Her friends told her she was crazy. That she would never make it. Why would Nilda de la Llata, an accomplished restaurant manager with an eagle eye for detail and a keen business mind, open her first restaurant on South Congress?
It was the mid-1990s, before Austin’s SoCo district became the mecca of bohemian chic it is today. Back then the street was more ignored than revered, littered with dilapidated store fronts and vagabonds. But de la Llata saw potential in a rundown space in front of a seedy motel. She thanked her friends for their advice – then signed the lease.
“I knew I could make it happen,” says the confident and fast-talking de la Llata. “I knew we could create a place people would want to come to.”
Together with business partners Anna Salinas and Lynn Tiemann, de la Llata built the restaurant El Sol y La Luna into a successful business centered around authentic interior Mexican dishes and a welcoming atmosphere. Now, with El Sol y la Luna’s recent move to E. Sixth Street, she hopes to be part of the transformation of another landmark Austin thorough fare.
Rooted in Restaurant Culture
Twenty years ago Mexican native de la Llata came to Austin looking for a job. Any job. She had worked in the import/export business near the border in Brownsville, making good money bringing in immense containers of goods shipped from the Far East to sell in Mexico. But the devaluation of the peso in the mid-1980s decimated commerce tied to Mexico and companies across the Rio Grande Valley collapsed.
Faced with few prospects, de la Llata decided to take the advice of her brother, a Spanish literature professor in Austin, and move to the Capital City. She quickly learned the job market here wasn’t much better, particularly for someone with skills limited to trade. A friend who knew the owners of the popular downtown taqueria Las Manitas got her an interview for a waitress position.
“I had never waited tables before in my life. And of course that’s what they told me ‘You’ve never done this before, why should we give you a job?’ I said ‘I’m a fast learner. And I know I can do this.’”
She got the job and quickly picked up the ins and outs of restaurant operations, everything from washing dishes to serving customers with a ready smile. De la Llata worked at Las Manitas for five years, eventually becoming the restaurant’s manager, and she credits owners Lydia and Cynthia Perez for teaching her much of what she knows about the business.
“They showed me a great deal and they remain great friends,” she says of the sisters who closed their restaurant last year.
After Las Manitas, de la Llata moved on to a management position with another local restaurant before deciding it was time to strike out with her own concept.
“This business is hard work and I don’t mind that,” de la Llata says. “But when you work for others, you’re not seeing as much of the benefit from your hard work. So I had this opportunity to better my life by starting a restaurant.”
She asked two friends, Salinas an artist and Tiemann an attorney, if they would be her partners in a new restaurant. It was a big risk, but both Salinas and Tiemann knew de la Llata was a hard worker. If anyone could make a restaurant a success, it was she.
Tiemann had first met de la Llata when the latter was working at Las Manitas. “She was so vivacious, had so much energy and was a real go-getter,” says Tiemann, who had been contemplating getting into the restaurant business. “It made absolute sense to partner with someone who had her talent and background.”
The restaurant opened in 1995, serving up fresh interior Mexican dishes at reasonable prices. “We became very popular very quickly,” says de la Llata. “People liked what we were doing. It was a laid back place with lots of regulars, but also a place to see and be seen.”
As other entrepreneurs took hold of properties along South Congress, Austin’s famed corridor got a gradual makeover. Businesses like Jo’s Coffee and Hotel San Jose helped propel SoCo from dangerously derelict to stylishly funky.
For El Sol, the South Congress cleanup came with a price. A year ago, when the time came for the restaurant to renew its lease, the landlord increased the rent significantly. The business partners decided it didn’t make good financial sense to stay, so the search began for a new home.
De la Llata called on her friend Diana Zuniga, a local commercial real estate broker, to help with the search. She wanted to be on the north side of the river and had heard that she might be able to apply for a city loan if she located downtown.
Through the decades, many of the diverse businesses that once resided along the historic stretch of E. Sixth Street between Congress Avenue and I-35 had been replaced by bars and nightclubs – making the corridor a primarily nighttime destination. But several years ago the Downtown Austin Alliance, the nonprofit Sixth Street Austin and other entities launched an effort to repurpose Sixth as a multifaceted entertainment district. The coalition has worked with the city to bring businesses and organizations like the Alamo Ritz movie theater and the Austin Visitor’s Center to Sixth. A family-oriented restaurant like El Sol fit right in with those plans.
Yet many of the spaces de la Llata and Zuniga looked at were horribly run down and couldn’t provide El Sol with room for expansion. Eventually they came across a spot on the corner of Sixth and Red River Street.
“It was so dark,” de la Llata recalls. “It had been a club or a lounge and all of the walls were painted black; it wasn’t very nice.” Still, just as she had with the original South Congress location, de la Llata saw the potential. Finally, she could have space for a real dance floor and a stage to host Austin musicians. A bigger kitchen would mean more opportunities for the menu. And she could envision a full, brightly-lit bar as a centerpiece.
