Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Tucked into a wooded enclave along a busy stretch of highway, the Gazebo Restaurant served local fare for ladies who lunch and area business people for over 48 years before the owners announced it would close at the end of 2018.
An anchor to the park-like cluster of shops known as Los Patios, the restaurant had a long history that could be recalled in comeback stories that involved changing ownership, a devastating flood, an economic downturn, and three years of major highway construction.
In the end, it was a need to adapt to changing times that sealed the fate of the longtime brunch and lunch favorite. “Society has changed,” said John McClung, who bought Los Patios with his wife Mary 21 years ago. No longer do people linger over lunch, he said, then stroll the grounds, and meander through the shops.
In addition, the area, which sits adjacent Northeast Baptist Hospital, and minutes from the airport and the upper Broadway corridor, is not the “center of gravity for food and the arts,” McClung said, the way the Pearl and Southtown have come to be known.
But the secret garden that is Los Patios is far from closed for business – or even a secret, for that matter – with a number of businesses thriving there and new ones opening. The location hosts special events and weddings frequently, and two Airbnb properties are booked nearly solid for overnight stays.
“I think the whole ethos of the place is driven by nature and as the city has grown up around us, we’ve resisted intense development of the property, and while that makes it harder to squeeze dollars out of the property, it does render us incredibly unique,” McClung said. “Every day, someone comes here for the first time, and the common refrain is, ‘I can’t believe this place is even here.’”
Los Patios opened as a dining and shopping destination the same year as HemisFair ’68. Its entrance at a descent in the frontage road off Northeast Loop 410, Los Patios is an 18-acre nearly undisturbed forest along the Salado Creek with nine buildings on the property, all manner of wildlife, and thousands of trees, by McClung’s estimation.
Managed by founder John Spice, a landscape architect, until he sold to an investor group in 1989, Los Patios had nearly gone under when McClung purchased the enterprise in 1998. He intended to sell it himself within a few years, but a flood the same year altered that course.
“What we thought was going to be a passive investment became a roll-up-your-sleeves-in-order-to-stave-off-ruin investment,” McClung said. Even members of the Boy Scout troop he led showed up to help. “That and about one thousand other miracles buoyed my spirits to suck it up and get it done, and so we did. By the grace of God and a lot of hard work, we were able to save the property and get it back in business in a record 45 days.”
The experience left McClung with the kind of dirt under the nails that yields a strong sense of stewardship. When a year later a man pulled up in a luxury car, got out with a swagger, and offered to buy the property, McClung asked him what he was going to do with it. The fact that the potential buyer planned to turn the property into “the premier gentleman’s club of San Antonio” didn’t sit well with McClung, “so I told him he could get back in that Bentley and go that way out.”
Since then, Los Patios has hosted over 10,000 events of all sizes – indoors and out – including weddings, receptions, and luncheons, and is on track to do another 75 to 100 this year. About a third of Los Patios’ revenue comes from hosting events, with many of the employees who once worked at the restaurant returning to help with catering and serving at events. “I think it’s their love of the place, the camaraderie,” McClung said. “We are not an HR-department kind of organization.”
The site also continues to be useful for nonprofit organizations due to the special pricing it offers those groups for meetings and events, and as a staging area for charitable races and walks on the Salado Creek Greenway trails.
But the full-time tenants at Los Patios are a blend of office users, service providers, and specialty retail outlets, like The Estate Sale Gallery and The Initial Tree. Even those stores have had to adapt to changing times and shopping habits, McClung said, by offering a service – such as estate appraisal – that’s not necessarily tied to foot traffic in their stores.
In February, the Intermezzo Gallery, owned by Kathy Cody Gallaway, and Mustard Seed Designs, owned by Patsy and Edwin Sasek, opened jointly in Los Patios’ former garden shop and conference room known as Las Almas (The Souls). Both exhibit the works of local artists and handmade goods from decor and clothing to jewelry and artisan chocolates.
On the service side, Intermezzo offers courses in art, creative writing, journaling, and poetry. The Saseks also host classes in painting, collage, photography, mandalas, and mindfulness. Shoppers can take home a succulent plant they pot themselves. The workshop’s windows open onto the scenic gardens and shady grounds of Los Patios, which Patsy considers “a welcoming place for the soul.”
On a recent Friday afternoon, McClung told the Rivard Report that he and a crew had just finished cutting down an old grapevine that had been clinging to a structure at Los Patios since it was built. But the vine had become overgrown and unproductive.
“Decisions have to be made all the time whether something is still vital and lifegiving, and if it’s not healthy, we can say let’s try to prune it and make it better. But sometimes if you’ve tried and tried and it doesn’t work, then you cut it out and throw it in the fire,” McClung said, referencing a Biblical story. “And I would say the restaurant is one of those things is very fitting to the parable in that it was ceasing to be productive.”
But cutting it away has made way for new things to be “planted,” he added, in the way of Intermezzo and the Mustard Seed Gallery, for example, but also a possible opportunity to reopen the restaurant with a new theme and caterer.
“I don’t think we would have gotten to that place where we could have those conversations without making the decision to go in a different direction,” he said.