With its bright decor, dangling piñatas and walls adorned with glass liquor bottles, El Matador restaurant in Costa Mesa looks ready for a party.
And that's just what's on tap Thursday as the owners of one of the area's best-known Mexican food joints celebrate the venerable eatery's 50th anniversary.
"Owning this place on the 50-year anniversary is very exciting," owner Greg McConaughy said as he sat in the restaurant Monday. "It's been a lot of fun to operate this restaurant because of the community."
El Matador's unassuming facade, nestled along bustling Newport Boulevard between a doggie day care and an auto service shop, now boasts a sign trumpeting the anniversary.
New menus — just in this week, McConaughy said — also note the milestone.
The menus include an adage McConaughy says may best sum up his thoughts as he looks around the restaurant: "We're still here, so we must be doing something right."
What better way to toast the half-century mark than with a margarita? From 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday, patrons who buy any margarita at regular price can get a second for 50 cents.
Marcial Gallardo Sr., a native of Zacatecas, Mexico, opened El Matador in 1966. The restaurant has been open at the same location, 1768 Newport Blvd., ever since, McConaughy said.
After Gallardo died in 2003, a family feud eventually led to Orange County taking control of the restaurant. The county then put El Matador up for auction.
McConaughy, with his wife, Jana, bought the establishment in June 2005. They run it together.
Since taking over, they've doubled the size of the restaurant to about 3,000 square feet. They gave the exterior a facelift, remodeled the kitchen, added a new dining room and put in one of the restaurant's most prominent features — a bar stocked with more than 200 varieties of tequila.
The menu, though, was left largely intact.
"People really like the restaurant, and after we'd owned it a couple of months, we realized changing anything would always be a big deal," McConaughy said with a chuckle. "We dropped a few things over the years on the menu and there were always people upset."
El Matador has built a hefty roster of regulars in its 50 years, said manager Ernesto Silva, who has worked there since 2004.
The 30-year-old Costa Mesa resident said he's seen the same families come in so often that he has basically watched their children grow up before his eyes.
"I grew up with a bunch of their kids just by them coming here," he said. "You become part of their environment, sort of, and they become part of ours."
Corona del Mar resident Libby Wallace said she has been going to El Matador virtually her entire life. She's 54 now and said her "parents probably started bringing me here when I was 4."
"One thing I like about it is that it's vintage, it's old, it's been here forever," Wallace said. "The food is authentic and tasty. Every time I go, there is someone I know there. It has a great vibe."
Another longtime patron, Newport Beach resident Tina Dougan, said she recalls going on dates at El Matador with her future husband back when they were dating. The couple have now been married 45 years, and El Matador remains a favorite for them.
Dougan said she's a big fan of El Matador's customer service, food and, of course, margaritas.
"It's pretty much locals who come here," she said. "We run into people all the time that we know."
Costa Mesa resident Fabrizio Khalona, 49, has been a regular at El Matador for about seven years.
The relationships he's made keep him coming back, he said — not only those with El Matador's staff members and owners but with his fellow regulars as well.
"It's kind of unique to this establishment," he said as he sipped a Pacifico beer at the bar. "It has a very loyal clientele."
An ideal anniversary present for El Matador would be the return of its Ferdinand the Bull statue, which was stolen in early February.
The McConaughys are offering a $250 reward for the safe return of Ferdinand — a 4-foot-tall, 40-pound creature that had been a popular fixture at the restaurant for years.
Luke Money, email@example.com