UPPER WEST SIDE — Controversial Mexican restaurant Papasito, which has been a magnet for neighborhood complaints about late-night noise, was busted recently for selling alcohol to underage customers.
The New York State Liquor Authority said Papasito Mexican Grill & Agave Bar at 2728 Broadway sold beer and hard alcohol to customers under 21 on three Saturday nights in October and November, according to a recently filed SLA notice.
The SLA says that NYPD vice detectives accompanied several auxiliary police officers as young as 18 years old to the restaurant, and watched as they ordered and were served Heineken and Corona beers and a Bacardi rum and ginger ale, according to the SLA document.
Papasito's owner, Eusebio Chavez, declined to comment Wednesday.
The SLA charges come as Papasito faces mounting opposition from neighbors who say the restaurant looks and sounds more like a nightclub than an eatery. They've complained about late-night street noise and loud music at Papasito, which has a lounge with a DJ that stays open until 4 a.m. on weekends.
Papasito, which opened in September, is in the process of buying the restaurant from its previous owners. It's operating under a liquor license held by the owners of Tokyo Pop, the sushi restaurant that occupied the space before being replaced by Angelina Pizza Bar, which was replaced by Papasito. The underage drinking charges were filed against the Tokyo Pop license.
At an SLA hearing on Tuesday, Community Board 7 chair Mark Diller asked the SLA to deny Papasito's application because of "consistent" and "serious" complaints from neighbors. Diller noted that Community Board 7 considers itself a supporter of small businesses, and had never before — in his memory — asked the SLA to flat out reject a liquor license application.
"Community Board 7 does not take this action lightly," Diller wrote in a letter to the SLA. "This is not a 'not in my backyard' situation."
Diller said Community Board 7 had asked Papasito to muffle noise and make other changes to appease neighbors, but that the restaurant had failed to correct the problems. New York State Assemblyman Daniel O'Donnell also submitted a letter opposing the liquor license.
But representatives for Papasito at Tuesday's hearing called the neighbors who've complained "liars" and "haters."
Fernando Mateo, spokesman for the Northern Manhattan Restaurant and Lounge Association, spoke on Papasito's behalf at the hearing. Mateo, who was alternately contrite and belligerent, vowed to take neighbors and media outlets to court, alleging they've spread lies about the restaurant.
Mateo brought with him a few dozen Papasito employees, many of whom were "single mothers from the neighborhood," according to Mateo. They sat quietly in the hearing room during the nearly five-hour meeting.
He said the restaurant had "made mistakes" when it first opened, but had since cleaned up its act. "We're here to assume responsibility," Mateo said.
In October, police officers arrested a Papasito customer who'd put a cop into a chokehold outside the restaurant, a lieutenant from the 24th Precinct said at a November Community Board 7 Business and Consumer Issues committee meeting. The customer had been kicked out of the restaurant for causing a disturbance, the police lieutenant said.
Shortly after the restaurant opened, a member of the security staff used mace to break up a fight that was about to start outside, owner Eusebio Chavez said at an October meeting of the 24th Precinct Community Council.
Mateo insisted at Tuesday's hearing that such disturbances were a thing of the past.
He listed several changes the restaurant had made, including moving its speakers so music doesn't get too loud, eliminating valet parking and halting the practice of frisking patrons for weapons at the door. Mateo said the restaurant had spent thousands of dollars to meet the demands of neighbors and Community Board 7.
Mateo said Papasito faced similar neighbhorhood complaints in Inwood when it opened its 223 Dyckman Street location in 2010, but that the issues had been successfully resolved. Mateo hosted a fundraiser for Texas Gov. Rick Perry at Papasito's Inwood location in September.
"We had enormous opposition from the community and we addressed every issue that the community and Community Board 12 had," Mateo said. "That has basically disappeared. We have not had any community board issues. We made sure we made the adjustments necessary to please the people who were displeased."
Community Board 12 chair Pamela Palanque-North said locals complained consistently for months about noise and traffic at Papasito, and even enlisted the help of elected officials such as State Assemblyman Denny Farrell.
"There were problems with Papasito," Palanque-North said. "(Residents) were just unrelenting in the demand that we not make a recommendation for a (liquor) license."
Community Board 12 voted against recommending a liquor license for Papasito in 2010.
The board later voted in favor of an application that Papasito made to the State Liquor Authority to alter how it stored alcohol at the restaurant. Some community members called on the board to reject the application as a way of forcing the restaurant to change its operations. But others, including a spokesman for Farrell, supported the application, saying Papasito had made positive changes in response to neighborhood concerns.
For the past few months, no neighbors have showed up at Community Board 12 to complain, Palanque-North said. But she noted it's possible that residents could still be calling 311 or the police to register concerns.
The SLA did not issue a decision on Papasito's liquor license at the Tuesday hearing. The matter will be heard by the full SLA board at a future meeting, an SLA spokesman said.