It’s Saturday, 5:20 p.m. There are three hours until a party of 60 Penn students is set to arrive at Iztaccihuatl, and John Lewis, the one-man show behind the popular BYO restaurant in South Philadelphia, is giving me an earful.
“Ninety percent of my parties are Penn kids. I get some Haverford, which I don’t mind the Haverford — they’re really nice. The Temple or the Drexel — ehh — you know, they’re the ones I always have trouble with. ‘Oh I’m not eating, I’m not drinking. Yeah, I’m not going to eat or drink. I’ll give you a tip.’ I don’t care. Then don’t come back. I don’t want you here,” he says.
“On the phone I say, ‘It’s loud, crazy, obnoxious. You can’t hear yourself think. Drunk people running around having a blast. Psychotically loud and crazy. Lot of fun. Is that what you’re looking for?’ Hey look, I’m honest!”
The names of Penn fraternities, sororities and clubs, many of whom rent out his entire restaurant each Thursday and Friday night, roll off his tongue.
“I get APES guys, OAX girls, some Castle guys. Not a lot of Castle, but some,” he says. Some of his favorite regulars — leaders at APES, Alpha Phi and The Daily Pennsylvanian — get special “VIP Gold Cards” entitling them to free meals, better tequila (“I keep it in the back,” he says) and access to walk around in the kitchen.
By day, Iztaccihuatl (pronounced “It’s-a-sea-will” and colloquially called “Itza” or “It’s-a-shit-hole”) operates as a regular Mexican restaurant: home to sit-down dinners of beef nachos, a wide variety of burritos and a decadent flan dessert. But, when Penn students come in, the restaurant turns into a “glorified hall party,” complete with liquor-stained floors and makeshift disco “bulbs” where lights should be.
He taps me on the shoulder. “Look at the wall. See how bare it is? That’s because you guys steal all my pictures. It’s OK because I just go to Goodwill and shit.”
At night, waiters and menu service disappear. All food choices are made by John, 32, who turns down the lights and puts the night’s dinner and drink options on the bar. (“‘In John we trust,’ I tell them,” he says). He only has four rules.
“One: Always $20 to get in. I don’t care if you eat or you don’t eat. That’s it. Done. Finished. Two: If you remember anything besides a horrible, horrible, horrible hangover, you did not drink enough. Three: If you remember anything at all, you didn’t drink enough. Four: If anybody regurgitates — you know this one — anybody at the table throws up or regurgitates, the people at the table pick it up. I do not. None of my staff does it. I give you a broom or mop, and you clean it up.
“After that, I don’t care what you do. I had a twerking contest here. The girls weren’t that good. I maybe could have done better. I could have done better. You know what I mean? I try to create a family feeling.”
* * *
“I do nothing,” John says in an interview at his restaurant on a Saturday night. “I don’t sweep. I don’t mop. I don’t do side work. I don’t do glasses. I don’t do silverware.”
“So what is your job?” I ask.
“I don’t know. I pretty much run the front. Don’t get me wrong, but that’s it.”
John also gets special privileges.
“I eat what I want, as much as I want. So if I want to go in there and eat a pound of shrimp, I eat a pound of shrimp. I don’t have to ask. If I want to take $20 out of the register, I take it. That’s it.”
Dare anyone question John about his snake-oil salesman tactics, he reminds them what Itza would be like without him.
Last year, John quit after being told to clean the bathrooms. (As he is surprisingly quick to admit, the bathrooms at Iztaccihuatl aren’t exactly state-of-the-art: “I put a sign on the toilet seat that said ‘please no fucking.’ I went through four toilet seats in a week,” he sighs). After quitting, John started working at a Mexican restaurant across the street, bringing all of his loyal customers along with him.
“They went from 250 reservations to zero,” John says of Iztaccihuatl after his departure. Within two months, he was back at Itza, having negotiated a higher salary and portion of tips from the owner.
“He knows I’m gonna make money. Just let me do it my way. He’s the owner — I didn’t say he was my boss.”
* * *
It’s 8 p.m. John keeps calling the contact for the 60-person party, but she hasn’t called back. “If you’re going to cancel, at least call!” he yells, exasperated, while scratching out a name in the purple marble notebook that records Itza’s reservations. A tall man in a backwards baseball cap walks in.
“You guys sell weed here?” he asks. “No,” John replies, joking later to me, “See what people I get in here?”
John never talks about doing drugs, but he mentions how, at his last job before Itza — a restaurant near Broad and Federal streets — he once had to get violent with a “crackhead” that hung around the place, especially during sorority parties.
John finally told him, “I need you to leave. If not, I come out with a golf club. Five minutes. Let me know.” He pauses and looks up.
“So I went out with a golf club and hit him in the knee.”
* * *
“Why do you think I get away with everything I do?” John asks. To hear him tell it, all roads of influence in Philadelphia lead back to a one-room Mexican restaurant in South Philadelphia. He has courtesy cards with mayors, “like 25 police officers” and even congressmen.
Soon after the restaurant opened, he says, a Penn student eating at Itza in a small group objected to the policy of everyone paying $20, regardless if they eat or not. The irate customer called the police. When two officers came later, John handed one of them a courtesy card, and they escorted her out.
“You gonna stop me from making money? I’m going to make your life a living hell,” he recalls telling her.
John rarely encounters those types of customers now. Through “trial and error,” most Penn students understand the program at Itza. The system works well for him.
The way it's described on Itza’s Facebook page pretty much sums up the process:
“Byob free margaritas mix just bring tequila no corking 8 percent off when pay cash open till 1am see you here great for big groups we hold 90 plus ppl see you here 2154671005.”
* * *
The night goes on, and I try to crack John’s cheery exterior.
“Where did you go to school?”
John is surprised, as if he never expected an interview could veer into familial territory. “I went to South Philadelphia High School. Before that, I went to St. Monica’s.”
Piece by piece, he surrenders part of his family: He is the youngest of 11 kids (two died young), and his siblings live across the country. His dad, who has diabetes, just turned 70.
He had two kids by the time he graduated from high school but no longer has custody. His ex-wife, now remarried, would make excuses to stop him from seeing his kids, he says.
“I would see them for a year straight, no problem. Then, it would be like three months where she’s a complete bitch, and I don’t see them.”
He hopes to provide money for them to attend college one day.
“I’ll put some money aside. They’re 13 years old now. In five years: ‘I wanted to be there. You know it, but your mom made it hard. Here’s some cash for college.’ Whatever.”
* * *
It’s 8:30 p.m., and John has given up on the party of 60. “You can just go,” he tells me. “Wish you could have seen the party.”
A cab stops in front of the restaurant. John perks up and starts putting tequila bottles on the bar. In walk four customers — all college students — but clearly not members of the group of 60. They’re here for a sit-down dinner … must be first-timers. Like a maitre d’ at some fancy, French restaurant, John waltzes over and offers them a choice between picking their own meals or letting him choose (“In John we trust”). Two opt to trust him. The other two politely decline.
John goes back to the bar, squeezes nearly half a Svedka bottle into a large pitcher and begins making margaritas. I ask him what meat the In-John-We-Trusters will be having tonight. He heads into the kitchen, returning with a plate full of tacos. “Try it,” he tells me.
“Not bad,” I say after a chewy bite. “What is it?”
He laughs. “Take a guess. No? It’s cow’s tongue.”
I roll my eyes and can’t help smiling as John carries the tray toward the table, the only group of diners tonight.
It’s 9:05 p.m. and I hear John say to the diners, “So we have four rules here at Iztaccihuatl … ”Comments powered by Disqus
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