Georgann Yara

Turning Tables

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The old metal chairs with puffy foam cushioning are among the first memories Carolyn Chavarria has of her parents’ Restaurant Mexico.

The name of the restaurant was painted on the windows, and the place was so tiny customers would walk in through the kitchen. At the time, basic ingredients needed for her mother’s trademark salsa and enchiladas had to be delivered from out of the city.

Back then, downtown Tempe was in its dicey phase. Considered by many Valley residents to be a rundown area, gas stations, dive bars and biker hangouts were indications of a time when Mill Avenue was a highway town, a backstreet that Phoenix drivers took to Florence or Tucson. A car dealership was the prominent feature, as were college kids stumbling in and out of bars.

Much has changed since Restaurant Mexico first opened its doors in September 1977.

The bar scene remains strong, giving downtown Tempe — known by locals as the Mill Avenue District — one of the state’s hottest party spots. But the mix of restaurants, trendy boutiques and a wave of developments that combine luxury condo living with business office and upscale retail space is a far cry from the days when disco ruled.

And while many independent and chain businesses have come and gone, the little eatery in which Carolyn grew up has remained.

“How many of us have survived for 30 years in Tempe? We’re a part of downtown Tempe,” says Carolyn, whose memories are comprised mainly of customers and employees who have become family. “The customers have been here forever. So many of them have seen me since I was a little girl. They’ll come up to me and say, ‘Hey, aren’t you….?’ and ‘I knew you since you were this tall.’”

Moving With The Times

Since it first opened, owners Carolina and Gilbert Chavarria have moved three times. All four locations, including the newest on Mill Avenue near Fifth Street, which opened this spring, have been within a square mile or two of each other.

Economic development in the last three decades has caused every relocation. A P.F. Chang’s China Bistro sits in Restaurant Mexico’s original spot, which it occupied until 1998.

The Chavarrias had to vacate the second location in 2000, to make way for the construction of the Brickyard on Mill, a mixed-use facility that houses Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering and is anchored by a two-story Borders bookstore.

It’s said to be one of life’s most stressful events, but the Chavarrias have moving down to a science.

“We might forget some things and do a little stumbling here and there. But, yes, we’ve done it a lot,” Carolina says, laughing.

This year’s relocation to its fourth and current spot was brought on by the upcoming $500 million University Square project, another development that would include office, retail and residential space.

“You could pretty much see what has gone on around here by our moves,” says Carolina.

The restaurant’s new home is the historic Vienna Bakery Building. Built in 1893, it remains the only brick bay Territorial commercial building on Mill Avenue, and housed one of the longest-running businesses in the city — a bakery started by German immigrants that ran for nearly 60 years.

It’s a very fitting abode for a small Mexican family-run restaurant that has stood the test of time. When news spread that affected businesses would have to move to accommodate University Square, the future of Restaurant Mexico rose toward the top of many people’s list of concerns.

The Chavarrias never asked for it, but received strong support from city employees, council members, local developers and community members. All rallied in force around the Chavarrias, pleading that everything be done to keep the eatery in downtown. From there, the city that is home to the largest public university in the nation demonstrated its small-town charm.

The restaurant’s former landlord, Sid Joseph, sought out potential locations and found Don Plato, who purchased the Vienna Bakery Building from longtime Tempe attorney David Richardson. He connected Plato with the Chavarrias and Restaurant Mexico found a new home, again. This time, it is on a coveted corner in the heart of the city.

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