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On reopening day, community calls the revival of Cafe Tropical a 'triumph'

Cafe Tropical's beloved pastelitos made a return in Silver Lake on reopening day, March 16, 2024.
Cafe Tropical's beloved pastelitos made a return in Silver Lake on reopening day. (Stephanie Breijo / Los Angeles Times)

A line snaked out the door all Saturday morning, with guests peering in the front windows at trays of guava pastelitos cooling on racks.

Families, dates, babies and the occasional puppy filtered through the space, which reverberated on the corner of Sunset and Silver Lake boulevards with an excited hum. The grand reopening of the Cuban restaurant and community space Cafe Tropical was well underway and at least one flavor of the iconic pastelitos sold out within the first two hours of business.

“We got crushed in the best way possible,” Ed Cornell said.

Cornell and friends Danny Khorunzhiy and Rene Navarrette helped revive the community fixture, which closed abruptly in late November due in part to a lawsuit, funding and a family feud between past owners after nearly 50 years of business. It served not only as one of L.A.’s last remaining Cuban American restaurants but a safe haven for those in recovery, its adjacent meeting room hosting countless sobriety support groups for many — including some of its new owners.

Three men behind the Cafe Tropical counter from left: Danny Khorunzhiy, Ed Cornell and Rene Navarrette.
New Cafe Tropical co-owners behind the counter on reopening day, from left: Danny Khorunzhiy, Ed Cornell and Rene Navarrette. (Stephanie Breijo / Los Angeles Times)

They reopened quietly with a soft launch last Thursday, then fully opened the doors to throngs of guests over the weekend and began meetings again on Monday evening.

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Nearby resident Katherine Tabor has been visiting the cafe for roughly 20 years, and watched it weather multiple eras of Silver Lake, through the neighborhood's surge in popularity, higher cost of living and gentrification. Cafe Tropical, she noted, has remained “a pillar of the community” through it all.

On reopening day she and her dog, Levi, sat in a booth near the back of the restaurant. The space is cleaner and shinier, she said, and she’s looking forward to it gaining those lived-in signs of use again, but otherwise it is the same. Possibly even better.

A vertical photo of a woman holding her dog at a booth in Cafe Tropical on its reopening day in Silver Lake.
Katherine Tabor and her dog, Levi, visit Cafe Tropical. The Silver Lake resident has been dining at the cafe for two decades. (Stephanie Breijo / Los Angeles Times)

She’d opted for a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich — which she said was even better than the last bacon, egg and cheese she ordered there, under previous ownership — as well as a guava pastelito.

“It's part of my Saturday morning ritual, and I was really disappointed to see that it closed down,” Tabor said. “It’s very low-key, unpretentious and it’s a neighborhood staple, so I’m really glad that it’s back.”

The new owners have spent the last few weeks quietly readying the space, tinkering with recipes; the breakfast sandwich and jerk chicken sandwich are now served on Jamaican-style coco bread with a golden sheen of crust. And while the Cubano’s bread is the same base recipe, it’s now seasoned slightly differently. A new rotating yeast doughnut — currently filled with a pastry cream tinged with locally grown oranges — is on offer along with the classic sweet and savory pastelitos.

“We definitely hit reset on everything but keeping in mind that like a lot of people were going to be very deeply attached to certain things,” Cornell said, adding, “We now are in charge of something that's really important to a lot of people, and we just hope that we live up to it [and] make people happy.”

A bacon, egg and cheese breakfast on aluminum foil at Cafe Tropical
Cafe Tropical's bacon, egg and cheese breakfast sandwich is served on the cafe's new coco bread. (Stephanie Breijo / Los Angeles Times)

Cornell, formerly of nearby restaurant Quarter Sheets, has been helming the food menu and hopes to add some items from the cafe's previous iteration, such as whole round guava pies. Eventually, he said, the restaurant could reopen for evening service.

While Cornell and the team are reinventing some items, they’re also using some iconic past recipes, in large thanks to the help of longtime employee Pascual Guachiac, who headed the previous pastry program.

At the back of the restaurant on reopening day Guachiac brushed a buttery wash over trays of flaky, fresh-from-the-oven pastelitos. He’d long hoped to become a partner in the business, and at the new Cafe Tropical, he’s now an investor. Other employees — some of whom were left unpaid after the sudden closure — have also returned, including Manuel Contreras, who operated Cafe Tropical.

A vertical photo of Toks Shoyoye sitting at a booth Cafe Tropical, holding a sandwich on reopening day in Silver Lake
Toks Shoyoye came on board to help the newly reopened Cafe Tropical elevate its coffee program. (Stephanie Breijo / Los Angeles Times)

In the farthest corner from the entrance, Toks Shoyoye sat eating a Cubano.

The self-described “coffee nerd” is part of the new team, helping with the coffee program of lattes, cortaditos and cafe con leche. He purchases their beans from Highland Park roaster Collage Coffee.

He’s glad to see the mix of guests not only enjoying their coffees and pastelitos in the cafe, but also those looking forward to visiting the community space for sobriety meetings, including a number of his friends.

“I never used it, but I'm glad that it's back,” Shoyoye said. “There's a lot of joy that it’s back; there's also a lot of relief.”

A family sits together in a booth at Cafe Tropical in Silver Lake on reopening day
The Charmits, a family of Cafe Tropical fans, met for breakfast together on reopening day. From left: mother Cristina Charmit, daughter Larissa "Lala" Charmit and son Kyle Charmit. (Stephanie Breijo / Los Angeles Times)

Kyle Charmit, who had attended meetings in the adjacent room for seven years, drove from West L.A. the morning of the reopening. The cafe’s support group, he said, has always been one of the most welcoming, and meetings took place in a space that has always felt comforting to him.

“When they closed we lost our meeting place, and we had to move the meeting,” he said. “But with the power of love, the power of AA and a bunch of people trying to help out, they were able to bring this place back. So I definitely wanted to bring my family that supports me and to meet my friends, and be together and just enjoy this Cuban-style cuisine.”

He sat next to his mother, Cristina, and sister, Larissa; the Charmits are Brazilian, and they said this food reminds them of their own.

The entire family has been visiting Cafe Tropical for years. Larissa brought Kyle to Cafe Tropical for the first time, and he instantly fell in love with the mango smoothie, an item he hopes the new owners decide to bring back.

An overhead of four sweet and savory pastelitos atop yellow bags, with an iced cafe con leche, on a tabletop at Cafe Tropical
Sweet and savory pastelitos are available once again. (Stephanie Breijo / Los Angeles Times)

Larissa used to live down the street from the cafe and would visit nearly every day, bonding with her mom and her friend over the pastries and sandwiches — sometimes, she said, her mom would tell her not to come over without any guava and cheese pastelitos.

That morning her brother reached out to say he’d be stopping by, and would she like to join him? It was the first she’d heard that Cafe Tropical was reopening, and though she no longer lives down the street, she jumped at the chance and said she could meet him there in half an hour.

The food, Larissa said, is as good as ever. Sitting together, backs against the seafoam green booth, they all called the return "a triumph” — and a kind of life cycle.

“It's a victory for all of us because I get to come here and enjoy breakfast with my family,” Kyle Charmit said, “and [for] me personally, be clean and sober. It’s like closing the circle.”

Cafe Tropical is located at 2900 Sunset Blvd. in Los Angeles, open Tuesday to Sunday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.