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City Waited 3 Decades to Rule Yaffa Cafe's Back Patio Illegal, Manager Says

By Lisha Arino | October 6, 2014 1:37pm
 Yaffa Cafe's 31-year-old backyard dining patio was illegal, the Department of Buildings said.
Yaffa Cafe's 31-year-old backyard dining patio was illegal, the Department of Buildings said.
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EAST VILLAGE — The Yaffa Café's outdoor patio was in operation for more than three decades — but the city waited until late last month to deem the greenspace illegal and order the restaurant to shut it down.

Ron Ramati, 50, the restaurant's manager, said he was puzzled by the timing of a recent health inspection, as well as a partial vacate order the city slapped on his backyard dining area, since the patio had been in use for decades and advertised publicly by the restaurant.

“Suddenly, after 31 years, it’s illegal?” Ramati said. 

Ramati said the combination of the fines and the ban on using the 100-seat backyard space, leaving only 75 seats inside, meant the longtime restaurant could no longer stay in business.

“Without the garden, there was no way for us to keep on working," said Ramati, who shuttered the eatery permanently on Oct. 1.

The Department of Buildings ruled on Sept. 5 that the 100-seat backyard patio was an "illegal" structure and issued an immediate partial vacate order on a backyard patio, according to DOB records.

City officials said the backyard patio lacked a proper fire exit. It also violated the building's zoning — the interior of the restaurant is zoned for commercial use, but the back patio is zoned for residential use, according to DOB records.

“Due to the significant public safety hazards associated with the establishment’s conditions, including the lack of egress in the event of a fire or other emergency, the partial vacate order was issued requiring the owners to conform with the use of the certificate of occupancy,” which does not allow for seating in the backyard, said DOB spokesman Alexander Schnell in a statement.

The DOB did not say why it took three decades to enforce the residential rule, but they said they were summoned to the site following a complaint.

Ramati said the restaurant tried to work with DOB to make the backyard legal, but the agency refused, saying it was impossible.

The inspection came on the same day that Department of the Health and Mental Hygiene inspectors stopped by and found evidence of mice, live roaches, filth flies and other health violations, leading to a total of 100 violation points, according to the agency’s website.

“The fines and the problem with the garden was way too much for us,” he said. He declined to say how much the city charged Yaffa Café in fines.

Ramati also complained that the inspector also spent nine hours at a restaurant, a move he found unusual, he said.

“I’ve never seen ever the health department being there for nine hours and being so vicious and rude,” he said, explaining that the inspector spoke "very brutally" to the kitchen and wouldn't let staff serve meals to customers.

A spokeswoman for the department did not address the inspector’s behavior, but said the amount of time an inspector spends at an establishment depends on the number of violations it receives. The more violations an eatery gets, the longer it takes an inspector to write up a report and explain each violation to the owners.

Ramati said he was sad to see Yaffa Café closed.

“It was a big disappointment. We felt really bad about closing,” he said. “It’s very difficult to realize that it’s the end.”

But even after the closure, Ramati said, items from Yaffa Café’s menu, including its salads, burgers and Mediterranean plate — which includes hummus, baba ganoush and tahini — will live on at Simone Martini Bar on First Avenue, which is owned by a relative, Ramati said.