The Cottonwood Cafe



417 bleeker st. ny NY 10014

Neighborhood: West Village

We met by way of the New York City Marathon; the roller skating marathon. It is little known Big Apple trivia, but in the Fall of 1980, there was a roller-skating marathon that covered the same mileage and territory throughout the five boroughs.

One of the participants was my boyfriend T.J. A draft resister who had lived in Europe during his “exile,” he said that race was like visiting twenty countries in a few hours. “It was great, Victoria. We’re rollerskating and people are cheering us on in Spanish, then Italian, then in languages I couldn’t even figure out.” He had recently moved to New York to become a partner in the first restaurant to feature Tex-Mex food, The Cottonwood Café on Bleecker and Bank Streets. His friend, Stan, a crony from Dallas, lured him with the promise of making a killing with this new place. He forgot to tell T.J. about the crappy apartment over the Opera Deli that he would have to share with five other guys and that he hadn’t yet signed a lease with the infamous Village landlord, Bill Gottlieb.

Stan’s powers of persuasion didn’t stop with T.J. He also convinced his friend Jerry to come board the Cottonwood train by promising the fledgling singer that he could perform there and be in charge of hiring all talent. Again, Stan forgot the minor detail of irate tenants not appreciating live music late at night while they tried to sleep. The last partner to sign on was Terry, the Canadian cowboy. Terry fancied himself to be Clint Eastwood and his weather-beaten look was carefully put together by his fashion designer wife, Sonia. She was the one with the bucks so Terry became known as the “money man” of the group. Everyone had their job; Stan was in the kitchen, T.J. was managing the wait staff, Jerry, the entertainment, and Terry, the bookkeeping.

The Cottonwood’s opening came within days of Reagan’s election. While women were donning suits with sneakers and Jerry Rubin was turning from yippie to yuppie, the guys at the Cottonwood were telling patrons, “Take off that tie, we have a dress code to uphold.” Appetizers were listed on the menu as “First Things First.” They didn’t have a liquor license, but with the Opera Deli around the corner you could easily get some Rolling Rock to accompany the Chicken Fried Steak and cornbread so dense you could brick a house with it.

After beating each other up while performing in “True West,” the Quaid brothers would dive into okra and mashed potatoes. The Ramones enjoyed Juervos Rancheros. Neighborhood people hung out for hours; there was no such thing as table turnover.

Unfortunately, the restaurant world is like marriage; partners put up a brave face for the public even when there are behind-the-scene conflicts. T.J. and Stan dissolved their partnership and then T.J. and I moved to Dallas, driving there in his MG Midget. Without the backdrop of the restaurant and the Village, our relationship soon proved to be all sizzle and no chicken fried steak and I returned to New York. Jerry’s banker girlfriend beckoned him to Houston and Terry’s wife Sonia decided to stop writing checks.

Stan went on to start up Tortilla Flats and The Acme Bar and Grill. He eventually left New York and is either sipping Pina Coladas in the Caribbean or is somewhere on the lam.

For the next seventeen years, the Cottonwood lived on with various owners and mangers. It stopped being a hot spot and eventually closed. Today, in its place is a restaurant featuring “continental cuisine.” Even Bill Gottlieb is dead.

Recently, I had a beer and burger at The Corner Bistro. I was a bit tipsy and asked my barstool neighbor, “Did you know that there was a roller-skating marathon in 1980?”

He said, “What am I supposed to do with that fascinating information?”

True New Yorker that I am, I told him.

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§ 3 Responses to “The Cottonwood Cafe”

  • deedee says:

    Yes, I remember the Cottonwood Cafe, although it wasn’t the “first” TexMex spot in the W. Village.
    .”The Alamo” was on 8th Ave, just north of the Opera Deli. I remember when Cottonwood first opened, and there was a sign pasted to the front door saying “Forget the Alamo”!

    I thought to try out Cottonwood, though Alamo was much cozier. I was meeting someone there, and was told I couldn’t get a table until my guest arrived. By that time, there were no tables available, and we waited a bit outside on Bleecker, and decided to ditch our plans, and never returned.

    I LOVED Gulf Coast on West Street, sadly gone, anhand now it’s an empty chain linked fenced-in lot.
    Thankfully, Tortilla Flats (where I used to go + hang out with Ray Davies, when he had a few runs at Westbeth) and ACME are still around!

  • Turtle Heart says:

    Hey. I remember Cottonwood. I lived at Broadway/Houston in the 80s and used to
    eat there qite a lot. I know Southwest cuisine very well and they did a really decent job
    of serving up some tasty items. Black-eyed peas. So many nice dishes. I have a friend from Italy
    just now moving to NYC and told her to see if Cottonwood was still standing. Would have been a miracle
    I guess, then I found this. Thanks for the many great meals. I have been a chef a few times, I know how grueling it is, even if you love it. I live on a tiny island in the Italian Mediterranean now and there is, I swer to God, not a single decent place to eat anywhere on this island. It boggles my mind. It is all shit for the tourists and they don’t like it much either.This island belongs to Italy but these islanders are not really Italians, not really Sicilians, more like Italian Tunisians with zero talent for food. My wife is a master chef or else I would have offed myself probably. We both have non-food work in these years but we know how to feed ourselves. I even found some green NM chilis I can get shipped over here and we try a diverse menu..the kinds you see in NYC but never see much in Italy. Thanks for the narrative about good old Cottonwood. I personally have very good memories of it.

  • Oui Me says:

    I used to live in Horatio Street in the west village in 1988/99 and we used to eat in Cottonwood on a regular basis. That extra mash potato and extra gravy with the chicken was the only reason I went! Just lovely for a guy from Scotland, it was like a cosy hug.

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