What Happened to Las Manitas?

(nikkorsnapper/flickr)

The story of Las Manitas displacement from its 26-year-old home on Congress Avenue has become an infamous symbol of Austin’s millennial transformations. Long known as one of Austin’s best diners—an institution where construction workers, local celebrities and regulars rubbed shoulders, and where you had to walk through the bustling kitchen to get to the patio—Las Manitas was for many an embodiment of Austin’s soul, and the city was on the verge of losing it.

Were these the hyperbolic claims of people clinging to an impossibly nostalgic vision of the city? If they had their way, it was argued, the city’s ‘soul’ would anyhow fall to stagnation rather than change.

Back in 2006, Tim Finley, the owner of the building where Las Manitas had been for the better part of three decades, came to an agreement with White Lodging Services Corp., the owners and operators of the Marriot Hotel chain, to convert the lot into a hotel complex which would house approximately a thousand rooms and would be used for the growing demands of tourists coming to Austin for conventions. The $275 million project was projected to create hundreds of jobs and bring millions in annual revenue to the city.

New Downtown Austin Marriott on Congress Avenue

Here was the irony of a city faced with the task of bulldozing an iconic restaurant to make room for a hotel, which in turn was intended for tourists coming to Austin to experience a unique and iconic ambiance. It was a classic Catch-22.

Following a wave of popular anger over the predicament, the City Council elected to offer a generous, low-interest loan of $750, 000 dollars to the owners of Las Manitas to help them relocate. Even as popular opinion and fortune seemed to offer a new chance, the owners demurred, claiming that the loan had too many strings attached. They would rebuild on their own terms.

At the end of August 2008, the doors of Las Manitas closed. A year and a half later, they show no signs of reopening, despite the fact that the restaurant’s owners already own a space down the block at 3rd and Congress Ave.

Curious to find out what had happened, I called Las Manitas number, (still listed on the Save Las Manitas website) to ask about the status of the restaurant. Surprisingly, a man a picked up the phone. “Yes,” he answered, they were still planning to reopen, but they had no idea when. From the evasive tone in his voice, I gathered that the plan had become more of an obligation than the rallying cry that it had been a year before.

Meanwhile, half a year after Las Manitas closed, Deno Yiankes, president and chief operating officer of investments and development for White Lodging Development Corp, reported that the company had decided to put the project on hold citing the economic downturn. The hotel, once expected to become the city’s gaudy consolation prize, now seems like a distant hope.

In the meantime, the simple but charming little buildings that had housed a trade store, a school and a beloved restaurant have been demolished. In their place now stands yet another surface-level parking lot.

What is the moral of this story? Should sentimentality have triumphed over progress? Or was it sentimentality that robbed progress of its golden opportunity?

It’s hard to say.

One might at least conclude that a surface-level parking lot in the heart of Downtown Austin is a sign of one thing: paralysis.

And if Austin ever does lose its “soul,” it will be because it got stuck between the past and the future.

Comments

  1. The real tragedy is the loss of Escuelita de Alma, the bilingual pre-school that closed its doors at its downtown location. Now that there is finally a critical mass of residents downtown the quality day care service is gone. A truly healthy vibrant downtown requires a mix of people of varying ages. Plus–the tree the families donated that had matured has been plowed over too! 🙁

  2. Am I the only person in Austin who didn’t think Las Manitas was that great?
    The place was overly-romanticized.

    The service was marginal – at best.

    Also – as a former restauranteur I can tell you that having customers walk through the kitchen/food preparation area to access the patio is TOTALLY “Bush League” and not sanitary!

  3. This blog seems to have forgotten a very important adjective, forgivable. As in, the city of Austin was going to give Las Manitas a $750k forgivable loan. Or, a forgivable loan is different from a real loan because you never have to pay it back. Or, a forgivable loan is something given to people who have strong ties to the local politicians, while other local business owners have to get real loans from a bank. Or, a forgivable loan is something set up under the shell for two sisters with strong political ties asking for a bribe from the city to move out of their rented space (after they asked for a bribe from the private investors who bought their space).

    Also, the “stings attached” of said loan wasn’t what brought it, or Las Manitas, down – it was the popular sentiment against giving a single local business, who employees/employed very few workers at very low pay, such a large hand out.

    Las Manitas never was and never will be the soul of Austin. Unless you consider the soul of Austin to be back-handed deals done in the basement of the capitol. I, for one, don’t.

    • Whatever from all the opinions out there. All I know is . .I’m not from Austin and the first time we visited the city . . Las Manitas was recommended for breakfast/lunch by the visitors bureau. My wife, 2 daughters and I went there . . .loved it . . and went back everytime we were in town.

      Guess that’s gone now. Say what you want about the food, location, etc. . .many folks loved it and are sad it’s gone.

      We’ll see if Mariott can make up the difference.

      I doubt it.

  4. Same thing that happened to our (Wild About Music) former location at 8th & Congress…Gingerman’s prior location on 4th… Tesoros… Liberty Lunch… the list goes on. NOTHING. Moving, even just around the corner, is extremely costly and very disruptive to customer connectivity for a business. But overzealous developers are quick to boot a good tenant and gut or demolish their space before they really have their “new deals” fully baked and secured. Fortunately some of us are able to bounce back and continue on. It took my business over two years to regain the bulk of our prior-location customers despite advertising, etc. Some just never can do it…short on cash, lose their zeal, can’t find another decent location. Unless the you, the business/tenant, are in control and purposefully move locations, losing your lease is about the worst thing that can happen to your business. The longer you were there, the worse the impact.

  5. And thus we sell, a bowlful at a time, our birthright for a mess of pottage.

  6. avatar austinandrew says:

    I never understood Las Manitas. Good atmosphere, but the food sucked.

  7. As a resident for many years downtown and a business owner downtown, every day I pass the space I miss the great / cheap food we got there. I loved cutting through the kitchen to the back room to dine on picnic tables.

    • Las Manitas was an institution in Austin. Still wear my Las Manitas t-shirt. Really, the food was excellent and very Tex Mex. I’m so sorry to hear it’s gone now.

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