It may not have an Instagram mural, Edison lights, or even an actual patio, but El Patio’s combination of attentive service and homemade Tex-Mex food has stood the test of time for 65 years. The Austin institution has just one location at 2938 Guadalupe Street, but it counts its customers in generations. It’s a place for grandparents to bring their grandkids, for college students to cure a hangover, and for anyone to be treated like a human, not just an order number.
This past Saturday, for the first time, El Patio did have a patio of sorts. With scores of loyal diners gathered for the restaurant’s 65th anniversary, it was necessary to set up tables in the parking lot to seat them all. Despite the added space, the wait for a table was still 40 minutes at 2 p.m., but there were no complaints among those gathered for the festive occasion. One party even set up a tailgate in the back of their truck.
Customers from all walks of life have flocked to the Tex-Mex restaurant, run by the Joseph family, for 65 years — no small miracle in a fast-growing city like Austin. The building, originally a diner called Schoonerville, was built in the 1930s. The indoor space has changed little since then, except for the addition of a foyer and small bar. “We’ve been here since before I-35,” jokes co-owner David Joseph.
El Patio opened its doors on January 5, 1954, with Lebanese proprietors Paul and Mary Ann Joseph — although Mary Ann wasn’t there on opening day: She was in the hospital giving birth to the couple’s first child, Michelle.
Paul had managed Schoonerville before El Patio, then bought the building and changed the menu to Tex-Mex (Paul opted for Tex-Mex “because Lebanese food was out of the question back then,” says his son). According to family lore, the name was suggested by an aunt.
“Dad was soft-hearted, and Mom was the sergeant,” explains their son, and the current co-owner of the restaurant, David. “Mom kept control of all the [staff]. They called her patrona, which was, you know, boss. She just demanded respect.”
Paul was known to take customers’ crying babies and walk them around the restaurant so their parents could have a stress-free meal (a tradition carried on by staff today). If a family had a picky eater, he led the child back to the kitchen to let them see the food and create a plate of their choosing.
When Paul died in 1995 at the age of 73, the line for his funeral, at St. Louis Catholic Church in Crestview, wrapped around the block, with over 1,000 people attending.
His son, David, took over managing the restaurant, assisted by his sisters, Renee and Roseann. The strong family atmosphere remains, although not everyone is related. General manager John Henson, the first person outside of the family to hold the position, has been a regular patron of El Patio since he was in diapers.
Another constant is the menu, which has barely changed since the restaurant opened. There are hearty, cheese-laden nachos, a variety of tacos and chalupas, and the ever-popular enchiladas (Paul developed the restaurant’s famed ranchero sauce with a cook at the time). In its early days, the restaurant was known for serving salsa with saltines, though after a price hike, tortilla chips are now standard.
David shares that the secret to El Patio’s longevity is customer service (“You’re a human being when you walk into this restaurant”) and happy employees (“You get into little verbal confrontations, but at the end of the night you’re saying ‘[I’m] sorry’ or ‘I messed up.’ It’s not ‘You’re fired’ or ‘I’m writing you up’”).
The El Patio waiters are quintessential hospitality employees who instantly make customers feel welcome. Jaime Arriola and Jaime Bolanos, who have been at the restaurant for 33 and 38 years, respectively, are both full of easy jokes and perpetual buoyancy.
“We like to have fun,” explains Arriola. “That’s why I don’t see it as work.”
As El Patio’s newest waitress, Brigitte, who started last year (and is the second waitress in the history of a restaurant that does not often hire new staff), talks about how lucky she feels to be “adopted” by the restaurant family, Renee jumps in to tease her: “Wait... you’re happy here?”
“Man, when you stop and think, it’s some good memories,” says Bolanos. “We have third-generation customers here [...] David thinks they’re his customers, but really, they’re mine.”
One favorite customer of El Patio was famed University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal, who David says was the definition of the “true meaning of a man.” Per David, Coach Royal (whose favorite dish, like almost everyone else at the restaurant, was the chicken enchiladas) was always gracious when approached by fans.
“He never turned down a picture, always was happy to do it,” says David. “Sometimes he would come in by himself to eat, and he knows since this is a small restaurant, we would be busy. He would say, ‘David, sit some people with people with me.’ And so when I would say, ‘Coach Royal would like y’all to come sit with him,’ [the customers] were just like, ‘What?!’”
Customers showed their appreciation for the hospitable service by returning to the restaurant in droves to celebrate the anniversary on Saturday.
Francis Lewis has been a patron of El Patio for all of its 65 years — and before that, he went on double dates at Schoonerville with Paul Joseph, who was a groomsman in her wedding. “The food is just as good as it ever was,” she says. “I got to know the family, and what good, wonderful people they are.”
Bill Crocker has been coming to the restaurant since his law partner took him in 1969, and now brings his children and his grandchildren. “Mr. Joseph used to call everyone ‘cousin,’” he said, “There’s very few places I have been that welcomed to.”
At another table at the party, three generations of the Wright family sit with their neighbor Charlene Zimmerman, whose parents owned a Texaco gas station up the road from El Patio. Mary Wright shared that when she went into labor on a Tuesday in 1981, she was a bit peeved because that was her “El Patio day.” Rebecca, who was granted the privilege of working the cash register as a child, noted that the waiters “always remember you as if you were here yesterday.”
David worries for the city’s restaurant scene, especially with the recent closures of Austin icons like the Frisco or the south location of Threadgill’s: “You know the UT saying ‘We are Texas’? Well, mom-and-pop shops, we are Austin.” He urged people to continue to frequent these restaurants.
“So all I can say is to all the people there, don’t forget about us,” he concluded.
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