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Columbia Spectator Staff

After a lengthy legal saga, Ramon Diaz once again watched customers dance to live music between tables at his Cuban restaurant Floridita, which celebrated its grand reopening Sunday after two years of closure.

Floridita, a haven for lovers of Cuban food for 34 years, was forced to relocate by Columbia's Manhattanville expansion.

"He had a thriving business, and all of sudden, he wakes up one day, and Columbia's taken over," said Assembly member Keith Wright, who, at the reopening, remembered Floridita as the spot for a number of "political breakfasts" over the years. "But, as Frederick Douglass said, ‘Without struggle, there is no progress.'"

Once Columbia began eminent domain proceedings in the neighborhood, Floridita became a symbol of the fight to maintain Manhattanville's character in the face of the expansion. After he was forced to close his original restaurant on Broadway and 129th Street in April 2010, Diaz signed a lease with the University for a new location in a Columbia-owned property on 125th Street and 12th Avenue.

Since then, Diaz and the University engaged in public disputes over asbestos in the new building, unpaid rent, and legal issues. Moreover, Diaz said, he had concerns that the new location would not attract enough customers.

But a combination of encouragement from the restaurant's supporters, including Wright, and the growth of nearby establishments like Dinosaur Bar-B-Que next door made Diaz more optimistic about the new location. With bars and nightclubs springing up along the 12th Avenue corridor, Diaz said he hoped to attract both Columbia students and old clientele.

"This is the new Chelsea or Meatpacking District," he said, laughing. "Everyone walks in here and sees it's a new place, with new decorations."

And although its look is new, the restaurant's spirit has remained the same. Diaz spent the night welcoming customers as they walked through the door. Old regulars sat down to chat amid a flurry of greetings, festive music, and clattering plates. Sherlock Robinson, a photographer and a friend of Diaz, said the photos on the wall, some of which were taken in Cuba, maintained the "Cuban heart" of the previous establishment.

Even the menu has stayed the same, right down to the prices.

"Cafe con leche is still $1.50," Diaz said.

Diaz said he hoped that the restaurant would spur economic growth in the surrounding neighborhood. He retained 27 out of 43 employees from his original location, and all but two of his current employees still live in the area, which, he remarked, was fortunate given rising rents in Harlem.

While ringing up a customer, employee Yoisha Salazar said the two-year hiatus had caused her considerable financial concern. She said was pleased that the new location was already attracting customers.

"We had bills to pay, kids to feed," she said. "People are happy we've reopened—they like this place better."

Rev. Henry Mercado said that the reopening was a cause for celebration. Mercado, a pastor of the Meeting with God Pentecostal Church and a longtime Floridita customer, used to have lunch or dinner with his congregation at the restaurant before the relocation.

But Mercado, whose church was also displaced by the expansion, said he had doubts about the new location's ability to attract customers beyond the original establishment's old clientele, and said new patrons were "what Ramon needs right now."

Despite the jubilant atmosphere, both Diaz and his customers acknowledge the nearby presence of the growing Manhattanville campus that forced them out of their first location.

"Commercially, I feel good about it. Construction workers come in for breakfast," Diaz said. "It will be a constant reminder, but you've got to get past those things."

Others at the restaurant were split on the issue. Leanette Franco, a first-time customer, said in Spanish that there were no hard feelings with Columbia. But longtime customer Elizabeth Brown holds Columbia responsible for Diaz's struggles over the past two years.

"I'm glad to see they bypassed this area," Brown said, nodding in the direction of the campus. "Here, they make you feel like family, Cuban or not." | @ColumbiaSpec

Ramon Diaz Floridita