Trying to Save a Cafe -- and Austin’s Flavor

Times Staff Writer

There are places in every city that transcend their physical space and become something almost spiritual in the civic consciousness, and in this freewheeling town one is a simple Tex-Mex restaurant named Las Manitas.

For a quarter-century, famous singers fresh from gigs in the so-called Live Music Capital of the World have sat in strange harmony alongside conservative Texas politicians in gray suits and enjoyed the flavorful enchiladas and vegetarian tamales served up by the irreverent Perez sisters, Cynthia and Lidia.

The rich and the poor, the hip and the square, the native snobs and the newbie tourists have felt the egalitarian energy of the little restaurant just down the hill from the state Capitol, and they have kept coming back.


But even in liberal Austin, nothing is seemingly worth more than the almighty dollar, and Las Manitas Avenue Cafe may soon be pushed aside to make way for progress. Developer White Lodging Services Corp. has proposed a $185-million mega-complex, including three Marriott hotels, for the block where the restaurant stands.

“Urban renewal doesn’t have to mean urban removal. But it usually does, doesn’t it?” Cynthia Perez said with a sardonic laugh.

Though negotiations are underway to save at least some existing tenants, the future of Las Manitas is in doubt -- saddening the restaurant’s legions of devotees, who wonder whether Austin is selling its soul for a boost in bed taxes.

“Las Manitas is one of the last vestiges of grass-roots Texas. It’s the real Austin, not the Starbucks and Restoration Hardware Austin,” said Texas Monthly magazine Editor Evan Smith, a Las Manitas regular who recently introduced the editor of Runner’s World magazine to what he calls the gossip center of the Texas capital.

“I remember walking in one day and seeing Karl Rove at the counter, laughing maniacally over some magazine article, and I thought to myself, ‘Does he have any idea that Cynthia Perez is a hard-core liberal who probably hates his guts?’ But that’s Las Manitas,” Smith said. “It’s a political Switzerland in a Mexican restaurant.”

The uproar over the fate of Las Manitas is the latest in a long line of development imbroglios in fast-growing Austin, which has been making an uneasy transition over the last two decades from Texas hippie oasis to one of the trendiest cities in the nation.

The metro-area population boomed from 846,227 in 1990 to 1.25 million in 2000 -- a 48% increase -- and has since increased 16%, according to the area’s Chamber of Commerce.

The formerly bohemian, low-slung streets of downtown are slowly being transformed into a gleaming skyline of steel office towers and sleek hotels. Construction cranes hover in the distance behind the legendary bars and music clubs of 6th Street, where stars such as the late guitar legend Stevie Ray Vaughan first made their mark.

Concerned about urban sprawl, many Austinites support building up the downtown core instead of building out into an endless expanse of suburbia. But in a city where a librarian’s offhand remark about wanting to “keep Austin weird” became a catchphrase, many residents worry that change is happening too fast and the city’s character could be lost. Some doomsayers have even uttered the dreaded “D” word -- asserting Austin is descending into “Dallas-ification.”

“There is broad public support for downtown because it’s considered an authentic place. It’s not filled with a bunch of chain restaurants,” said City Councilman Brewster McCracken, a fan of Las Manitas’ Central American breakfast of eggs, plantains and black beans who is pessimistic about the prospects of saving the restaurant. “When a national chain yanks out the place Texas Monthly ranks as one of the coolest in the state, that’s not a good trade.”

Not everyone is convinced that the restaurant is in danger of closing -- or that it would be the end of Austin if it did. Some point out that a few doors down from Las Manitas, the Perez sisters own a historically protected building that they use as an art gallery but could convert to a restaurant.

Others say the developer could easily accommodate Las Manitas in a lobby of the complex, and the sisters could continue dishing out breakfast and lunch from nearly the same location, even if it lost a little charm in the transition.

Richard Suttle, a land-use attorney who represents the hotel developer -- and a Las Manitas lover who has been eating breakfast with his family there for years -- said his clients were continuing to explore options, including allowing the restaurant to stay. Yet Suttle conceded it probably wouldn’t be the same.

“Could you re-create that atmosphere in a new building, the little patio in the back that you walk through the kitchen to get to? Probably not. And when you ask Cynthia whether she wants to be in the lobby of a Marriott, the answer is, probably not.”

To the Perez sisters, the talk of relocating Las Manitas misses the point. To them, the fight is not about the restaurant. It’s about preserving something special they and their friends built along the whole block.

Beside Las Manitas and the art gallery, La Pena, which displays the work of up-and-coming artists, is a popular Spanish-immersion child-care center called Escuelita del Alma, or Little School of the Soul. It nurtures the children of famous musicians including singer Alejandro Escovedo, as well as those of restaurant workers and bureaucrats from the state Capitol. It was started by former Las Manitas bookkeeper Dina Flores to take care of the children whose parents worked at the restaurant. Now it has a two-year waiting list.

“There is this idea in the legal world called ‘the commons,’ and to me, Las Manitas is the best manifestation of that principle,” said spoken-word performer Roopa Singh, 28, a former grant writer for the gallery who considers Cynthia Perez a role model. The Perez sisters “provide a living wage to their workers. They provide a space for artists to show their work. They take care of the children of the people who work downtown.

“They have created an innovative model for businesspeople and activists alike. And yet it seems like they’re not valued.”

Lydia Ortiz, a former chairwoman of the Austin Planning Commission who has a 2-year-old and an 8-month-old at the center, said she was optimistic that public opinion would save the child-care center.

Flores is not so upbeat. She cannot imagine a hotel carving out floor space for a day-care playground.

Serving enchiladas is a fine thing, Lidia Perez said, wearing a large button that read “No Human Being Is Illegal.” But Las Manitas was never really about the food.

“Not everything has a price,” she said, watching the children at Escuelita del Alma lie down in orderly rows for their afternoon naps. “This is our passion.”