Cha Cha Cha Rises Like A Neon Phoenix In Virgil Village (Except Now It's Condos And No One Asked About The Name)
When Virgil Village's sangria-famous, jerk chicken temple Cha Cha Cha closed its restaurant doors in the fall of 2016 — after 30 years in business — the owners left behind wistful patrons, a few unpaid bar tabs and a neon sign.
This week, that sign reappeared... in the lobby of the glossy, ultra-modern condo complex built on its grave. The real estate company behind the development has also named the building (you see where this is going) the Cha Cha Cha.
4SITE Real Estate, which touts itself as "responsible real estate and development" that "is changing the face of Los Angeles's Eastside," did all of this — using Cha Cha Cha's sign and naming the building — without contacting anyone who had been involved with the longstanding restaurant.
LAist reached out to 4SITE and real estate agent Joy Bolger, who is selling the units in the building, for comment. We haven't heard back from either. But Todd Wexman, chief principal at 4SITE, told Curbed L.A., he believed the previous owners "would be flattered."
"You kicked us out and now you're trying to use our name to brand your building," says Javi Anaya, whose uncle co-founded Cha Cha Cha in 1986. Along with his siblings, he ran Cha Cha Cha from 2003 until its closure.
"I don't care how you try to spin it, if you want to pay homage to any family, you talk to them first. You ask for permission to use a name that's been in our family and has meant so much to us. No one could be that arrogant," Anaya says.
If you want a microcosm of gentrification in Los Angeles, circa 2019, you won't find a better case study.
When Cha Cha Cha opened, near the corner of Virgil and Melrose avenues, it was described as a "graffiti-splattered" area by the Los Angeles Times. Bordering East Hollywood and Silver Lake, the neighborhood was dominated by dollar stores, small markets, practical businesses, homes and apartment buildings with relatively cheap units. It was the perfect neighborhood for a young chef to open his first restaurant.
Toribio Prado was one of 14 children who had grown up in Michoacán, Mexico, on a small ranch with an outhouse and without running water. As a teenager, he had run away from his home in Jaripo and ended up in Los Angeles. Here, he worked his way up from dishwasher to line cook and eventually became the opening chef at The Ivy, the hoity toity Robertson Blvd. restaurant beloved by celebs.
"He was a special kid growing up," says Anaya, describing his uncle. (Anaya's mother was one of Prado's sisters.) "He was someone that was far beyond his time, just a creative genius that needed to start his own thing." He was also gay.
"He was different than all his brothers and people noticed at the time. He needed to escape that as well," Anaya says.
After a few years making good money as The Ivy's chef, Prado wanted something of his own. He teamed up with a friend, hairdresser Mario Tamayo, to open Cha Cha Cha, a Caribbean restaurant that soon became popular with "the famous and the far-out, the posh and the punk — everyone from Saudi Arabian tycoon Adnan Khashoggi to struggling musicians sporting Mohawks," wrote the L.A. Times.
Anaya was 10 years old in 1986, the year Cha Cha Cha debuted. He began working there on weekends and after school, making cappuccinos and espressos while warming up desserts.
Prado and Tamayo soon opened a second restaurant, Cafe Mambo, at Melrose and Heliotrope but parted ways in the early '90s. According to Anaya, Tamayo kept Cafe Mambo while Prado kept Cha Cha Cha. Tamayo died in 1994 at age 36.
With full control of Cha Cha Cha, Prado hooked up with investors who urged him to branch out. He opened Cha Cha Cha locations in Ventura, Long Beach, San Francisco and La Jolla but the boom eventually went bust. "Little by little, they started falling apart," Anaya says.
By 2002, only two Cha Cha Chas remaned, the one in Long Beach and the original outpost, on Virgil, where the finances were in shambles. In 2003, Anaya and his three brothers bought out the remaining investors and took over the restaurant. It was a family business where tons of siblings, cousins and in-laws worked as waiters, cooks and managers. A couple years later, the Anayas decided to expand and opened a Cha Cha Cha in West Hollywood, on Santa Monica Blvd. near Fairfax Ave.
The WeHo Cha Cha Cha closed in 2008, pushed out by rising rents and gentrification, a story repeated thousands of times across Los Angeles. Anaya says he and his brothers didn't dwell on it. Instead, they focused their attention on opening their Pinches Tacos, now a chain with eight locations spread between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
At the original Cha Cha Cha on Virgil, business chugged along. At one point, then-city councilmember Eric Garcetti even declared a holiday in honor of the restaurant, according to Anaya. (Sorry, you probably won't get the day off from work.) But around the restaurant, the neighborhood was changing.
Sure, you can never dip your foot in the same river twice and all life is change but what Anaya describes is an accelerated metamorphosis of Virgil Village that kicked into high-gear around 2007. That's when he started seeing more of what he calls "fake hipsters."
"All these rich kids from the westside that maybe they didn't have a great childhood, that were rebellious, that have money to afford Silver Lake now, because it was expensive at that point — that's when I saw real estate start going up and up and up and up," Anaya says.
Panaderias and carnicerias were replaced by vintage shops and stores selling "artisanal" wares. Stuff-and-junk stores selling inexpensive household supplies made way for books-and-vinyl pop-ups. In 2012, Jessica Koslow opened Sqirl, a wildly popular cafe where a breakfast and coffee and coffee for two will run you close to $50. Those successes attracted another wave of slick businesses to the area — wine stores, vintage barware, yoga studios and upscale pet food emporiums. In 2017, karaoke-friendly dive bar The Smog Cutter closed.
"These new, hip places that came up, there's a lot of money behind these places," Anaya says.
The Instagram feed This Side Of Hoover, started by Samanta Helou-Hernandez, does a beautiful job of chronicling the changes in the neighborhood since 2017.
Real estate prices also went up. Around that time, Anaya says he and his cousins bought a house for around $700,000, renovated it and flipped it for $1.4 million.
"I saw the growth and, again, we weren't mad," Anaya says. "We understand that things change. Gentrification is something that's inevitable in big cities. So we understand the business aspect of it."
When it looked inevitable that Cha Cha Cha would have to shutter, Anaya and his siblings decided not to put up a fight and focused their energy on growing Pinches Tacos. "Did it hurt when we were evicted? Of course," he says. "It was a closure. It was one of the most amazing chapters in life coming to an end."
Anaya had closed the book on the restaurant, or so he thought, until this week, when one of his cousins posted on Facebook about the new condo complex with the distinctive green, blue and pink Cha Cha Cha sign in the lobby. Where a colorful, 70-seat shoebox of a restaurant once stood, there's now a three-story structure with 24 units that start at $399,000 and go up to $950,000.
Building a posh apartment complex on the ashes of the restaurant you forced out then turning around and using that restaurant's name, sign and branding to try to look cool and less corporate — that's peak Los Angeles gentrification. And now that the New York Times has discovered Echo Park, who knows what will happen when they stumble upon the hidden-in-plain-sight 'hood of Virgil Village?
Anaya is talking to lawyers to see if he has any recourse but he says he doesn't want to get into a legal scuffle. Mostly, he just wants respect.
"We would like [Todd Wexman] to give us our sign back," Anaya says. "Just take it down. That's all we really want at the end of the day. Give us our sign back because you truly are just trying to brand yourself based on what we've built."