Urban Archaeology: The original site of Victor's Cafe
These interesting murals long greeted us on visits to the West 71st Street outpost of Malaysian restaurant Penang. And we concluded that these decorations were made especially for that restaurant. But a resident of West 71st Street, who is a longtime Upper West Sider, told us recently that the murals date back to when this was the first New York home of Victor's Cafe, the famous Cuban restaurant. These are then clearly scenes of Cuban rural life, which, upon examination, makes a great deal more sense.
Victor's began at this site in 1963, founded by Victor de Corral, who was a restaurateur in the Havana area before emigrating with his family to the United States in 1957, two years before the revolution. The intersection of West 71st Street and Columbus Avenue back in 1963 was rough, but the restaurant, started with a $3,000 loan and family recipes, developed a following, both in the Latino community and among people who had their first real taste of Cuban, or for that matter, Latin food, at Victor's.
The tiny eatery (the joke was that cooking was done in the apartment upstairs) soon expanded, and eventually, the restaurant opened an outpost on West 52nd Street, which is still in business. According to the book Mambo Montage: The Latinization of New York, de Corral allowed former managers to keep running the West 71st Street restaurant under the Victor's name until the early 1990s. The book says the name was then changed to Havana for a time after a lawsuit over the Victor's name. The site became part of the Penang chain in 1996. The Malaysian mainstay decamped to a spot nearby after a rent increase.
Now that Penang is gone, we're curious about a few things: Will the new business at the site keep these murals? (We suspect not.) And what is the exact story behind the murals? We'll sleuth around, and if you have any light to shed, let us know in the comments.
-- Rolando Pujol