With Hermès moving into the neighborhood last year and nightlife titan Tao making plans to cross the East River, authentic slices of Williamsburg culture can feel harder and harder to come by as of late. Enter the Caribbean Social Club, also known as Toñita’s, which celebrated 50 years on the south side — Los Sures — last month.

Nestled between a clothing boutique and jewelry shop at 244 Grand Street, the unassuming exterior (read: a nondescript doorway, often with the gate down) is easy to miss. But inside, the club (commonly referred to just as Toñita’s) is bustling with life, making the most of its limited square footage. On any given night, Toñita’s will be filled with lively music, a bit of dancing (where the space allows), regulars, endless rounds of pool and dominos, homemade Puerto Rican food served potluck style and enjoyed on plastic tablecloths, $3 beers, and no-frills mixed drinks in plastic cups.

The matriarch of the club and eponymous Toñita herself, Maria Antonia Cay, opened the spot in 1974 specifically as a members-only hangout for community members and local Puerto Rican and Dominican baseball teams to eat, drink, and watch the games for free. Today, Cay can still be found at the club (which is now open to all), and often behind the bar (she’ll probably make your drink), most nights. The decor memorializes the club’s history, as walls are covered in homages to Puerto Rican culture, portraits of Cay, baseball memorabilia, and countless old photographs and celebratory plaques.

And while there is an air of ‘if you know, you know’ about Toñita’s, those who do know are quick to pay their respects to Cay and the space — particularly global superstar artists like Bad Bunny, Nicky Jam, and Rauw Alejandro. In 2021, Rolling Stone even set a joint “Musicians on Musicians” photoshoot in the club featuring Madonna and Maluma.

Despite having developers chomping at the bit to buy out the space, Cay has no plans to go anywhere.

In a piece by The New York Times last year, she said “I’m staying here with my people as long as I can. This isn’t for me to make money or a fortune. It’s to maintain a space for all of us to be together.”

On June 16, Toñita’s shut down the block for an all-day anniversary party all centered around Cay — in attendance with her signature impeccable accessorizing, penchant for animal prints, perfectly coiffed blonde hair, and reputation as everyone’s local abuela on high display — and the community she created. The party included live music, games of dominos, food and drink, a special recognition ceremony, and sponsorship events provided by the New York Nets and more. And local representatives including Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez and New York State Senator Julia Salazar were also in attendance

“Today, we are celebrating Toñita, she belongs to us, a cultural institution,” Velázquez, who is also the first Puerto Rican woman to be elected to the House of Representatives, said in a speech. “The first meeting that we put together 32 years ago when I ran for office, we didn’t have a headquarters, the first meeting took place at Toñita’s bar. Not only did I make history, Toñita made history with me.”

Toñita’s is the longest-running and last-standing Latino social club in Williamsburg, and here’s to 50 more years.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *