After nearly three decades as a staple on the UWS, Gabriela’s Restaurant and Tequila Bar is shuttering its doors.
The eatery, which opened in 1992 on Amsterdam and 94th and then relocated to its current location at 688 Columbus Ave., will be closing at the end of the month.
With more than 150 different bottles of 100 percent agave tequila, Gabriela’s was the largest tequila bar on the Upper West Side.
Owner Nat Milner, a UWS resident, told the Spirit he wished he could remain open, but he saw the writing on the wall two years ago when minimum wage began increasing. His wife, Elizabeth Milner, owned and operated Elizabeth Neighborhood’s Table next door to Gabriela’s for seven years until it closed in 2017.
“We put our whole life into this space the last 15 years,” Milner said. “It’s just the nature of the business. If you’re not making money, you can’t stay around. They kept raising the wages and we kept responding to it. We could never get caught up.”
Milner, 50, grew up in the restaurant business. His uncle, Artie Cutler, was somewhat of an icon in the food industry. Cutler operated Carmine’s and Ollie's Noodle Shop & Grille on Broadway, Virgil's Real BBQ at 152 West 44th St., and he was a partner or investor in many other restaurants.
Milner worked for his uncle in various stores and learned from him.
“He was my role model,” Milner said. “I spent a lot of time with him.”
The history of Gabriela’s dates back to Gabriela Hernandez, who used to work and cook for Cutler. Cutler was so enamored with her authentic Mexican food that eventually the duo opened the restaurant. Hernandez soon brought some of her family to the UWS and they joined her at the eatery.
Hernandez gave the UWS a taste of Guadalajara for many years. Some of her family recipes from the Guadalajara area are cochinita pibil, al pastor tacos, carnitas Uruapan and enchilada suizas.
In 1997 Cutler passed away at the age of 53 from a heart attack. His widow, Alice Cutler, operated Gabriela’s until 2005, when Milner took over.
“My aunt was going to let it disappear when the lease expired,” he said. “I was looking for a way to be out on my own and she was looking for a way to keep Gabriela’s alive.”
After traveling Asia for a year and living in Alaska and Colorado, Milner was ready for the challenge of operating a business.
While Gabriela’s didn’t last forever, the juice was definitely worth the squeeze. According to Milner, the restaurant has prided itself on three things: food, service and values.
“We weren’t trying to be the best restaurant in NYC, we were trying to be the favorite,” Milner said.
With employees that have been with him for more than 20 years, it has been a place where people feel at home. Milner recalled how he has seen kids grow up into adults and families celebrate baptisms, graduations, birthdays and many happy occasions at Gabriela’s.
Milner explained that owning Gabriela’s was a dream come true, but having it in his neighborhood made it even more special. People know him and his wife, and most of the clientele live within five blocks from the restaurant, he said.
“Being a part of the community is a major thing of what we do,” he said.
So, when the minimum wage began to increase a few years ago, Milner realized he needed to find ways to lower payroll and make ends meet. In 2017 the minimum wage went up to $12 an hour, $13 in 2018 and $15 this year.
Consequently, he cut layers of management, raised prices, got rid of workers who made tortilla chips and reduced overnight employees.
With Cinco de Mayo and Mother’s Day, May was usually Gabriela's busiest month. However, it was slow this year, with the entire summer.
“It’s heartbreaking to see what’s happening here,” he said. “Everybody’s got to scramble to figure out how to do their business with less labor.”
Since announcing the impending closure two weeks ago, the restaurant has been inundated with calls from emotional customers.
A young girl even dropped off a thank you card with 75 cents for them.
“People are crying,” Milner said. “It’s just very sad.”
Looking to the future, he plans to spend more time with his family and focus on his kiosk, Gabriela’s Taquiera, at 44th and Eighth Ave. At this point, he is filled with anger, sadness and grief, but is ready for a new chapter.
“I’m through my stage of grief already,” Milner remarked. “For everyone else it’s kind of a shock.”
“It’s heartbreaking to see what’s happening here. Everybody’s got to scramble to figure out how to do their business with less labor.” Owner Nat Milner