It may be a ways from the Mission District, by Celia’s by the Beach is 100% Mexican, not just in flavor but also in philosophy. Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to Phil Havlicek, who, with his brother, Salvador Lopez runs the popular neighborhood Mexican restaurant Celia’s by the Beach in San Francisco’s Beach district. After a delightful dinner, we got to talking about the history of the place and learned a few things:
Andrea: I know Celia was your grandmother and that she founded the business with your grandfather, when was that and where was the original location? Did she do all the cooking? How did the business grow to what it is today?
Phil: As the story goes, our grandparents, Celia and Perfecto immigrated to San Francisco Sunset in the 1950s, leaving behind their children with the rest of family in Mexico. They worked doing odd jobs, bussing tables and washing dishes, until they had enough money to bring their children. Once the family was situated and they had saved enough money, Celia and Perfecto bought a small coffee shop on Judah between 45th and 46th Avenues. The previous owner would not allow Mexicans to continue running the coffee shop under the same name, so Celia grabbed a paper bag, wrote her name on it (Celia’s), taped it over the original name and Celia’s Diner was born in 1960. The cafe had four tables and some diner-style seating. At first the cafe only served breakfast and lunch, eggs, coffee … Perfecto loved American food – steaks, eggs, burgers, fries, and hash browns. This what he ate, and this is what they served. Business was going well, so they decided to open for dinner. But dinner service was not an immediate success and Celia wanted to try something new. Perfecto had a friend that was a sort of Mexican food entrepreneur and offered to teach Celia the recipes for some traditional dishes: enchiladas and tacos… back then the Sunset was majority Irish, most of whom had never tasted anything like this before. This very new and fresh Mexican cuisine, which was introduced into the menu around 1963, was an instant hit and there were lines around the block! Some of our customers that come in to eat to this day remember when the lines were out the door and come in and tell us stories of the original Celia’s Diner.
Celia and Perfecto both did the cooking front the beginning. One thing that Celia and Perfecto were legendary for was their generosity and hospitality. I have customers that come into the restaurant, now in their 80s, and recall instances when Celia had offered them a ride home when they had had just a little too much tequila. If someone forgot something at the restaurant, they would deliver it to their house!
What a lot of people do not know is that Perfecto, although not the face of restaurant was the backbone. He ran the kitchen and made sure the restaurant had what it needed to keep humming like a well-tuned machine.
As time progressed, the restaurant grew in popularity. More family members continued to immigrate to San Francisco. Celia and Perfecto would lend them money and teach them the business and these family members would form partnerships to open more Celia’s. At one point there were over 20 Celia’s in the Bay Area. Today there are 13. In the end, their hard work and generosity has yielded a beautiful family and business.
Andrea: What is your personal history with Celia’s by the Beach? What inspired you to go into the family business?
Phil: My brother Sal and I have been going to #1 (that’s how we refer to the restaurants, #1 being Celia’s by the Beach) since, well, since we were born. Customers come up to me and tell me they used to carry me in their arms when I was a baby! As we sat in the booths as little kids, we used to dream together about the improvements we would make to the restaurant, crazy recipe ideas and that we would live together and manage restaurants together. You know, manifest destiny. I was presented with a few opportunities after college; but growing up and working the restaurants my whole life, and the sense of pride and responsibility I felt towards the family business… all of this led me to the business.
Andrea: Mexican food in the US has really changed over the years, from a niche market to something more mainstream. What changes did you make when you took over?
Phil: It’s true, Mexican food has expanded and continues to be one of the fastest growing types of cuisine, especially in the Bay area. We were very weary of making major changes to the menu and so were our customers. When we made minor changes, many customers would confide that they feared that their beloved Celia’s wouldn’t be the same. You see, we built our business on a very simple concept: treat your customers and employees like family. Nowadays, many restaurateurs act as if good service is a favor the staff is doing for their customers.
Of course we run a restaurant and the food is our revenue generator, but it has always been more than food for our family. It’s about sharing our culture. It’s about sharing that one moment in the day with our customers when they can relax and enjoy some good food and drink. We offer Mexican comfort food and mighty good margaritas – we are not trying to stray from that.
As far as food goes, over the years a lot of the Celia’s have drifted away from our original philosophy. Since my brother and I took the reins, we have been focused on getting back to basics. We referenced our Grandmother’s original recipes and tweaked a lot of the sauces to bring out her flavors.
We are continually looking for more quality, sustainable and local ingredients to integrate into the menu. It’s a tricky subject really; our customers are very accustomed to our taste and price points. There is the risk that too much change could turn off a lot of our old customers. It’s all about finding that balance.
Andrea: Your little neighborhood by the beach there is pretty hip… has it changed much over the years? Is your clientele mostly local?
Phil: It sure is. Having worked at #1 for over a decade and eating there my whole life, it is incredible to see the change in the hood. Many young families, energetic and artistic people have made the Beach their home. The neighborhood is going through a major renaissance. A majority of our customers are locals. But with popular restaurateurs like Thang Long and Outerlands, we draw customers from all over the Bay Area.
Andrea: What is your favorite dish from your menu? And your favorite cocktail?
Phil: My favorite traditional dish would be the #6, Two Enchiladas Verde. Favorite burrito is the Expresso Burrito. Did you know Perfecto invented the wet burrito back in the 60s? And I love fajitas, I eat them every day – healthy and delicious.
Andrea: I know you have a family night and Taco Tuesdays. Can you tell us about these and other specials you run?
Phil: Taco Tuesday is a great time for all. The thing I love about Taco Tuesday is that we have customers from every generation showing up to eat and drink: $1 tacos, $2 Coronas, $4 Margaritas $5, Tequila specials, and $5 Mexican Hand-stands (Corona in a Margarita). The concept behind family night defines family in the broadest of terms, just like it did for Celia and Perfecto. Family went well beyond blood relatives for them and the legacy of this can still be seen today from as various people come up to us and share their stories about my grandparents.
Familia Wednesdays is an opportunity for families and groups of friends to come in to enjoy some good food and drink specials. Our staff is trained to work with children, for good reason too, the restaurant looks like a playground at times! One of the rewarding aspects of working at Celia’s is seeing families grow over time. I have customers come in who have told me that Celia’s is the first place they tasted Mexican food and now they take their children in for the same experience. It is a time for friends to come in and get over “Hump Day.” Kids eat free; there are $7 combo appetizers and $19 margarita pitchers.
Andrea: What plans do you have for the future? Are you looking at other opportunities in the restaurant business and if so, how will they differ from Celia’s?
Phil: We have a lot of plans for the future. Live music, salsa night (dancing and dip), food and drink specials. We are really pushing for Saturday and Sunday brunch. Sal and I have been brainstorming with a concept for a new restaurant – brief menu focusing on seasonal and regional Mexican cuisines with a large spirit selection.
Tuesday 4:30–10:00 pm
Wednesday 4:30–9:00 pm
Thursday 4:30–10:00 pm
Friday 4:30–10:00 pm
Saturday 4:30–10:00 pm
Sunday 4:30–9:00 pm