El Mirador: King William Landmark in New Hands

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The venerable El Mirador restaurant has been sold.

The King William landmark eatery and political gathering place officially changed hands Thursday with the original owners, the Treviño family, handing over  the restaurant, its recipes, and its 42 employees, many of whom have worked there for decades, to San Antonio architect and developer Chris Hill, a self-described "occasional preservationist" and "reluctant restaurateur."

Hill is not giving himself enough credit. He's best known downtown for his purchase and renovation of the historic Esquire Tavern at 155 E. Commerce St. a few years ago and the development of the St. Benedict's Lofts in Southtown. He has several other historic buildings in his portfolio awaiting redevelopment. He also purchased and restored the historic Gallagher Ranch.

Julian's parents, Julian Sr. and Mary, first opened El Mirador first opened its doors in 1967 on the eve of HemisFair'68. Julian and his wife Diana said they sold to Hill because of his commitment to preservation of El Mirador, its team, and its place in the culture.

"It's like postpartum, sweetie: You're glad it's all over, but there is sadness, too," Diana said Friday. "Julian and I are happy. Chris is keeping our employees and our traditions. He's young, he's energetic. We will live just down the street and know it's in safe hands."

Julian, reached on a business trip to Phoenix where he was working Friday as an education consultant who coaches public school superintendents and board trustees, agreed:  "This is very emotional for me. The good people working there have been with our family for decades, but at the same time, we wouldn't have done this unless we felt the new owner would honor the legacy of my mother and the hard work of Diana."

Since 1967, when Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson was still in the White House, the Treviño family and El Mirador restaurant have been serving family-style Mexican cuisine with a generous helping of neighborhood love and downtown political action. The South St. Mary's Street landmark cafe was the place to be and to be seen weekday mornings in King William long before the advent of Southtown. Saturday mornings brought droves of '09ers and others to El Mirador for the cafe's signature Sopa Azteca. At one recent breakfast outing there, I saw Mayor Julián Castro in one room, and former Mayors Phil Hardberger, Howard Peak and Ed Garza, all at different tables, meeting with people.

El Mirador was founded as a modest neighborhood restaurant, and it moved several times before gaining iconic status in its present location at 722 S. South St. Mary's St. in 1978.  Julian Sr. died many years ago, but his wife, Doña Mary Treviño lived to be 102 and was a daily presence at the restaurant until she was 97, even using a walker to navigate the kitchen and her familiar place near the front door behind the cash register. She died in February 2013.

Julian said his father ranged from the kitchen to the front of the house where he befriended some of San Antonio's most interesting people.  The legendary architect O'Neil Ford ate their regularly, Julian said, and he and his father vied to outwit each other. On one occasion when Ford was hosting an important, out-of-town group, he paid the bill with a personal check.

"My father leaned over the table and in a loud voice asked O'Neil if he'd like him to hold the check for a few weeks, just like always, until there was enough money in the account to cover it," Julian recalled.

Doña Mary celebrated her 100th birthday in September 2010 at El Mirador with a fiesta that drew a who's who crowd of longtime customers standing in line to greet her, snap photos, and pay their respects. Julian and Diana, early King William pioneers, had taken the lead operating El Mirador many years earlier, but Julian's education consulting business left Diana to manage the restaurant along with general manager Juan Cantú. After Mary's retirement, the Treviños began talking about a sale, insisting that would-be buyers agree to operate the restaurant and keep the employees.

Julian said Don Thomas, a partner at Reata Real Estate, oversaw the process that led to Thursday's successful sale.

"He didn't have an easy job, given our wishes," Julian said. "We had employees that had been with us for 20,30, 40 years, and we decided we wouldn't sell to someone who might close the restaurant to use the property for something else. We wanted to protect our employees, preserve the name, and take care of our longtime customers. So our criteria for our sale was to find someone with the integrity and reputation who would do what they said would they do. It took 2 1/2 years."

Julian said Hill "is very creative, and he has great ideas to aesthetically improve the restaurant and do many things that need to be done.  He'll keep the signature dishes but update recipes. He has vision and passion and a good team."

El Mirador has remained home for neighborhood loyalists and downtown politicos, but it hasn't attracted the wave of Millennials who have made Southtown home and who are the lifeblood of its growing number of restaurants and bars. Hill will probably make subtle changes that aim to attract them now.

Julian said the family broke the news of the sale to "all 42  employees, from bus boys to the top, one at a time, and then we did it as a group and then with Chris and some of his people with us. There was some fear, initially, but Juan is staying so there is a degree of comfort now."

The sale will undoubtedly surprise longtime customers. too.

Mary's famous Sopa Azteca,  "Saturday Soup," as weekend customers called it, led to the creation of other soups on the menu. One of them, Dan's Special, was created by Mary when longtime customer and local attorney Dan Naranjo suddenly stopped coming in after eating lunch there every day for years.

"Oh my God, I didn't know the Treviños sold, but the new owner has to keep Dan's Special on the menu because that soup is the only thing that gives me any notoriety," Naranjo, a mediator and arbitrator and adjunct profession at St. Mary's University, said Friday. "Many years ago, I was a United States magistrate so I was in the federal courthouse in the morning and in my law office in the afternoon, and I always stopped at El Mirador for lunch -- until my doctor told me I had to stop eating Mexican food and I quit going. Dan's Special was Mary's creation, her way of getting me to come back. She used to make it just for me, but then other customers saw it and asked for it, too. It's home-made chicken broth, beans, skinless chicken breast and pico de gallo. Delicious."

Every weekday morning for the 25 years I've lived in San Antonio, and certainly even longer, one breakfast table has been reserved for the exclusive use of a small group of neighborhood friends. Attorneys Robert and Nancy Shivers and Dr. Ralph Wells were the early table hosts, and as the years passed, others came and went in the small group that includes attorney John Convery, Mariah Watson, and others.

El Mirador has hosted its share of big Texas names, from Ann Richards to Lady Byrd Johnson to entertainer and Alamo enthusiast Phil Collins. Late night talk show host Johnny Carson's band leader Doc Severinsen, who divides his time between a California ranch and San Miguel de Allende, Gto., always stayed at the Plaza Hotel and ate at El Mirador on visits to San Antonio. One day, dressed in his usual flamboyant outfit, he decided to work El Mirador's front door and greet and seat diners.

"A customer came up to me and told me the new guy we hired looked just like the guy on Carson," Julian recalled.

But El Mirador's attraction has always been the locals.

"We'll still go there, sure," Diana said. "But I married my best friend 49 years ago, and now we'll have free time, more time together to have fun."

*Featured/top image: El Mirador. Image via Google Maps.

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