The city’s known for its nonstop nightlife scene. But the nocturnal revelry rumbling at Barcelona Bites on West 242nd Street appears to be more than some neighbors are willing to put up with.
Community Board 8 resoundingly approved a recommendation from its public safety committee that the state liquor authority deny the reportedly raucous Latin-leaning bar and eatery its liquor license renewal. The decision came after public safety chair Margaret Donato described ongoing quality-of-life complaints — including late-night noise, parking problems worsened by a scrappy valet system, arrests for fighting and theft, and tickets for disorderly conduct.
Despite several requests, Donato claimed neither management nor Barcelona Bites owners agreed to meet with her committee to address more than 120 complaints filed with the city. CB8’s safety committee typically provides advisory opinions to the liquor authority on whether alcohol licenses should be issued or renewed.
“When you drive past that place at night, there are people all over the streets,” committee member Jyll Townes said. “It clearly could be a nuisance.”
But revoking a license isn’t something the liquor authority takes lightly, spokesman William Crowley said.
“While community board recommendations are given substantial weight in the licensing process, the state liquor authority needs to have good cause in order to disapprove a renewal, and may not deny based solely on community opposition,” he said.
The liquor authority’s renewal process is principally an administrative function, Crowley added. Licensed establishments that apply in a timely fashion are commonly renewed and generally aren’t subject to the rigorous review undertaken for new license applications.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean a place like Barcelona Bites can get away with breaking rules to the chagrin of residents. The authority can impose sanctions against problem locations, Crowley added, even revoking licenses when necessary.
Barcelona Bites made a splash in the local nightlife scene when chef Kelvin Fernandez — who’s cooked for the likes of rapper Jay-Z and even defeated Bobby Flay in the celebrity’s Food Network show — opened the restaurant in 2015 soon after moving to the neighborhood, bringing his edgy take on Latin cuisine to a sleepy side street off Broadway.
“I want to bring the downtown exposure to uptown in Riverdale and the Bronx because I know people can appreciate that,” Fernandez told The Riverdale Press at the time.
Fernandez has since moved on, yet noise reportedly has been a problem since Day One, as the restaurant morphs into a nightclub on weekends, shattering the calm for area families and children.
Still, owner Urbano Estevez apparently wanted to take a proactive role in addressing the problem before it exploded, paying a visit to the 50th Precinct not long after Barcelona Bites set down roots on West 242nd, to discuss issues with then commanding officer Terence O’Toole.
“Urbano was very good with the community,” said O’Toole, who recently transferred out of the 5-0 to the Chief of Department’s office.
In fact, O’Toole recalls Estevez inviting residents to the establishment for tapas where he’d welcome feedback on anything eating at them.
“Some nights he had quite a few people, and they would all talk about what was going on — the noise and everything,” O’Toole said.
Most noise issues — at least in Barcelona Bites’ early days — originated from inside the establishment, O’Toole said.
“The deejay would just play loud music,” he said.
“That was a problem,” even before it spilled onto the street.
Nevertheless, Estevez “was helpful and cooperative in the beginning,” O’Toole said. Despite what may have been his best intentions, however, things seem to have spun out of control in a way perhaps even Estevez hadn’t intended.
As Estevez himself tells it, he’s never wavered in his commitment to cooperating with the community. He acquired the space that is now Barcelona Bites in 2002, before renovating it and opening it as a nightclub known as Ibiza Lounge the following year.
That operated for a decade or so before Estevez renovated again around 2013 — although he admits he’s somewhat sketchy on exact dates — before enlisting Fernandez to helm the kitchen.
Given his space has existed as a late-night, liquor-laden hangout for that many years, Estevez claims the backlash from residents leaves him “a little bit perplexed,” since noise and free-flowing booze are really nothing new there.
“I’ve always been an active owner,” Estevez said, adding he’s soundproofed his establishment where possible, as well as hired a private security company to mitigate scuffles that can erupt in bars such as his. “I hear (residents’ complaints), and I always try to do things necessary to comply with the neighborhood.”
He attributes some of the parking problems residents have blamed on his valet service to construction along West 242nd that has only made navigating already narrow streets adjacent to Broadway more hellish.
Come early next year, Estevez hopes changing the music selection — perhaps a bit less hip-hop-heavy — may draw a mellower party set. He makes it a point to regularly attend CB8’s public safety meetings, but missed one recently because of a family illness that sent him to Tampa, Florida.
“I always was open to any suggestion, any criticism,” Estevez said. “As far as I know, I think that I’ve done everything possible to try to make things work within the community. I respect the community because I still feel like I’m part of the community.”
As it stands now, Barcelona Bites’ liquor license is set to expire New Year’s Eve (although Latin-Asian fusion spot Yokomo, next door, which Estevez also owns, lasts through 2020, according to the liquor board). And while Estevez isn’t particularly concerned it’s in jeopardy, CB8 chair Rosemary Ginty believes inviting the liquor authority to a public safety meeting could help — at least as far as answering a few of residents’ questions.
“It should be well-publicized for people in the community who have had problems historically with certain bars,” Ginty said. “It would be very good for them to ask the state liquor authority, how do they make their judgments? What do they care about? How can the community make their voice heard more when it comes to the state liquor authority’s approval of these licenses?”