UPPER WEST SIDE — Controversial restaurant Papasito came out swinging against neighborhood complaints Wednesday night, with well-connected political figure Fernando Mateo defending the eatery as a struggling small business, and accusing residents of fabricating allegations against the restaurant.
Residents near Papasito Mexican Grill and Agave Bar's new 2728 Broadway location have described the restaurant as a "menacing horror show" where boisterous crowds gather as late as 4:30 a.m. on weekend nights.
Neighbors say they've seen fights break out on the sidewalk outside the restaurant
"There are some legitimate [complaints], but don't accuse us of anything that's not true," Mateo told neighbors at a tense four-hour meeting of Community Board 7's Business and Consumer Issues committee, which advises the State Liquor Authority on Papasito's liquor license.
"When you make up stories to impress this board, it's really shameful," Mateo said.
One woman said she saw customers at the restaurant running from what appeared to be someone with a weapon, possibly a gun, but Mateo vehemently denied that allegation. "People with guns in the street - that's all fabricated," Mateo said as he left the meeting. "Police would shut us down if there were guns."
Police from the 24th Precinct said at Wednesday's meeting that they've received complaints about noise at the restaurant, and had arrested a customer outside Papasito after he put a chokehold on a police officer in October.
Police said they would keep an extra eye on the restaurant this coming weekend. But residents said cops needed to beef up enforcement at Papasito.
"This is so much more extreme than what the officers have said," said Peter Ackerman, who lives across from Papasito. "It's outrageous. It's screaming and fighting at 4:30 in the morning. It is completely destroying the fabric of the neighborhood. We have two kids and we chose to live in this neighborhood because it's not a nightclub neighborhood."
Mateo said Papasito had already eliminated valet parking in response to community complaints, and would move speakers to reduce noise, stop hosting live music on most nights, and stop frisking customers for weapons at the door.
Community Board 7 Business and Consumer Issues Committee chair George Zeppenfeldt-Cestero said the pat-downs had a "negative connotation" that made residents uncomfortable.
But Mateo refused to bend on one key demand, saying Papasito couldn't close earlier than 1 a.m. on weeknights and 4:00 a.m. on weekends. Mateo said the restaurant wouldn't be able to pay its rent unless it could operate as a lounge after midnight.
"In this bad economic climate, we're barely surviving closing [at 1 a.m. on weeknights]," Mateo said.
Mateo sometimes sparred with community board members in near shouting matches, but also pleaded with the committee to go easy on a struggling small business. Mateo described Papasito as a restaurant headed by "young entrepreneurs" who employed "single moms" and others who need jobs.
At one point during the charged meeting, a young woman who lives near the resident cried as she told Community Board 7 members that's she's afraid to walk past Papasito on her way home. "I'm extremely concerned about my safety," she said. "Look at what you're doing to this neighborhood."
Mateo later said residents who've complained about Papasito "have no life." But he also struck a more conciliatory note, telling Community Board 7 he was "humbled and grateful" to hear from the community.
Community Board 7 members said they'll make random inspections to see if Papasito is cleaning up its act. Community Board 7's full board will vote on whether to approve Papasito's liquor license at its December meeting.
Board members said they'd also speak to Community Board 12 about Papasito's Inwood location, where neighbors have raised similar concerns about noise and crowds.
"Most people support our business," Mateo said of Papasito's Dyckman Street restaurant. "The same issues we have here, we worked out there. I'm a New Yorker. I'm a righteous guy. I don't believe in breaking the law."