it was time to close up shop.

“The customers have been incredibly nice, and we appreciate their coming back all these years,” Blanco said.

“It’s a little bit sad because of the people who have been following you for years,” said Ibiza head chef Manuel Romero (pictured), in a lull before the Tuesday dinner rush.

Ibiza was having its regular “paella night” Tuesday, with three versions of the Spanish rice dish on offer, including a squid-ink variety.

Romero has been at Ibiza for over 12 years. He ended up in New Haven after the Sept. 11 attacks shut down a restaurant the owners had in Manhattan.

The chef said he doesn’t know what he’ll do next, beyond taking some time off. “I’m just going to take a break, relax a little bit, and then see.”

At the bar, attorney Elia Alexiades (pictured) was sipping a glass of La Gitana Manzanilla sherry. “It’s the only place I drink sherry,” he said.

Alexiades came over right after court after he got the email announcing the restaurant’s closure. Alexiades said he remembers the impact that Pika Tapas, Ibiza’s former incarnation, had when it opened as a Spanish cuisine small-plate restaurant. “When they opened Pika Tapas, nobody was doing it.”

“There were hams hanging here,” Alexiades said, smiling and pointing above the bar.

“The best meals I’ve ever had have been here,” he said. He recalled that New York Times food writer Marc Bittman gave Ibiza a glowing review. “He called it the best Spanish restaurant in America.”

“I have not eaten at a better Spanish restaurant in the United States,” Bittman said in a 2002 review.

“We’re in mourning,” declared Formica, one of the three Yale doctors, all self-described “regulars,” at the bar. They were drinking a 2011 Clio red wine.

Formica said he comes to Ibiza for the hospitality, the atmosphere, and the service. It’s a place to linger over a good meal, he said. “You’re never forced out.”

Formica agreed that Ibiza was a groundbreaking restaurant when it opened. But “it’s more than that,” he said. In the ‘90s Ibiza was one of only a handful of good restaurants in town, along with Union League and Zinc. Even now, when friends come in from out of two, Ibiza is “one of two places to entertain. It’s Union League or Ibiza,” he said.

Kapoor, sitting next to Formica, said that as an Ibiza customer, “you always know Juan Carlos is going to take care of you.”

More than one of Ibiza’s final customers Tuesday night mentioned Juan Carlos Gonzalez, who managed with the restaurant with his wife Maria. The two were also minority owners in the restaurant.

Juan Carlos (pictured, at center, with Gary Brucheski and Rebecca Martz) roamed the restaurant Tuesday evening, answering the phone, visiting tables, and accepting condolences at the door.

“Que lastima,” customer Paul Cleary said when he stopped by to say goodbye, commiserating with Juan Carlos in the manager’s native Spanish. “I think it’s the best restaurant in New Haven.”

Juan Carlos, who’s 56, is from Galicia, Spain. He and Maria ran Ibiza since 1997, when it was Pikas Tapas. Asked how he felt on the restaurant’s last night, Juan Carlos said, “I am blank right now.”

The response from the afternoon email announcement was incredible, he said. “It’s overwhelming me.”

“Whatever life throws at you, you have to take a positive approach,” Juan Carlos said.

“We’re gonna miss you buddy,” said John Ricci, shaking Juan Carlos’ hand as he entered with his family. They’d driven in from Cheshire after hearing the news. “This is a heart-breaker.” Ibiza’s ceviche is the best in the state, he said.

“We’ve had the best meals here,” said Melanie Ricci.

Architect Rob Narracci, stopping by to say farewell, said the restaurant was a trend-setter not just culinarily but architecturally as well. He said Ibiza was one of the first restaurant’s in town with a “modern vibe.”

“Others followed,” he said.

“A Restaurant Town”

The landlord/tenant dispute at Ibiza continued Wednesday morning, when Wareck saw the state of the restaurant. “The space was left a mess,” he said. “There’s food all over the place. We’re trying to clean it up so it’s sanitary.”

Sonia Blanco said she arrived with a few people at around 10:30 Tuesday night and started clearing equipment out of the restaurant putting it into a U-Haul while customers were still eating. She said she didn’t take anything that she didn’t own.

“We took dishes and pots and pans,” she said. “The customers were there until 1 a.m. We did not bother the customers. We were mostly in the kitchen.”

Blanco said she was in the restaurant until about 4 a.m. She said the artist who painted the large mural at the bar removed it from the wall. “I did not foresee this whole thing. I thought I was just going to take a few things but I realized there was a lot more that we could use”

Blanco acknowledged that she left a mess behind. She said she would have done otherwise if she’d had more time; she had to be out by 9 a.m. “I never would have liked to the leave the place a mess,” she said. “I wish I had hired a company to take the stuff and clean up.”

“It’s just really a terribly disappointing end to what was a great restaurant in New Haven,” Wareck said on Wednesday afternoon, standing in front of the papered-over windows of the restaurant.

He expressed confidence that he will find another tenant to fill the space.

“New Haven is a restaurant town,” he said. “Someone else will come.”

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posted by: jhonn_m on March 5, 2014  5:24pm

Well that’s a shame.

posted by: Esbey on March 5, 2014  5:26pm

If John Wareck thinks he can find another restaurant for that space that does the business that Ibiza does and can pay Ibiza’s rent, then he is insane.  It isn’t a good location, it was just a great restaurant.

Look at the old Roomba location from which Bruce Alexander of Yale stupidly chased out another of New Haven’s great restaurants.  How much rent has Mr. Alexander received on that space in the years since?  It’s pretty close to nada.

