Beverly’s Armando Zapata, 77, grew up in Chile in a big family that loved food. He came to Boston in 1980, first as a busboy at Anthony’s Pier 4. He worked for HUD for many years until a longtime pal, Ricardo Mermet, persuaded him to become the manager at Tango, a cherished Argentinean steakhouse in Arlington Center. When it fell victim to COVID, Zapata didn’t retire: He joined another pal at Tasca in Brighton, and he has no plans to slow down.
So many businesses have closed since COVID. I live in Arlington, and I know that’s true in the center of town.
Just last week, I went by Tango, and I saw that the restaurant sign is still up there. And it’s sad. It was an institution. We were there for almost 18 years, and customers have reached out to me wondering if we’re going to open. But Tango is part of the past. That doesn’t mean there are no plans to get another Tango going on. Who knows?
What are you doing now?
For the past two years, I’ve been the manager at this restaurant in Brighton, the Spanish restaurant Tasca (1612 Commonwealth Ave.). So I haven’t been out of the restaurant business for long. I just switched from Tango to Tasca in a couple of months. And so I have been ... just helping to get back to some type of normalcy. We don’t know when it’s going to happen, if ever. It hasn’t been easy.
How did you find the new job?
The owner and chef, Joaquin Galan, has been a dear friend of mine for close to 40 years. I heard that he was looking for someone to assist him because he purchased Tasca three years earlier and needed someone to run the place. So that’s the way I started with him.
Let’s go back even further. How did you get your start in the restaurant industry?
Well, first I worked for the government for 34 years. I was the director of a public assistance program for housing, with HUD.
The owner of Tango and I were dear friends. And so, toward the end of my career with housing, he asked me to help him in Arlington. When I retired, I went full-time with the restaurant, in about 1994. It was the only Argentinean restaurant in Boston, and in New England.
How has the business changed since the 1990s?
It did change. The location, number one. Arlington is such a nice town, which is very centrally located. Even though it is outside of Boston, it’s still next to Boston. So it was easy for people to go. As I said, you don’t find Argentinean restaurants in Boston or New England, for that matter. We built that clientele.
Over the years, people would come from everywhere. We would have people come into Tango before they’d go to Argentina to visit with their children who were studying abroad or when they came back, to compare the food that they had with ours. We were lucky; they always said ours was the best. I don’t know if they were lying to us! But it was a compliment.
But it was the same thing that happened to thousands of restaurants when COVID hit. Many places had the fortune to negotiate rent with their landlords, and we did not. We were in our fifth year of a lease. The owner would not negotiate any rent. We proposed to have a one-year lease with a reasonable rent and to see what would happen the following year, since nobody knew what was going to happen with COVID, and he totally refused. As of today, two years later, it is still closed and there are no tenants in that spot. ...
Takeout helped, but it was not enough to support rent and staff. It was very difficult, so the decision was just to close the place, simply because there was not enough revenue to keep the place open. We received a lot of support from the town and from customers. It was a very hard decision.
Did you love food growing up in Chile?
It was a family of seven, six boys and a girl in a large family. A very happy family. In South America, we all love to eat. Growing up south of Santiago, then moving when I was 15, I decided to become independent, so to speak. I decided to go to work and go to school at night. Then I went into the army for a year. After that, I set up a restaurant with a friend where I was a manager. In 1980, my mother died, and so I decided to leave the country. ...
I needed to leave, because my mother’s death affected me. I had a group of friends from Chile living in Miami. Then I went up to Boston, because I had friends there. You’re probably too young to remember Pier 4?
Oh, I’m old enough to remember.
I worked there with the future owner of Tango, Ricardo, as a busboy. That area was different from what it is now. There were only two restaurants, so we would walk all the way from Fenway, where we lived, because there was no public transportation. The Seaport area was a ghost town.
What’s your favorite restaurant now, in the Boston area? Where do you love to eat?
Well, I live on the North Shore. There is a restaurant called Toscana, an Italian restaurant that’s very good. And in Salem, a restaurant called Opus, which is very good. The best sushi I ever had.
Do you think the restaurants are going to bounce back after COVID?
We received assistance from the city, state, and so on. The last three weeks or four weeks ago, when the new mayor of Boston required that people show proof of vaccination, we were afraid that it would deter people from coming to our restaurant. But it may have had an opposite effect. People who were afraid to go out to eat, knowing that everyone was vaccinated, they would come in. We got a lot of new customers.
Some cities and towns, they are helping the local businesses — restaurants in particular — with the patio and regulations that will help rather than hurt the businesses. The public is very supportive. We have maintained an internal campaign in our business to attract people, to serve people, and to make sure that our customers feel comfortable when they come to our restaurant. We continue to wear masks, we continue to maintain proper service and distance so that customers feel comfortable and are not afraid. But a lot of restaurants have closed and are not going to come back. Takeout increased, but it was not enough in some cases.
We are confident. We are confident that we will be back. If not 100 percent, we are going to be back.
What do you eat when you’re not working? Favorite snack?
After working at steakhouses, I love my peanut butter and jelly.
And you still love working?
I love it; I love it. It keeps me going. My job has always been to deal with people, and it’s the same now. When I first moved here, I was teaching Spanish to English-speaking people. That’s where I met my wife. She was one of my students. I have always been with people, either teaching, or a federal programmer, or a manager or a maître d’. At my age, I love that.
Interview has been edited and condensed.