Has the last vestige of old school gay Silver Lake really been conquered and killed off? The The Eastsider LA reported on Tuesday that festive Mexican mainstay El Conquistador restaurant was closing due to "a sharp increase in rent imposed by a new landlord that purchased a large chunk of the block."
Quoting general manager Albert Curiel, Eastsider said that the beloved restaurant would be closing end of the year after four decades in business. The new owners of the block will be Sunset Triangle Partners, a group of investors who've also owned the now-empty space next door, Naya, as well as the hair salon behind Conquistador, called Fandango, since February.
As a long-time Silver Lake resident who happens to live up the street and frequents the place pretty much weekly, we had to go in last night and find out more. Plus, we figured their potent margaritas might dull the sadness if the news were true.
There was a somber sort of mood amongst staff who had heard the news but didn't know many details. We spoke with a few of favorite employees about it, all who seemed hopeful something could be done to save the place. Then we spoke with Curiel.
"There's not really anything that can be done. We've had a sweetheart deal being here for so long," Curiel said. "I guess the market rate is about $5 a square foot and this place is 2700 square feet. The new owners aren't being bad people about it. It's a business."
Curiel also says the building needs earthquake proofing updates and that the upgrading fees required on top of the rent increase would make staying open "not feasible" for owner Jesse Pinto. Despite Eastsider's report that the restaurant would close in December, Curiel said an exit date has not been decided, but that most likely it would be in early January 2014, which also marks the restaurant's 40th anniversary.
"We were waiting to decide an exit date before telling all the staff and our customers," Curiel said. "We will definitely be doing some events to celebrate the anniversary and let everybody come in and have their last margaritas or dinners."
Since the story came out, Silver Lake locals have expressed sad and sometimes angry comments on social media. As the neighborhood continues to gentrify, many see El Conquisator's demise as the final nail in coffin for the communities that started out here, before Silver Lake became so trendy. The restaurant is not only Latino-owned, it's gay-owned. And though regulars come in from all walks of life, there's always been a notable gay clientele.
Rumors that a "celebrity chef" might be coming in with a restaurant haven't been substantiated anywhere and Curiel says he hasn't heard about any particular business taking over. "But this area does have a lot of demand, especially after that article about Silver Lake being one of the hippest neighborhood's in the country."
Still, the Naya space (formerly Tantra), hasn't seemed to be able to make it work, and other Sunset Junction restaurants don't seem that booming either. Raw vegan spot Cru is gone, Koda Sushi is never packed and down the street, the Sunset Junction Coffee Shop still can't seem to move beyond its predecessor K2's failure last year. Good, Forage, and Cliff's Edge all seem to do well, and daytime dining at Millie's and Madame Matisse seems healthy. But trendy neighborhood or no, there are no guarantees.
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El Conquistador's warm, homey feel and over-the top decor -- which changes according to holiday and season -- are not easily emulated. The equally colorful staff, including flamboyant host Ricardo De La Torre (whom we interviewed here) are a big part of the restaurant's charm too. The Happy Hour at the restaurant is one of the best and liveliest in town (covered here and part of the Weekly's Happy Hour app) and the food is tasty and authentic, though a little heavy for some.
Is there any way the business might consider conquering in a new locale or part of town? we asked, slurping down the last of our customary Cadillac on the Rocks. Curiel said that possibility had not yet been discussed.
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