Recently, we've been hearing about a flood of losses on Ludlow. Places that came up in the 1990s--early gentrifiers certainly, but before the hyper-gentrification of the Bloomberg era--are dropping like flies. The Pink Pony closed, then we got the news about Motor City, the Living Room is leaving, and we know Max Fish is on borrowed time. Many people are asking, "What's left?" And answering, "The Hat."
Now we hear from the grapevine that the Mexican restaurant is "on its last legs" after serving the Lower East Side since 1984.
1988: Michael Horsley, flickr
I reached out to Regina Bartkoff, an actor, artist, writer, and a waitress at The Hat since 1988. She gave me the scoop:
"They are not closing yet! They are trying to stay open! The rent has been steadily going up and they have a lease for a few more years, but in 2012 we took a nose dive. We have been losing our regular customers steadily, due to them not being able to pay the rents on the LES and being forced out. It just keeps going down.
Most Mexican restaurants on the LES are very chic now with a smorgasbord of a million kinds of tequila and fancy appetizers. El Sombrero was famous for their frozen large pints of margaritas that packed a wallop. They are still $8. A big burrito with rice and beans, heavy with cheese is still $9. It was cheap and you could get wasted quick. We waitresses were never told to sell anything and we never hurried anybody out, even if people were lined up and waiting outside. Everybody was relaxed. The waitresses would dance with the customers at any given moment (to the annoyance of some tables waiting for their orders). Working class, artists, gang bangers, and their families mixed together. Writers would write there. Actors and directors met and worked on their plays. I put everybody's posters on the windows and walls. I gave out cards to my shows and got asked into shows all the time.
As the neighborhood started to change around me, I thought the NYU crowd coming in would still want good cheap food. But the character of these new people coming in was weird. They didn't come in curious or wanting to find a place to call their own. They didn't try to fit into the neighborhood. They were rude and obnoxious. They would not leave a tip, and I can't tell you how many times we had to run down the block after them for trying to run out on a check. This had never happened before. Then even they started to disappear. (I guess after we would catch a lot of them, they weren't coming back.) They are probably finding places were you can down a $2 shot and not have to tip the waitress. The others want those chic places. El Sombrero doesn't fit either one. It was a working class/poor neighborhood place. I think that's the sad fact, we don't fit in any more."
Today: furcafe, flickr
As we're all asking "why Ludlow Street's last bastions of Bohemia are closing," and finding the answer in skyrocketing rents and a vanished culture of artists and outsiders, The Hat remains--but likely not for long. So go get some burritos and knock back a few of those powerful margaritas. Put some salsa on the jukebox, dance with the waitresses, and tip them well.
It's not too late to keep something real and alive on glassy, gasping Ludlow Street.
New York Magazine