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Marina Cortez Arrieta, 56, came to America from Peru three decades ago. She lives by herself in Queens without a spouse or children.
She doesn’t need them – she has a restaurant full of family and couldn’t be happier. That’s what develops when you run a small business 365 days a year, for 24 years, and love your customers as much as they love you. Marina and her business partner Gus Maroulletis are the proprietors of La Bonbonniere, the diner on Eighth Avenue that welcomes all kinds, from kids to construction workers to actors to writers. All were present at lunchtime earlier this week, as the snow fell and the grill smoked and the red vinyl seats emptied and filled.
A man dashes in to pick up a lunch bag – Marina says he lives upstairs next door. “He’s my sweetheart,” she says of Eddy Trotter. “He loves blueberry pancakes.” Another fellow strolls in, perhaps just to hang out, and she claims “Primo” (a.k.a. Basil Weathers) is the best plumber in town, though he’s more interested in chatting with another tradesman at the counter (who “did our roof decades ago”) than receiving accolades.
A young man with curly black hair came through the door and heads to join a companion in the corner. “I know him forever,” Marina tosses over her shoulder. “He’s been coming here 20 years. Now he has a wife and baby.” It turns out to be Gabriel Nussbaum, whose wife Elizabeth Wood soon arrives too. They’re filmmakers who live on Bank Street, with a film called “White Girl” coming out later this year. “This is my office away from my office,” he says. “They serve the best French toast in the world. We finished a movie recently, and every single meeting took place here.”
“In the blackout we ate here every day,” Wood adds.
“Thirty years I do this and I love it,” says Marina. “But even more, I love people. I love New York, I love this city.” Gus also lives in Queens. “We can’t afford the West Village, but I’m so happy to be here all the time.” The neighborhood is comfortable, educated, simple and trusting, she says. “A lot of Hollywood people come here because they live here. … They are plain, low-key. Everybody says, ‘it’s my kitchen.’ You can be in pajamas.”
About the kitchen: The tuna salad, chicken salad, and hamburgers are all homemade. Marina is especially proud of her soups. She praises Gus’s chili, meatloaf and rice pudding. Her own favorites include the challah French toast and a feta-spinach-tomato omelet. (This writer was in heaven with a burger and fries … and even a hook for my coat.)
The diner’s lore has it that the restaurant is 85 years old, originally owned by a Frenchwoman who dubbed it La Bonbonniere. “Everything is original,” Marina says, knocking on the metal walls. “We only changed the floor and counter.” Although classic eateries and shops are closing left and right, unable to keep up with rising rents, she’s confident her establishment will stay put. They have eight years left on the lease and a good landlord who likes them, she says.
After all, La Bonbonniere fed the hungry straight through the 2003 blackout and Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Actor Reeve Carney ate banana pancakes and bacon there every day before becoming Spider-Man on stage. It’s featured in newspapers and videos and Vintage New York. It can’t stop anytime soon.
“My kids, they’re hungry, they eat and they go,” says Marina, describing the kind of motherhood that’s perfect for her. “I don’t need more.”
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