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Santiago's Beer Garden

After celebrating the one-year anniversary of its opening in June of 2019, Santiago’s Beer Garden has quickly propelled to one of the most popular and hearty eateries in El Barrio, or East Harlem. As the Manhattan Sideways team sat down to interview Matt, the restaurant’s twenty-eight-year old owner, a customer assured us, with great enthusiasm, that we were in “the best spot in the whole area, on everything! ” For such a young business owner with little experience owning his own restaurant, Matt has excelled in every direction, allowing Santiago’s to become a distinctive community staple. We discovered Santiago’s Beer Garden as we were walking through El Barrio, cross-checking the Sideways website for updates. Our eyes were instantly caught by the wide open gates on 120th St that led to two colorful murals and a large garden terrace. We entered, introduced ourselves to Matt, and two days later we were licking our fingers after a frank, lively interview and a full and authentic Dominican meal. From the Bronx, and having worked “everywhere but the kitchen” in the restaurant business since age seventeen, Matt recently moved on from managing and bartending at various restaurants to return to “what [he] knows”: Dominican food. He climbed up the chain of the restaurant and bar industry quickly after he graduated from college, landing gigs at the W Hotel and, eventually, sports bar Tonic East, where he became a manager. He partnered with two other co-workers to invest in the space that is now Santiago’s Beer Garden and was originally a well-reviewed Brazilian restaurant called Vidigal. It closed in 2018, and Matt bought it and took over, making it his “house. ” He pushed through a tiresome initial setback; he was unable to work to his full abilities as a bartender as the restaurant was opening due to his being rear-ended by a drunk driver and injuring his back. Surviving financial difficulties and allowing himself to heal properly, Matt successfully transformed Vidigal into Santiago’s, keeping the “earthy, spiritual” murals on the wall and innovating with respect to his personal and professional background. Not a huge fan of hard liquor, Matt decided to utilize the outdoor space as a beer garden and center his drink menu on a variety of different beers. As Santiago is both a popular name and a Dominican city, he found it a perfect fit to complete the name of his restaurant brand. Describing his favorite drink on the menu, the Belgian Duchesse, as “sour” and sometimes tasting “like wine, ” Matt happily demonstrated a passion and love for quality beer. “You can only get it here, ” he exclaimed about the Duchesse, stating that it went well with red meat, while recognizing that most typically eat Dominican food along with a Presidente, a classic Pilsner. Matt created the menu himself, collaborating with his two chefs, sixty-two year-old José and sixty-three year-old Isabel, “focusing on the meats... and the rices. ” He highlighted popular menu items like yellow rice, coconut rice, ox tails, and beef and chicken stews. We were served a shrimp cocktail, fried plantains, steak and onions, and fried chicken, along with various rice and beans. The portions were great and surely filling, the steak pre-marinated for days, and the rice and beans rich. Matt proudly claimed his chicken better than the chicken bites at popular burger chain Shake Shack, and the food walked the talk. Matt offered honest and reflective advice to young entrepreneurs in the restaurant industry, emphasizing the importance of saving money and gaining experience in a variety of restaurant settings. Down-to-earth and funny, Matt showed us the livelihood and struggle that goes into founding a business that often goes overlooked. With his day-one, Rafa, by his side, Matt has effectively opened a community-oriented and trend-setting restaurant to which he is inspirationally dedicated.