On the other hand, if the Ibiza partners open elsewhere in New Haven, their loyal customers will follow.  Please, please, please take a little break, regroup and come back!

posted by: cp06 on March 5, 2014  5:31pm

So sad. Can the Independent find out if the restaurant owners will seek another location in New Haven? I really hope so.

And it doesn’t sound like the landlord is telling the entire story.

posted by: anonymous1 on March 5, 2014  6:14pm

It’s so easy to blame the landlord.  Ibiza was a great restaurant, but even in the best of times, running one is a tough business.  I have dealt with Mr. Wareck, and he has always been been fair and conscientious, and more sympathetic than most.

posted by: Scot on March 5, 2014  6:57pm

Wow, this is surprising and sad. I hope the owners will consider opening another place in New Haven. I agree it was one of the best 2 or 3 restaurants in the city, and for a long time.

The building is nice but Ibiza excelled because of the restaurant more than the location.  The landlord may find a new tenant but I’d be surprised if they find one with that kind of staying power. Best wishes to the talented owners and staff, and please stay in New Haven!

posted by: Stephen Harris on March 5, 2014  7:32pm

What a shame. This was a wonderful restaurant.

posted by: robn on March 5, 2014  10:27pm

I have been humbled by great cooking in this city. Great chefs, like great painters sculptors, photographers etc..should be shown some honor by our arts organizations on New Haven.

posted by: Anderson Scooper on March 6, 2014  1:37am

http://www.jud2.ct.gov/housing/display_docket.asp?dno=NHSP-114756

Fwiw, Ibiza was evicted for Non-Payment of Rent. (see above.)

Ibiza Tapas in Hamden is also under eviction:
http://www.jud2.ct.gov/housing/display_docket.asp?dno=NHSP-114345

So all in all I don’t think it’s fair to put any blame on Wareck, who is known as a fair and reasonable landlord.

Fwiw.

posted by: robn on March 6, 2014  10:03am

I was wondering if any laws were broken by the owner dismantling the restaurant on their last day.

SCOOPER

Does the last line of your linked docket sheet…
02/28/2014 Execution issued.
....mean an eviction?

Does the tenant have the right to reclaim personal property in the premises after eviction?

If those guys went as far as taking the industrial cooking equipment, is it legal for a non-licensed or non-plumber to unhook industrial gas lines? If they did so they might have put the entire block in danger.

posted by: Esbey on March 6, 2014  10:15am

Anderson S.—you and others convince me that this is in fact a unrelated financial problem that the owners have run into and I take back any implication that Wareck might be a source of the problem.

Of course, I still hope the owners find a way to regroup and come back.

posted by: ragamuffingunner on March 6, 2014  10:51am

I have eaten at Ibiza a few times on other people’s dimes… never saw what was so special about it. Food was adventurous but hardly left me thinking “that was one of the best meals I’ve had in town…” In fact, it wouldn’t be in my top 3-4 for places to go for good food, drink, times. That said, who am I to tell people what they shouldn’t and shouldn’t consider excellent. It should also be noted that if not for Yale, we wouldn’t have such high-caliber restaurants. Look around any given night and the number of recruitment dinners and visiting professors being dined on Yale money is staggering…. I know John Wareck and he is good for New Haven.

posted by: Shaggybob on March 6, 2014  12:56pm

@Robn

An execution means the landlord has the right to take possession - there is a process so its not like there’s no warning.

As for your concerns- anytime you clean or move equipment in a restaurant you need to disconnect the gas lines- that’s why shut offs and “quick” disconnects are code. I highly doubt that the block would be in any danger whatsoever.

As for possessions- that would be determined by the lease agreement and is between the landlord and tenant to come to an agreement.

If anything Mr. Warek probably gave them more time then they were allowed. He;s like that.

Financial problems in this economy affects everyone, no matter how good business appeared.

posted by: Spartpete on March 6, 2014  2:25pm

While I understand the reasons for the restaurant closing after reading some of the previous posts, my purpose here is to say a special thank you to Manuel and Juan Carlos for years of excellent food, drink, service and memories. I have had many special meals with friends and loved ones at Ibiza, which was the first place I thought of to bring people for a special occasion in New Haven.

Let me also echo what has been stated here and elsewhere: I am hopeful that Ibiza will materialize in another guise somewhere in or around New Haven to continue what they have done so well in the past. My hope is that it will be sooner rather than later.

Until then, I will cherish the memories of the Jamon Iberico; the duck breast; the ceviche; the paella; and all the other tastes and textures that not only were a pleasure to the immediate senses, but were also a key component to the memories of the times and in the company of the people they were shared with.

posted by: Elmstreetmama on March 7, 2014  11:22am

Boo hoo. I received a $50 gift certificate to Ibiza for Christmas and hadn’t used it yet. I hope they reopen somewhere nearby!

posted by: Nini's House of Tapas on March 9, 2014  12:13pm

As an owner of a restaurant in the Ninth Square Section of New Haven this saddens me.  If a restaurant with the integrity and quality of ibiza cant make it what chance do the rest of us in the fine dining community have in New Haven.  I myself have struggled to barely survive for the last 3 years and no one in town government or landlords for that matter seem to realize that New Haven is about to slide back into its darkest days of vacancy signs, darkened streets, crime and with that a a mass exodus of residential renters/residence in the city.  Sincerely F. Proto http://www.ninishot.com

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