In Tacos Veritas

Weekday breakfast at Las Manitas Avenue Café in Austin, Texas, is a study in opposites. A businessman chews his black bean burrito near a bed-headed guy wearing plaid jammie bottoms. The staff frenetically refills picante dispensers, pencils behind ears, in between delivering plates of fluffy homemade corn tortillas, migas con queso, refried beans, and chorizo sausage.

Las Manitas is a fixture in guidebooks like Fodor’s, Insiders’ Guide to Austin, and Frommer’s (“Don’t leave town without checking out this colorful family-owned Mexican diner…”). The food is great, but the real attractions are the congenial atmosphere, all-comers clientele, and handy downtown location on historic Congress Avenue.

Now, however, a developer wants to build hotels on Las Manitas’ block, and tear down the restaurant. The proposal has caused major backlash. Everybody from City Council members to frequent diner Evan Smith (editor of Texas Monthly magazine) is claiming that the scruffy enchilada joint should stay—quirkily representing the city’s “Keep Austin Weird” culture. The controversy is emblematic of nationwide efforts to preserve distinctive, vibrant restaurants from the wrecking ball of sometimes ill-considered progress. Efforts that occasionally backfire.

Anytown, USA

Las Manitas started in 1979 as a taco pushcart near the University of Texas, run by sisters Lidia and Cynthia Pérez. When the sisters moved downtown in the 1980s, they were “on skid row,” says Lidia. But the ’90s tech boom brought development that hasn’t stopped.

White Lodging Services wants to build a 1,000-room complex on Las Manitas’ block, with three high-rise Marriott hotels. The project could bring “$4 to $6 million per year back to the city in property and hotel-motel bed taxes,” says Trey Salinas, spokesman for White Lodging Services.

Las Manitas’ supporters argue that the development will further homogenize a unique city, resulting in Anytown, USA. Similar projects drove out Austin’s popular Armadillo World Headquarters concert hall in 1980, and then the outdoor venue Liberty Lunch in the late 1990s.

The Pérez sisters are only renters, and the building’s owners have signed a long-term lease with White Lodging Services. Though the Pérezes do own a building at the end of the block that houses an art gallery, they would need significant financing to renovate and put in a restaurant kitchen and dining room. The Austin City Council recently approved a plan for small downtown businesses like Las Manitas to obtain low-cost redevelopment loans, and Mayor Will Wynn has invited the Perez sisters to apply for the program.

The success story of another Austin taco joint, Taco Xpress, gives hope that a happy solution will be found. The folk art–cluttered dive was even funkier than Las Manitas, but just as beloved. A developer wanted to raze it and build a Walgreens and residential complex but first generously paid all costs to build a new, bigger, deliberately tacky taqueria next to the new drugstore. Both Walgreens and Taco Xpress now flourish.

If You Love Something

But saving a landmark doesn’t always result in a perfect feel-good ending. The last Brown Derby “Car Café,” once a famous Los Angeles hat-shaped restaurant chain that invented the cobb salad, was headed for the bulldozer two years ago: A developer wanted to replace it with condos and a grocery store. It was saved when the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to declare the building a historic cultural monument. However, now the Brown Derby is a nightclub whose website features girls in hot pink string bikinis. Food is no longer made there, but catered by a nearby Italian restaurant.

“Since 1929 there have been different sorts of restaurants or gathering places in that same building (it was Willard’s Chicken Inn before it became a Brown Derby in 1940) so the central issue for most people was just respect for the cultural history of LA,” says Jay Platt, the preservation advocate at the Los Angeles Conservancy, in an email.

Similarly, Manhattan’s iconic Russian Tea Room is on somewhat dubious life support. The clubby 1920s-era Russian émigré hangout near Carnegie Hall has closed and reopened to great fanfare several times in recent decades. The 1999 incarnation was termed “appalling” in more than one food review, but the current resurrection is at least recommended if one is looking for “faded, quirky grandeur.”

Las Manitas, unlike these businesses, isn’t in an architecturally significant building. But it has something arguably more important: current cultural relevance.

“It’s the people, the human atmosphere, which is more important than the building. It’s a shame when you have these places and you lose them,” says Ray Oldenburg, University of West Florida professor emeritus in sociology and author of the The Great Good Place and its follow-up, Celebrating the Third Place.

An object lesson for all parties is contained in the documentary Viva Les Amis, which profiles a Slacker-esque Austin sidewalk coffeehouse near the university that was bulldozed after 27 years and replaced by a Starbucks.

Says the subtitle, “There’s always something really cool that you should’ve seen, but it’s gone.”