National City’s Café La Maze was opened by popular demand in 1940.
The original Café La Maze sat in Los Angeles on Sunset Boulevard, which was opened five years prior. Tijuana was the go-to spot for Hollywood personalities, but traveling from Los Angeles to Tijuana could be time consuming and frustrating. And the idea for a second La Maze was incepted.
It became a pit stop. A stop, party and go routine for all fun-seeking and steak-eating folks. The café today still reflects that history with uncanny detail.
The leather-bound booths with a glossy dark crimson red comfortably lay against the red colored walls.
Framed pictures abound of celebrities posing with the original owner and newspaper clippings showing the media’s coverage through the years.
Present owner Chris Kapetanios first became interested in the restaurant back in 2005.
“The only reason I wanted to own this place is because I like the history of it,” he said. “At the time it didn’t make any business sense because in 2009 the economy was at its worst time. It’s beautiful but it was going through a lot of problems.”
A lot of problems is an understatement. La Maze was repeatedly shut down over the years. In 1947, the location was shut down in a raid due to evidence of gambling. Another incident involved a room on the second floor that was used as a “love shack” with women and gambling between customers. In 1949 the IRS shut down the café for tax purposes.
“It doesn’t give up. It keeps on staying open,” said Kapetanios.
The enduring existence of La Maze truly is amazing. With so many venue choices from places like Little Italy or Coronado, the fight to stay open has been unrelenting.
“The hardest thing we have is getting people to walk through the door,” he said. “When they hear National City, it’s like ‘OK, well it’s not downtown. It’s not La Jolla. Why should we come here?’ They have no idea there’s a beautiful place with a lot of history.”
“Business is better than what it was in 2009 when I took over but it’s certainly not where we want it to be. We’re headed in the right direction,” he said.
Heading in the right direction could mean the equivalent of playing poker with the Marx brothers. But with little star presence walking through the doors, it’ll be a challenge.
“It wasn’t that we did anything different it was that the lifestyle changed,” he said. “Famous actors walking through these doors and sitting in this same booth is amazing to me. There’s a lot of people who have no clue what the history of this place is. They live in the city, they live in the South Bay and it’d be great to get that history out.”
Grandson of Marcello Lamaze, Monty Lamaze said he’s thankful to see Chris maintaining the authenticity of the restaurant.
“Chris has done a great job of maintaining the authenticity of the place,” he said. “Because of my age and marital situations, I never had the opportunity to meet Marcel in person. Visiting Café La Maze in person brought the old pictures to life.”
The history, however has faded away from people’s knowledge over the years.
“A lot of customers who knew the history have passed away over the years. Some still do but there’s a lot of people who have no clue what the history of this place is,” he said. “They live in the city, they live in the South Bay, in San Diego and it’d be great to get that history out. It’s a beautiful place. There’s a lot of history, it’s part of National City and part of San Diego.”
Kapetanios is proud of the establishment he rehabbed.
Except maybe the ghosts.
“I’ve heard noises but I’ve never seen anything myself,” he said. “During closing time around midnight when we’re shutting the doors that’s when you hear noises and that’s when you say ‘OK, there’s nobody here. What’s going on?’”
Even after passing, the celebrities still can’t get enough La Maze.