Legendary Mariachi Restaurant La Fonda Returns Home And Looks Towards Its Future
By Michael Darling
The dining history of Los Angeles is full of many bygone restaurants. Whether it's the hot fudge sundaes at C. C. Brown's or the caricatures at the Brown Derby, every Angeleno has a Los Angeles restaurant memory they wish they could bring back. For many, it was the sounds of Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano performing at La Fonda near MacArthur Park that evoke that particular nostalgia. Now, nine years after that restaurant appeared to shutter its doors for good, La Fonda has returned without missing a single beat of the guitarrón.
For nearly 40 years, La Fonda was a focal point of Los Angeles' Mexican-American community and an internationally-renowned landmark. The first-of-its-kind mariachi dinner theater was opened in 1969 by famed mariachi musician Nati Cano as a home for his group, Los Camperos. For those not too familiar with mariachi, imagine if at the height of the Jazz Age, Count Basie opened a restaurant where his orchestra was the house band. Cano was inspired to open the restaurant after an incident at a tour stop in Lubbock, Texas in the mid-1960s. After a performance, Cano and Los Camperos attempted to get food at a local restaurant, only to be informed by the manager, "We don't serve Mexicans."
As he once told the Los Angeles Times, Cano was shocked by such a blatantly racist act and vowed to one of his musicians, "I'm going to open a place where everybody can come: Americans, Chinese, Japanese, French, Italians. Everybody!"
Over the course of its initial 38-year run, La Fonda survived numerous hardships, including the decline of its Westlake neighborhood in the 1980s and the 1992 riots, which ravaged many businesses along Wilshire Boulevard. In fact, when the restaurant opened on April 12, 1969, a pipe burst in the main dining room, dousing patrons. However, the party came to an end in October of 2007 after a four-year eviction battle with the then-new owners of the building at 2501 Wilshire Blvd., where La Fonda was located.
While Cano and his bandmates were sad to see the old place go, they continued to tour and vowed that they would eventually establish a new La Fonda. At the restaurant's closing night, band member Jesús "Chuy" Guzmán—who would take over as Los Camperos' music director following Cano's death in 2014—prophetically told the L.A. Times, "The sound will stay here in this old building. I don't know how long, but it will be right here."
Unfortunately, as a result of the Great Recession, Los Camperos were never able to establish a new restaurant. They continued to tour and took up residencies at restaurants around the Los Angeles area, but they never found a place of their own. Meanwhile, the La Fonda space served as the home for a series of failed restaurant and nightclub ventures. In 2014, the building which housed both La Fonda and the Hayworth Theatre was purchased by Orange Is The New Black creator Jenji Kohan, who intended to use the building's second story as her production offices.
In 2015, Sergio Barbosa approached Los Camperos with a business proposition. Barbosa was a regular at La Fonda from 2004 to 2007 and remained a friend of the band. According to Barbosa, Los Camperos were serving as the house band at another restaurant where they seemed out of place. Barbosa and his mother Juanita Barbosa were interested in going into the restaurant business, and teaming up with Los Camperos to give them a new home seemed like the perfect idea.
"The last time I went there and saw the guys, I told them I'm going to get you out of here," Barbosa told LAist. The band was instantly on board.
Early on in their quest for a new space, Barbosa and Los Camperos discovered that the perfect venue was already on the market. According to Chuy Guzmán, "Sergio Alonso, the harpist said, 'Let's look at La Fonda, it's available,' and I said 'What? La Fonda?! Okay!"
Barbosa quickly got in touch with Kohan's real estate agent but there was one small problem: the agent was already working on an agreement with another restaurant team. The agent gave Barbosa and Los Camperos two days to submit a business plan. "I sent them a 63-page business plan including pictures and the history of La Fonda that they had no idea about. As soon as I sent over the fax with the business plan, my cell phone rings and it's the agent, and he says 'Sergio, you're my new best friend," says Barbosa.
Lease negotiations for La Fonda began in May and were finalized on September 16th, Mexican Independence Day. On October 31st, 2015, Los Camperos held their first meeting in La Fonda since they left the restaurant exactly eight years earlier. As word spread that La Fonda was coming back, Los Camperos were often met with disbelief. "When I told people we were going back home, they always said 'No. You're kidding me," says Guzmán.
So, why is it so important that Los Camperos have been reunited with their restaurant? For Barbosa and Guzmán it's a matter of family and tradition. "La Fonda is a family home, for everybody coming from everywhere, anywhere who want to experience it," says Guzmán.
The restaurant's décor honors the history of Los Camperos with pictures of the band and Nati Cano throughout their six-decade history alongside retired mariachi costumes hanging near the bandstand. Plans are currently underway to prominently display one of the group's Grammys in the restaurant. "I hope that we're making Nati proud from the heavens that his Fonda is back and his beloved Camperos are in good hands with good people who are doing it from the heart," says Barbosa.
But Barbosa, Guzmán and Los Camperos aren't just focused on La Fonda's past; they're thinking about its future and legacy. "I think about these guests who come with their little kids who might be performing on this stage one day. They might go back to their fifth grade teacher and say I want to learn how to play the violin or trumpet and that can be life changing; and where did that start? Right here at La Fonda," says Barbosa.
La Fonda de Los Camperos is located at 2501 Wilshire Blvd., Westlake, (213) 380-5055.
Michael Darling is a Los Angeles based freelance writer and editor; he is a contributing writer to the Los Feliz Ledger and former staff member of the Los Angeles Times Magazine. Follow him on Twitter.