Closing time is coming at the end of August for a family-owned Cuban restaurant in Queens, which for nearly a half-century wined and dined everyone from local priests to salsa legend Celia Cruz, and has roots going back to Cuba in the early 1950s.
Rincón Criollo has been a Queens fixture since 1976, when brothers Jesus Rene and Rodobaldo Acosta opened it on Junction Boulevard near what was then the heart of Corona’s Cuban community.
The restaurant has retained the same name as the eatery their family ran in Santiago de Las Vegas, Cuba from 1950 to 1962, when it was seized at gunpoint.
But now Esther Acosta and her brother Rudy — who, in 2011, took over the restaurant from their great uncles — on August 31 will close the doors of Corona’s Rincón Criollo. Its chef, Pablo, and the decor have stayed constant since it opened.
“Every time I walk around I get emotional,” Acosta said of the restaurant known for over-the-top birthday celebrations and classic Cuban dishes, including ropa vieja, picadillo and lechón asado.
The family points to the pandemic, which hit Corona hard and forced the restaurant to shift to takeout, as a big factor in the decision to close. Its outdoor dining setup consisted of one small table.
“We never fully recovered from COVID,” Acosta said.
Workers spent six months cooking for World Central Kitchen, which prepared meals during the pandemic for local people, including the staff at NYC Health + Hospitals/Elmhurst and at New Immigrant Community Empowerment. Kitchen staff cooked between 1,500 and 2,000 meals daily.
Acosta credits those steps, along with longtime customers — like the family that ordered a huge meal every Friday night — for keeping the lights on.
“I love our customers, they’re very loyal,” she said.
Now, the news of the restaurant’s looming closing is hitting them hard.
Hilda Quinto, a lawyer who works across Junction Boulevard, said she hasn’t yet told her kids, who have grown used to eating takeout lechón asado — Cuban roast pork — for Christmas.
“This is the best restaurant in Queens,” said Quinto, who lives in Park Slope, but stopped in on Monday. “I still have not been able to process it.”
Many of Rincón Criollo’s long-time diners are older and drive to get there, Acosta said, but have found parking in Corona to be increasingly challenging. She also noted quality-of-life issues in the neighborhood, like public urination.
“I have people that pee in front of my door, literally just pee,” Acosta said. “I’m like, what are you doing?”
And with the restaurant’s landlord saying a rent increase is coming by the end of the year, Acosta and her brother set out to find another location in Queens.
They instead ended up going across the Nassau County border, again. In 2015, Rincón Criollo opened a second restaurant in Huntington Station — and the owners now hope to open another outpost on Jericho Turnpike in Garden City by mid-September.
“We kept on going a little further, a little further,” Acosta said. “And we saw this beautiful location with parking, two floors, and we were able to buy it for a reasonable price, no more leasing.”
‘You Have To Go Visit’
The new Long Island branch will be the latest location for a restaurant with a decades-long history.
Jesus Rene Acosta and another brother, Rudesindo, opened the first near Havana in 1952, naming it for a Cuban movie.
Over the next decade the restaurant kept expanding, eventually offering seating for 2,000 people and adding playgrounds and pony rides.
That ended in 1962, Esther Acosta said, when the restaurant was taken over at gunpoint. The brothers were offered a chance to work in the kitchen, she said, but refused.
They instead set up shop in Queens in the late 1960s, when Junction Boulevard near Roosevelt Avenue featured a Cuban-owned jewelry store and bakery, and a tiny 24-hour spot selling Cuban sandwiches.
It was the owner of the Cuban butcher shop El Mundo who told the Acostas about an upcoming vacancy on Junction Boulevard that became Rincón Criollo’s home.
“He told them, ‘There’s a little Italian spot that’s closing down, I think it would be good for you,’” Esther Acosta said.
Rincón Criollo was always a word-of-mouth restaurant, she said. And it has remained a family space, where generations of Cuban immigrants celebrate birthdays and holidays.
Celia Cruz — who performed in the 1950 film that inspired the restaurant’s name – was a frequent customer. Former and current Mets stars, including shortstop Francisco Lindor, count it among their favorite places to eat.
“It’s an experience place,” Acosta said. “People come here to experience the comfort of good food, good ambience, good music, just good vibes, good energy — like you just walked into Cuba in the 1950s.”
Business has been booming at the Corona location since the family announced its closing.
“My friends have bought out the restaurant, I have other customers that have brought all their family, we had a family of 20 yesterday,” she said.
The extra business will help their employees as they transition to the Garden City restaurant, Acosta said, since there could always be a delay in its opening.
All of Rincón Criollo’s photos and memorabilia will be brought to the new restaurant, in hopes of recreating the look of the place in Corona.
But Acosta admits the last few weeks have been bittersweet, while providing a reminder to patrons of other long-standing restaurants in the city.
“You can’t love something from afar — you have to go visit,” she said. “Go visit your local mom and pops because if you don’t, there are no longer going to be mom and pops.”