They came, they ate and they reminisced about good times.
It was the end of an era for National City’s famed El Juan Café on Saturday, March 30, as the iconic Mexican restaurant opened — and closed — its doors for the last time for customers.
The restaurant was among the oldest authentic Mexican sit-down eateries in the San Diego region, and its closing wasn’t lost on its six decades-plus worth of customers.
The restaurant had celebrated its 66th anniversary last October.
“This was it for Mexican restaurants,” said Margaret McCaw, 89, who made the journey down from Ramona with family members to dine one last time.
McCaw had been a regular weekly customer since the 1960s.
Like many, she began patronizing the restaurant following Sunday church services and had continued to make a weekly pilgrimage to the National City establishment ever since.
McCaw said she remembered the restaurant’s legendary waitress, Annie Orndorff, who worked at the restaurant for more than 50 years until she was well in her 80s.
“She was a young woman when I first started coming in,” McCaw reminisced.
It was through The Star-News, initially, that the announcement was made that the restaurant, open continuously since 1946, would be finally closing its doors. It didn’t take long for word to spread.
The restaurant was packed from opening until closing the final week, according to owner Pat Santos.
“If I knew I would have gotten such a response, I would have announced three years ago that we were closing and maybe we’d still be in business,” she said.
Santos said the last three years amid the dire economic downturn were the hardest to hit the restaurant.
The public outpouring of support demonstrated the community’s long-term connection to the eatery.
Customers, such as Alyce Blankenship, came from as far away as Orange County to have one last meal at the restaurant.
“I heard it was closing and had to ask other people if it was true,” she said. “I then posted something on Facebook about getting together one last time.”
Blankenship was among 20 people from Sweetwater’s class of ’67 who dropped by Saturday afternoon to have one final dining experience together at El Juan Café.
“There were about 300 of us who couldn’t be here,” Blankenship quipped as she enjoyed the company of her former classmates.
Blankenship was introduced to the restaurant upon her eighth grade graduation and later met her future husband there on a date.
Three generations of Barbara Van Ravesteyn’s family came to dine Saturday night. She was introduced to the restaurant in 1960 by her husband while they were living in Imperial Beach.
“We had just moved here from the East Coast and my husband loved Mexican food but I was not familiar with it,” she said. “When we found out this was going to be the last day, we all came down.”
Van Ravesteyn was joined by her son Adrian and daughter Nicole Dejong along with Adrian’s son Adrian Glenn, 18, and friends.
Ironically, the café’s closing occurred on Dejong’s birthday. “This is a sad memory on my birthday,” she said.
Everyone at the table cleaned their plate.
“The chile relleno is the thing that is going to die with this restaurant,” Adrian Van Ravesteyn offered. “It doesn’t exist anywhere else (as it is made at El Juan). It’s going to be like a lost language and it’s a shame.”
Many diners remained at their tables long after their meals were finished. They didn’t want to part company with an old friend just yet.
While many customers showed their support by dining each night during the final week — a few came in for both lunch and dinner on the final day — some customers remained unaware of the restaurant’s closure.
Santos made a point of going to each table to thank patrons as they left. When she informed one elderly couple it would likely be the last time they would be dining there, she got a surprise reaction.
“The woman looked as if she was going to cry,” Santos explained.
National City Mayor Ron Morrison and his family were among the loyal supporters. In a show of class, he stopped in 15 minutes before the restaurant was scheduled to close its doors forever on Saturday to offer one last tribute.
National City Vice Mayor Luis Natividad and National City City Manager Leslie Deese, among the last customers, were still sitting in their booth when Morrison arrived. They reminisced about old times — times from the 1960s when National City still had its small town feel and where country quiet started just a few blocks east of Sweetwater High School.
“We were getting hits all day on our Facebook page that people were coming down,” Morrison said. “I was crying over my last chile relleno.”
Before he left, Morrison presented Santos with a key to the city pin, noting he had only given out eight during his tenure as mayor.
Santos immediately pinned it over her heart.
My late father was among the restaurant’s first customers in the 1940s. Like many, our family celebrated graduations, anniversaries, holidays and paycheck bonuses there.
My favorite El Juan memory?
I was the last person served at the restaurant.