In 1954, fine dining and Mexican food were rarely mentioned in the same sentence in Los Angeles, except perhaps in jest. That is the year that a bartender named Larry J. Cano took over an old Polynesian restaurant in Encino with thoughts of creating a nice, sit-down Mexican restaurant with mainstream appeal.
The first months were a struggle, but El Torito eventually took off, with sizzling fajitas, guacamole made table-side, margaritas and more served in a festive environment by friendly waiters dressed like charros.
Customers who were more familiar with Campbell's soup than carne asada began flocking to Cano's establishment, even though most Americans "didn't know what a taco was back then — they called them 'tay-cos,'" the restaurateur recalled decades later in an interview with the Los Angeles Daily News.
"It still astounds me that they've learned to eat jalapeños today."
Cano, who turned El Torito into a nationwide chain and helped launch a Mexican food craze in America, died Dec. 10 at his home in Corona del Mar. He was 90 and had pancreatic cancer, said his wife, Suzann Cano.
Once named by Time magazine as one of the "Enchilada Millionaires," Cano was at the forefront of a dining trend that boomed through the 1970s and '80s and made "Taco Tuesday" part of everyday lingo.
The Los Angeles native was operating 22 El Torito locations when he sold the chain to New York conglomerate W.R. Grace & Co. in 1978. He stayed on for a decade as president, expanding to 190 restaurants across the country and building annual sales of more than $425 million by 1987.
Today 57 El Torito restaurants remain, all but one in California.
In 1988 Cano stepped down as president but continued in the business, developing and operating several upscale Mexican eateries, including Cano's in Newport Beach and Las Brisas in Laguna Beach.
"Larry was a real pioneer," said Michael Casey, who was chief executive at El Torito before joining top management at Starbucks. "In 1954 there was no such thing as a Mexican dinner house and no such thing as casual dining. Larry really inspired a whole genre of restaurants" with bustling dining rooms, large bars and multiple locations.
Born in East Los Angeles on Feb. 2, 1924, Cano briefly attended UCLA before joining the Army Air Forces and flying missions over Europe during World War II. By the end of the war he had attained the rank of captain.
Back home, he earned a business degree from USC, then rejoined his Air Force unit to serve in the Korean War.
He had plans to attend law school when he was diverted by a summer job as a bartender at Bali Hai, a tiki joint on Ventura Boulevard. A promotion to manager meant he "cleaned up the puke, the bathrooms, everything," he told Gustavo Arellano in the 2012 book "Taco USA."
When Bali Hai's owner died, he bought the place at the urging of his then-wife, Leatrice, who worked with him as a cocktail waitress. They initially tried to make it a barbecue restaurant, but found the meat too expensive. "My mom said, 'Why don't we do the food we know?'" their daughter, Allyn Cano, recalled Tuesday. "They were both Eastside kids. They knew Mexican food. That was the beginning."
Cano told Arellano that he was inspired to name his restaurant El Torito by a ceramic bowl left by the previous owner that was decorated with the image of a little bull. "At least that's the story we tell," Cano said, chuckling, "and we stick with it."
Business was so bad at first that he and his family were evicted from their home and forced to live at the restaurant. But within a few years, Cano's formula for success began to yield profits. Shrugging off criticism that he served fake Mexican fare, he tailored traditional dishes to mainstream palates by taming the spices and created a friendly, upscale environment.
By the late 1950s he was opening branches in Toluca Lake and Hollywood that drew movie stars like Anthony Quinn, John Wayne, Gregory Peck and Lana Turner.
"Back in the late 1970s and early '80s, when you went to an El Torito it was a dining experience," said Don Myers, who started working for Cano as a college student in 1981 and now runs Cha Cha's Latin Kitchen in Brea. "The waiters wore charro jackets, dry-cleaned and pressed shirts with bolo ties. You'd look around and there was Tom Petty from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I waited on Michael Jackson. It was the Mexican dinner house."
And Cano, Myers said, was "the Colonel Sanders of the Mexican dinner house. He was good-looking, impeccably dressed. When he walked into the restaurant people literally came to attention. But it didn't matter if you were the dishwasher or the regional manager — he treated you with the exact same respect."
A generous mentor, Cano trained employees who went on to found or lead other restaurant chains, including the Yard House, Il Fornaio and the Habit Burger Grill. "There is hardly a casual restaurant company in the country that doesn't have someone who learned from Larry — I mean CEOs and chairmen of the board," said Casey, who retired as chief financial officer of Starbucks in 2007.
After stepping away from El Torito, Cano formed other companies to develop new restaurants, including a short-lived experiment fusing Italian and Mexican cuisine in a small chain called Pasta Manana.
By 1993, he was in bankruptcy, which he mostly blamed on a bad economy, but continued as a consultant. "He was always talking to people about new concepts," Myers said.
In addition to his wife, Suzann, and daughter Allyn, Cano is survived by daughters Suzanne Cano Kellay and Lisa Mishelle Voorhees, eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.