Highland Park's Villa Sombrero: The Return of a Neighborhood Favorite

Manuel Salazar and his family waited it out. They had operated Villa Sombrero, one of the long-standing Mexican restaurants in Highland Park , since the late 1970s. It's the sort of place you figure will always be there, because it seems it always had been.

Just over a year ago, the land owner decided not to renew Salazar's lease, bringing the popular restaurant's rein on the eastern edge of York to a sudden and unexpected close. The worn, red, naugahyde booths and the radish-red carpet they sat on came out. New floor tiles and white-linen tables went in. The menu changed and prices rose. Conversations seemed louder. The landlord, Felipe, who had opened the new restaurant ("Felipe's"), said shortly after opening that Highland Park was ready for his up-scale Mexican restaurant. The shrimp cocktail, for example, was comprised of four large camerónes that snapped between the teeth. But each came with a heavier price on its head - a price too few patrons were willing to pay.

Manuel Salazar
Manuel Salazar
Steve Julian
Inside the newly reopened Villa Sombrero in Highland Park
Inside the newly reopened Villa Sombrero in Highland Park
Steve Julian

Then this fall, Felipe shuttered the windows. A "For Lease/Se renta" sign appeared - and so did Manuel Salazar. He signed a new lease and, to the wonder of Villa Sombrero's former customers, reopened the restaurant. He brought in the old naugahyde booths, which he'd stored at home. He brought back his wife to tend bar; his daughters to take and deliver orders and pound out fresh guacamole; former waiter, Jesus, who had landed a job at nearby el Arco Iris; and former chef, Chino.

Highland Park's Villa Sombrero: The Return of a Neighborhood Favorite
Steve Julian

Manuel reopened on Friday, December 18th. One tentative party after another walked through the door, uncertain. Is it true? You're back? Another, I nearly crashed the car when I saw the sign!

Local teachers tweet about meeting at Villa Sombrero for margaritas. Occidental students love the taco plates. And everyone here knows the artwork: a very large mural depicts Popocatepetl, on a mountain, at the fireside of his love, Iztaccihuatl, who died of sorrow while long awaiting his return from battle. Her body is covered, mostly, in a white mourning cloth. You can't miss it, particularly when you hear a nearby mother and father order margaritas and their son asks for a virgin on the rocks.

Villa Sombrero: 6101 York Boulevard, Los Angeles; 323-256-9014.

Steve Julian is the local host of NPR's Morning Edition at 89.3 KPCC.

Highland Park's Villa Sombrero: The Return of a Neighborhood Favorite
Steve Julian
Highland Park's Villa Sombrero: The Return of a Neighborhood Favorite
Steve Julian

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