A taste of home
Margarita Santana hunched over a small table behind the counter at Margot, her Washington Heights restaurant. Her colorful headdress kept her hair from falling into her face, and behind her large spectacles, her eyes studied the pages of paperwork that she needed to complete. The water pipe had burst, so the kitchen was busier than usual. The cramped eight-table restaurant was bustling with customers, waitresses and staff, most of whom spoke Spanish. The few customers who didn’t speak Spanish pointed at the menu and explained loudly what they were trying to order.
Santana, who is 84, speaks Spanish and just enough English to get by. She arrived in the United States 53 years ago from Santo Domingo, and has owned this restaurant since 1989.
“I used to be a nurse in the Dominican Republic,” she said, in Spanish. “And I’ve always cooked. I like to cook—” she paused and laughed heartily before saying, “but I don’t like to clean up afterwards.”
She opened her English-language namesake restaurant with the help from her whole family. Santana had been working at a coffee filter factory since 1984, and gradually, people who worked with her had asked her to cook homemade meals for them. As the demand grew, one of her older brothers, Raphael Marino, encouraged Santana to open her own restaurant. She was already selling food regularly, and with her savings, as well as some money from her family members, Santana was able to open Margot. It is where the residents of Washington Heights and beyond come to find home-style Dominican food. Today, it’s still managed by Santana and her sister, Nurys Correa, both of whom can be found behind the counter.
“I’m legally retired,” Santana said. “But I’m working to make a living. My sister wants to retire too,” she said, gesturing at her sister, who was finishing some transactions with customers. “But nobody wants this restaurant.”
Santana is married, with two sons from a previous marriage. One of them, 50-year-old Carlos Segura, comes by the restaurant on weekends to help out, but says that neither he nor his brother is interested in taking over the restaurant.
Santana looks around the restaurant at a group of Latino men eating their pepper steak, the mother feeding her two children stewed beef and the single elderly lady, waiting for her food while sipping on a fruity Dominican juice.
“Some clients started coming here back in the 80s and still continue to come,” she said. “I’m sad to see it go. This restaurant helped me pay for my children’s education.”
The restaurant’s eight small tables are covered with bright red-checkered table cloths, and the wood-paneled walls are full of tropical paintings and photographs of old-time customers, many of which include Santana’s smiling face. It has a homey feel, as if you had just walked into the very large kitchen of a friendly Dominican neighbour. The waitresses, all Dominican women, chat with their customers about more than just the food.
“It’s true Dominican food,” said Santana. “I learned the recipes from my mother. The only thing that’s missing — is that the customers don’t eat enough!” She laughed again.
The only reason people might not finish their meals is the hearty size of each plate. A single order of stewed beef, a very popular dish, comes on top of a large plate of rice and beans. There isn’t much attention to the presentation of the food, but it’s a more-than-filling meal for the low price of seven dollars. The menu includes other traditional Dominican dishes such as oxtail soup, stewed eggplant and fried pork chops, all made to order.
To top off a meal, many customers order a large cup of Morir Soñando, labeled “Dominican juice mix” in English. Morir Soñando, which translates to “die dreaming,” is a popular beverage of the Dominican Republic, made of orange juice, milk, cane sugar and chopped ice. Everyone from the elderly to young children could be seen sipping the drink.
Four female chefs work in the kitchen. “They are all Dominican,” said Santana. “The Dominican community is very connected and this is a Dominican area, so they all come to me. They all enter as sous chefs, and I train them myself.”
That same community had supported Santana and helped her through rough times — including the period when she first opened the restaurant.
Since then, the neighborhood has changed. Santana’s bright yellow storefront sits across from a McDonald’s and next to a Little Caesars. According to census data, the Dominican presence in Washington Heights from 1990 to 2000 went from 88,000 to nearly 117,000, but has fallen since to 113,000. Compared to 26 years ago, Washington Heights — also known as Little Dominican Republic — has seen new franchise businesses. According to Santana, it is a welcome change.
“The neighborhood used to be rougher,” she said. “I like the new clientele better. It’s mostly Dominican, Hispanics — There’s more security, and I’m okay with the fast-food restaurants around us.”
But the commercialization of the neighborhood also meant that the cost of living goes up.
“It’s getting very expensive,” said Santana. “We’re just going to be here until they sell the building.”
“I’ve been very lucky,” she said. “My family made a living out of something we love, and for me — that is the definition of success.”
Tags: Dominican Republic, Homestyle food, Margot's, Washington Heights