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Café Tropical closed this week. Debts and a bitter family dispute played a role

The closure this week of Café Tropical — a nearly 50-year-old Cuban restaurant in Silver Lake — had less to do with small business struggles amid changing demographics and more to do with a family feud over funding, according to court documents reviewed by The Times.

The shuttering of the neighborhood staple was announced with a note in its window informing patrons the last day of service was Friday.

The owner, Daniel Navarro, had previously spoken about the difficulties of running a restaurant and owning a small business in Silver Lake. In interviews, he said he’d tried to evolve with the times and how the COVID pandemic also took a toll on business.

But court documents reviewed by The Times show that the restaurant’s closure may be tied to a simmering family dispute over the eatery, which Navarro bought in 2019. Navarro has failed to pay his mother more than $350,000 he owes in connection with a lawsuit she filed against him.

A person familiar with the business who was not authorized to speak on the record confirmed the closure was due to a family dispute.

Navarro’s mother, Gladys Navarro, sued her son in 2022, alleging that he illicitly used money from the family business to fund Café Tropical.

Daniel Navarro, his mother and his sister, Natalie Navarro, owned El Cochinito, another Cuban restaurant in Silver Lake that has been in the family since Navarro’s grandmother opened it in 1988.

In January 2019, Navarro informed his mother and sister that he wanted to purchase Café Tropical, on Sunset Boulevard, according to the lawsuit. His mother and sister told him they wanted him to run it as a separate business.

“Gladys and Natalie made it clear to Daniel that they did not want Cafe Tropical Bakery being owned or operated by El Cochinito or merged or commingled in any way with El Cochinito or its assets,” the lawsuit reads. “Daniel acknowledged to his mother and sister that he would not own or operate Cafe Tropical through El Cochinito.”

The two found out later that year, however, that Navarro had taken out loans for the new venture and used money from the shared family business to pay them back, according to the suit.

Navarro’s actions caused El Cochinito to incur debts of more than $700,000, his mother claims in the suit.

Gladys Navarro did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday. Nor did her lawyer.

The suit claims that in addition to opening Café Tropical, Navarro used money from their El Cochinito business to open Bolita, an East Hollywood bar.

“Daniel did not discuss the decision to open Bolita, nor did he receive authority or consent from Gladys and Natalie to do so,” court documents show.

A letter from Gladys Navarro’s lawyer to her son in April 2022 states that Daniel Navarro, along with a business partner, Jonathan Rubinstein, who is also a defendant in the lawsuit, must account for $2.5 million that had either been spent or transferred from company to company.

The parties agreed to a settlement in May in which Navarro would pay his mother $350,000 and in exchange, she and his sister would transfer their stock in the company to Navarro, according to court documents. But Navarro did not make the July payment date.

A judge on Wednesday ordered that Navarro pay his mother $366,000. He shut down Café Tropical and El Cochinito the day before. Bar Bolita announced Wednesday it would close permanently as well.

Daniel Navarro and Natalie Navarro did not immediately respond to requests for comment Friday.

On top of the family dispute, Café Tropical was hit with another lawsuit alleging the restaurant failed to pay more than $38,000 in rent over the last year.

Monthly rent for the restaurant was about $17,400, according to the suit filed last month by Mangos Worldwide LLC.

Mangos Worldwide served Café Tropical with a “Notice to Pay Rent or Surrender Possession” on Nov. 11, which required the restaurant to either pay the owed rent or move out of the building three days after receiving the notice, the suit says.

Café Tropical failed to pay the back rent and did not move out, the landlord claimed in the suit, which was filed Nov. 17.

Times staff writer Lucas Kwan Peterson contributed to this report.

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