On Zarela's Mind: The Restaurant Closes, a New Life Begins

Should I or should I not? My mind knew that I had to, my heart said, No, no. For the last year, I slowly came to the realization that I needed to close my restaurant, Zarela, after 23 years. During those years, challenges were met and conquered, dreams were fulfilled, lasting friendships were cemented, memories shared, and my children and those of many customers grew into successful, happy, secure young men and women. Furthermore Zarela was my identity, my vocation, the place where for many years I was happiest.

But the last two years have been hell—the economy shot, rent increased to $27,000 a month, prices of goods kept rising, customers short of money and getting their Mexican fix at taco trucks and a slew of small, inexpensive restaurants that have popped up all over the city. I started to doubt whether regional was the right food for the time.

Uncharacteristically, I was very indecisive. So I did what my mother always told me to do in these cases: I made al list and put all the negatives on the left side and the positives on the other. The negatives won and I decided to close.

We have a saying in Spanish that suits the situation perfectly: “La incertidumbre de la felicidad es mas cruel que la certeza de la desgracia.” It doesn’t translate exactly, but it means that the uncertainty of happiness is much crueler than the certainty of disgrace.

The stress was relieved somewhat but I worried about my employees. Most of them had been with me since the beginning and some had been with me since 1984, when I was consulting chef at Café Marimba. Thankfully, most of them have found jobs and I only have to place one or two more.

A New York Times article by Florence Fabricant announcing the closure provoked a most unexpected reaction from customers, who came in in droves to beg me not to close. Grown men were crying at the bar, young girls were saying that Zarela had informed theirs 20's, couples related how they had met or had their first date at the restaurant and had been happily married. It was touching, satisfying, affirming—but frustrating at the same time. Where had they been the last two years when we needed them desperately?

The Facebook postings confirmed that my food was indeed one of the reasons that Zarela had been so successful. (One recipe for you: My signature dish of red snapper hash.)They made me reconsider my decision to not to reopen, so I am looking for a spot and investors. In the meantime, I will continue catering, teaching and making presentations, and I'll finish my archive to sell. I always tell women to have other options in case they lose their job and I practice what I preach.

When I was a child, my grandfather decorated his ranch with the Angus cows that looked beautiful, but when food was scarce simply laid down and died. I’m not like that. I’m like like the Hereford cattle that looked for every last leaf of mezquite or clump of dry grass to make it through the winter. I’ll make it through this winter, and many more.

Award-winning restaurateur Zarela Martinez blogs at You can also check out her how-to videos on YouTube.


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