In a city that's seemingly being overrun with chain restaurants, people love to brag about "hidden gems" that have been around for years and aren't going anywhere—but few eateries are as hidden as Acuario Cafe, a Dominican restaurant tucked away in a Hell's Kitchen freight elevator vestibule.
"We're in the freight, but we're not hiding!" Rodolfo Perez, Acuario's owner, told Gothamist. The restaurant has been a part of the neighborhood's food scene for 25 years, and despite its small size and hidden location, upwards of 100 people come by every day for lunch.
Acuario's cooks usually arrive around 5 a.m. to prepare lunch options: pernil, stewed chicken, ground beef, stewed goat, two kinds of rice (yellow and white), beans, lentils, fried catfish, sancocho (a type of stew), and fried plantains are all on the menu. According to Perez, they cook around 100 pounds of rice daily. It seems like a difficult feat to accomplish in such a tight space, but Perez and his staff do it well. "In 25 years, you get used to it," he says.
There are a few stools for those who want to sit down and enjoy their meal, but most customers are in and out quickly. From 11:30 a.m. to around 1 p.m., the line is out the door. Since there are few places to sit—after all, it's in a freight hallway—customers come in and out quickly, and few wait on line more than 15 or 20 minutes.
Perez immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic when he was in his early 20s and spent his early years in New York working in factories. His experience inspired him to open Acuario as a means of providing reliable, cheap food for the neighborhood's working-class residents and employees. When Acuario opened in 1991, a plate of food—rice, beans, protein—cost $3.50. Today, plates cost between $5 and $8.
Despite the cheap price, Acuario doesn't have a single type of customer. "The people who come here are people who work in the parking lots, people who live around here, people from hotels, tourists. People from the offices," Perez said. "We get different customers now, because the neighborhood has changed a lot."
No matter who the customers are, Perez treats them like welcomed guests. More than one customer we spoke to brought up a time when they forgot their wallet or didn't have enough cash to pay for their meal—every time, they said the staff told them to just pay next time they came.
"My customers are also my family," Perez said. "This is not a typical restaurant, this is a family place to come and eat. We make a little bit of money to pay our rent, but this is a family restaurant."
And despite skyrocketing rents in the area, Acuario is here to stay. The meals may be cheap, but the small space and steady flow of customers is more than enough to cover it. In fact, Perez is thinking of opening a second location.
"With more tables, something a little more fancy in a different location," he said. "But this is my baby. The baby is still here."
Acuario Cafe is located at 306 West 37th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. They're open from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Saturday.