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Jan. 3, 2004,
Castro Ate Here, But Now It's a Piece of History
BY SETH KUGEL
Cafe, which drew everyone from Yankee stars to Bronx politicos to Fidel
Castro, closed its doors for good on New Year's Eve after a decade of
The spacious banquet hall,
restaurant and nightclub on Fordham Road has been leased by its owner,
Jimmy Rodriguez, to new proprietors who will open a seafood restaurant
and cocktail lounge on the site.
''I can't believe it myself,''
Mr. Rodriguez, 41, said. ''It's a sad day.''
During its 10 years in business,
the restaurant became something of a landmark in the Bronx. Fidel Castro
went to Jimmy's while in New York visiting the United Nations. Derek
Jeter celebrated two birthdays there. Bill Cosby turned up occasionally,
as did Tito Puente, David Bowie and a host of other sports stars, musicians,
Bronx politicians and ordinary folks. They were drawn by the Latin music,
the celebrity memorabilia on the walls and the glad-handing, kinetic
energy of Mr. Rodriguez, a politically connected Bronx native whose
first business venture was selling live lobsters on the street with
In an interview yesterday,
Mr. Rodriguez said he had leased the property, which overlooks the Major
Deegan Expressway and the Harlem River, to Felix Cabrera, a concert
promoter and restaurateur who recently opened Zona Rosa, a restaurant
in Midtown Manhattan.
Mr. Cabrera, who was reached
while on vacation in the Dominican Republic, said his new restaurant
would be called the Seafood Factory and will serve seafood with a Latin
twist. Another group of investors would run the X Bar, a cocktail lounge,
in an adjacent space.
Mr. Rodriguez would not disclose
the details of the deal, but he said it was too good to pass up. Some
months ago, he said, he sought a loan to renovate Jimmy's, but when
Mr. Cabrera offered to pay him rent on the space and to assume the costs
of the renovation, it was too tempting to resist. Closing the restaurant
also fit Mr. Rodriguez's plans to expand the Jimmy's brand to London
and other European cities, he said.
''I can't run four restaurants
and be in Europe at the same time,'' he said, referring to his Bronx
flagship and three other properties -- Jimmy's Downtown in Midtown Manhattan,
Jimmy's Uptown in Harlem and Jimmy's City Island.
''We're looking to go to
two restaurants,'' he added. He said he had not yet decided which of
the remaining three to close.
''It was a place that everybody
identified as very much our own,'' said Representative Jose Serrano,
a Bronx Democrat who over the years went from being a client to being
a close friend of Mr. Rodriguez. ''It was a local guy who got together
with his family and put together a place.''
The walls at Jimmy's, which
opened in 1993, were known for their display of Mr. Rodriguez's impressive
collection of offbeat memorabilia, which included lederhosen worn by
the Duke of Windsor on a 1937 trip to Austria and a dress that Jennifer
Lopez wore to the Oscar ceremonies.
In 2000, Mr. Rodriguez began
to expand his empire southward, opening successful nightspots in Harlem
and Midtown. Last year, he opened Jimmy's City Island, a restaurant
and lounge on City Island, the quaintly nautical retreat in the Bronx.
Still, the Bronx Cafe remained
his flagship, mentioned in popular songs -- most famously in Angie Martinez's
''Live at Jimmy's,'' featuring the rapper Big Pun. Ms. Martinez was
a regular customer, Mr. Rodriguez said.
In 1995, Jimmy's became a
center of controversy when Mr. Serrano organized a dinner there for
Fidel Castro, who was in New York for the 50th anniversary of the United
Nations. Cuban groups protested the event, but at the packed dinner
Mr. Castro, under heavy security, was warmly greeted and drew laughs
from a crowd of about 300.
The Castro dinner was not
the only controversy in the early years. The restaurant also attracted
police attention as a suspected hangout for drug dealers.
At one point, Major League
Baseball asked its players not to go there, but the admonition did not
stick. For the last five years, in fact, the kitchen at Jimmy's has
catered postgame clubhouse meals for the Yankees and opposing teams,
a job that Mr. Rodriguez said would probably be taken over by Jimmy's
Mr. Rodriguez said he had
informed his staff of 80 of the restaurant's closing on Monday. Work
had already started on the Seafood Factory, but Mr. Rodriguez said that
most of the employees assumed he was simply doing long-planned renovations
of his own.
The workers, who include
about a dozen of his relatives, will have the chance to interview at
the new restaurant, he said.
Jimmy's closed for the final
time after a quiet night on New Year's Eve. ''We couldn't do a party,
because it was a sad day for everyone,'' he said.
Or perhaps not exactly everyone.
On New Year's Eve, a wildly diverse, dancing-on-the-tables crowd packed
Jimmy himself arrived just
before midnight, greeting the fawning hordes and apparently taking the
whole thing pretty well.