Everyone wanted to be a part of what Stan had going for him. Food and Wine magazine called it “an American food empire.” But it eventually dawned on people that he had basically two business talents, independent of his genius with menu, décor and attitude. First, he was usually able to put together any kitchen he wished to (Mexican, Cuban--even Chinese), relying on various families of Dominican cooks and prep men who eventually were all in his debt for the many jobs gotten through him. The other talent—if that’s what it was--was that he filled the remaining key roles with people who had big smarts, but who were usually untrained in what he hired them for. This was “the Start-‘em-up Stan” method. Hire them--then let them figure it all out; or, more likely, hire them--then run off to start another restaurant. This is what happened when Stan arranged to turn the old Horn of Plenty restaurant at Charles and Bleecker into his first restaurant on that site, Del Rio’s Bar and Grill.
Named after the curmudgeonly patron saint of the Cottonwood Café (Stan’s first place and the source of his local fame) its menu was a shift towards the Mex side of Tex-Mex. The namesake, Eliseo Del Rio, had inspired the young Texans who ran and staffed the place, turned them left, politically, with his tales of fighting for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War. They loved the man and his poetry, wrote a beautiful song about him—watched helplessly as emphysema wasted and then killed him…gawked at a memorial at which several living veterans of Del Rio’s old army unit, the legendary Abraham Lincoln Brigade, were present.
But Del Rio’s was a business. And as soon as Stan signed the lease and hired me and a few others to do this and that, he split for Key West to open another branch of the Cottonwood.
It would take about a month to get the place in shape, and it was mostly grunt work. But there was no contact with the guy who hired us—and therefore no money to pay anyone with. After the second week of this, people began to be very antsy about Stan’s whereabouts.
In the early eighties we still relied on phones like the ones in restaurants that took dimes. We dumped pockets full in the payphone, trying to get the mercurial start ’em up guy to commit to arranging for workers to get paid. It was almost three weeks by the time I finally got through to him—with hired hands lurking anxiously nearby, waiting to hear what was what—and uttered words that would make me famous among those yuppy peons for months to come. Desperate, I yelled into the telephone mouthpiece, “Stan, there are people starving in this restaurant!”
Part of my job was prepping the kitchen for a health department inspection, and this involved steam blasting years of grease off the walls. Why were the walls covered with grease when the Horn of Plenty was there? Maybe because Archie, the landlord/owner, knew who to grease--or maybe an inspection was de rigueur only for a new place.
Stan had arranged for the rental of a steam blaster--a gizmo that we could aim at the walls. It was a simple enough contraption, slapped together out of iron and tubing: a squat machine the size of a picnic cooler on wheels, with an attachment like a high-pressure garden hose, a hose that shot out boiling water in steam or spray.
At first it sounded like fun…until we discovered that you didn’t plug the thing in—that it had a gasoline engine. O-kaay…so we gassed it up. And then we tried to read the scorched and grease-stained directions, which were not helpful even where they were readable. We had to pull this, do that—and ignite it all with a flame!
Well, that’s what we tried to do--until the infernal beast began to cough and wheeze and shudder, the flames glowing hotter. Sure, when you know what you’re doing, noises and sparks may seem harmless enough, as in just a part of the process. But when you don’t have a clue….
Neanderthal man accidentally discovering fire-–maybe after a lightning strike—is what I compared it to. I didn’t care what happened to the crazy jumping machine, or what would happen to the restaurant if it blew—or to the guys running close behind me for that matter. All I knew was that my feet were in charge. And I am alive to tell of it.
In the end, the restaurant stayed unexploded, the kitchen got degreased--and the place saw some success in its day. I had my first chef gig there, right out there in the middle of the garden floor, at a grill.
In the next Stan place that emerged there—Cuba Libre—the rent wasn’t paid toward the end, and—well, read the post called “The Night East Third Street Earned Five Stars”.
[The Horn of Plenty closed in the early 80s, then there was Del Rio’s, something else for a bit (?) then Cuba Libre, Cucina della Fontana, Hue and the East Coast flagship shop of Juicy Couture most recently. Around the time Hue closed –probably early 2000s—I heard a guy who just looked at the premises, talking on his cell phone and quoting a sixty-thousand-dollar monthly rent. It has a smallish upstairs, but an opulent garden downstairs—and Juicy Couture only used upstairs, thus probably paying about a hundred bucks a square foot per month, since the place couldn’t be more than 600 square feet upstairs.]