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.”