At 4:30 in the afternoon, with the summer sun still searing, a middle-aged couple from northern Iowa strolled down the sidewalk and up to the flimsy wooden door of the Cozy Corner, a restaurant at the intersection of two quiet residential streets in the small, unincorporated South Bay community of Lincoln Acres.

The woman turned the loose, tarnished doorknob held in place by black electrical tape. But the door was locked.

“That’s too bad,” her husband said as they walked away. “Their meat is excellent. Weird time to be closed.”

It turns out the restaurant’s owner, Byron Ticas, had decided to lock up for a few hours.

In the darkness of his stuffy, windowless restaurant later that evening, he explained why as a single customer sat sweating in the seat nearest the front door, hoping to feel even the faintest breeze. “We had 40 chicks hatch this morning, and my rabbit gave light to seven little ones. I had to clean up,” he said in Spanish.

And anyway, Ticas, an immigrant from El Salvador, doubted anyone would miss it. Business has been slow at his Mexican restaurant. He’s only been open three months, but he’s already thinking of shutting down.

That worries Guillermina Coronado, who lives down the street. Every time she walks to the convenience store catty-cornered to the Cozy Corner, she notices how few people she sees walking in and out. She wonders what will happen to the building if it closes.

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Scenes from Cozy Corner – Images by Sam Hodgson for For full screen, click the lower right corner of the player

She hopes it doesn’t, because she would hate to relive the fight she led over the Cozy Corner. Three years ago, the local institution was at the center of a Lincoln Acres controversy that mobilized almost as many residents as do the occasional attempts by neighboring National City to annex the unincorporated community.

In 2007, Coronado led a neighborhood effort to oppose a liquor license for the building. It had been the Cozy Corner Bar for decades, and she hated it. So did many of her neighbors. There were fights there, as well as stumbling drunks who cat-called teen-aged girls walking home from nearby Granger Middle School. That year, its old owner sold the building and canceled its liquor license, instead of transferring the license to the new owner, who thought getting a new one would be a breeze.

What the building’s new owner, Joe Maldonado, didn’t know was that for almost as long as Coronado had lived in Lincoln Acres — 30 years — she had been waiting for just this opportunity.

“They made the mistake of not transferring the liquor license, and the new owner had to apply for one,” Coronado said. “That was our chance.”

She organized residents of Lincoln Acres to oppose the liquor license application. They canvassed the 247-acre neighborhood to collect signatures and hand out fliers. They got county Supervisor Greg Cox and politicians from nearby National City to support them.

They won. The owner withdrew his application.

The Cozy Corner would be no more.

It sat vacant for three years.

Until a warm day in early June, when it reopened.

A hand-made plywood sign with stenciled spray paint letters had been nailed to its yellow stucco wall: COZY CORNER FAMILY RESTAURANT.

Another announced: GRAND OPENING.

The Ns were backward.

The signs were the handiwork of Nestor Carranza, Ticas’ 24-year-old brother-in-law. He left his job assembling spectator bleachers to lend a hand to the family business. He is its only waiter. His sister is its cook, dishing up food more delicious than you might expect in such a threadbare setting. Ticas manages the restaurant during lulls in his day job as a construction worker and independent contractor.

As the economy turned, Ticas had struggled to earn a living. He wondered how he could earn extra money.

He found the answer next door — he rents the house behind the Cozy Corner. And his landlord owns the building that houses the restaurant.

He asked Maldonado, his landlord, to let him open a restaurant where the Cozy Corner once stood.

Since Maldonado’s defeat in getting a liquor license, he’d wondered how to make the building profitable once again.

He agreed to Ticas’ proposal, on one condition. Maldonado would apply, once again, for an alcohol license. The restaurant would be a family restaurant — not a bar — but also serve beer. He and Ticas would split the profits from the sale of alcohol.

Ticas agreed.

Ticas spent $3,000 converting the bar into a restaurant. He tore out the putrid basin urinal in the men’s bathroom and installed a proper toilet. He replaced the pool tables with dinner tables and bought a jukebox.

He kept the name, Cozy Corner, because it would cost too much to register a new one.

But to make it clear to neighbors that this was a restaurant, not a bar, his brother-in-law painted the words MEXICAN FOOD onto yellow wooden panels. They covered the unsightly windows with them.

Now, upon entering the Cozy Corner, your eyes take a moment to adjust to the darkness. Old regulars have returned to the bar expecting a drink.

“We don’t sell alcohol,” Ticas informs them. They turn around and walk out. He understands why they may expect their old haunt. It still looks like a bar, with its too-plush black leather seats and the darkness that is inviting to local drunks.

The restaurant clearly needs light, Ticas admits. If business improves, he plans to install a skylight. The windows would be too expensive to replace.

But there have already been some setbacks. A few weeks ago, a county inspector showed up. Someone had called to complain about the handmade signs. They had to take them down or face a $500 fine, so now they’re propped against the wall of his house next door, near his chicken cages.

And the business only has a real chance of success, he thinks, if his landlord gets his beer license approved. The Cozy Corner will not become another bar, he said. It would remain a family restaurant, but it would serve beer.

Most people he’s spoken to, including volunteers at the library two blocks away, have been supportive of the idea.

Guillermina Coronado, who lives across the street from the library, is not.

She said she will oppose it.

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