The question remained: could de la Llata turn a former lounge surrounded by bars and clubs in the heart of Sixth Street into a viable restaurant? As she weighed her options, she heard about another restaurateur, Chef Shawn Cirkiel who had recently opened his steak and seafood concept Parkside just a few blocks down. Cirkiel quickly won acclaim for his inventive dishes, as well as his bold decision to set up shop on Sixth.
“I am in awe of that young man,” says de la Llata. “I thought to myself: he did it, and I’m going to be right behind him.”
With help from a $250,000 city loan, de la Llata and her partners made their move. After months of painstaking renovations, the new El Sol opened in March. The space is about twice the size of the original with more seating and that full bar – complete with 21 brands of tequila – that she had hoped for. The menu was also expanded to include more seafood dishes like shrimp cocktail and ceviche. And, just as de la Llata planned it, the new El Sol is a unique combination of art, music and food.
“The relocation allowed us to take El Sol to the next level,” says Tiemann. “We simply didn’t have adequate space to do all the things that we can now. The potential is so much greater.”
Molly Alexander, Associate Director of the Downtown Austin Alliance, says El Sol’s concept and de la Llata’s vision “are a critical and perfect fit for E. Sixth Street. The goal is to create a vibrant, seven-day-a-week, 18-hour-a-day entertainment district that is uniquely Austin. Nilda sees the potential and that is why she located on a key corner, opened for breakfast lunch and dinner and added a stage for live music.”
Alexander says it takes brave pioneers like de la Llata to get the ball rolling. Now that El Sol and Alamo have opened, other locally-owned businesses are looking at Sixth Street in a whole new light and considering their own relocation, she says.
“I really believe we have amazing potential here,” says de la Llata, sitting at a table inside the new restaurant. “We have the ability to bring something beautiful to Sixth Street. To bring families back here. …I sometimes see some of that same energy that we once had on South Congress. It’s going to come back. It will take time and we need to be patient. But I believe that what I did down there, I’m going to do again on Sixth Street.”
With its abundance of nightclubs and sidewalk food vendors, Sixth Street is clearly a different ballgame from South Congress. El Sol is struggling against the common perception that the only thing that happens around its new address is drinking and loud music. To make the relocated restaurant a success, de la Llata is working tirelessly to alter that idea and bring in diners, old and new. She’s promoting the restaurant by hosting meetings for many organizations and helping cater big events. The space was booked during this year’s graduation season and was packed to the gills for a recent Latin dance party. And de la Llata is talking to the Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau about how to draw more out-of-towners through the door.
“She’s absolutely working her bones off to make sure El Sol is successful,” says Tiemann. And with de la Llata at the helm, her business partner is confident El Sol will continue to be an Austin institution. “She’s established herself as a restaurateur and she’s earned her place on Sixth Street.”
Just as El Sol is facing the trials of its relocation, it’s also coping with ever-growing competition from other restaurants. “Certainly there’s a great deal of competitiveness in the business right now,” says de la Llata. “That means you have to work that much harder to maintain those relationships, making sure everyone who walks in the door is greeted and feels special. You can never be complacent. You just won’t make it.”
None of this is easy and de la Llata is candid that sales could be better. Higher prices for food and the monthly payments on her loan mean there’s little room for profit. And of course there are the 30 employees who count on the restaurant for their own livelihood. But she’s adamant that her background and her team’s dedication to El Sol will prevail.
De la Llata says she learned the restaurant business the best way: from the ground up. “I’m a business person, probably by birth,” she adds. “It’s something you either have or you don’t. You need the right personality. The ability to see everything, be alert, make the right decisions. That’s what separates a good restaurant owner or manager from the rest.”
As she works to reestablish El Sol, de la Llata is also busy with a new relationship. She met her girlfriend Blanca Alvarado a couple years ago through Las Comadres, a networking group for professional Latina women. The two became friends and started running together, sharing their love for sports and taking their time getting to know one another. De la Llata and Alvarado, a professor at Austin Community College, began dating last fall.
“We complement each other tremendously,” says de la Llata. “I’m very high energy, she’s very calm. She’s incredibly supportive and has become such a big part of my life. I’m very grateful to have found her.”
De la Llata’s excitement is palpable. She runs El Sol like a ship’s captain navigating a difficult sea. Always with a smile, she is quick to direct staff to a table that needs attention, perpetually aware of what’s happening in every corner of her restaurant. It’s a wonder how her employees are able to keep up.
“What excites me most is the everyday dealing with people,” she says. “I’m a people person and I love to see people coming in the door. I make friends with my customers and they appreciate that kind of attention.”
As we chat, some passersby stop outside the restaurant and chat over the menu, seeming to consider whether they’re in the mood for Mexican fare. She calls to one of her hostesses in Spanish: “Go get those people in here.” Pretty soon the whole bar is filled and cocktails are flying.
“You see that?” she says, smiling toward the bar. It’s hard for someone to imagine an El Sol y La Luna without Nilda de la Llata.
But while committed to reestablishing the restaurant’s place in Austin dining, de la Llata can also see a time in the not-too-distant future when she will be able to relax.
“I think maybe in five years or so I will be able to leave this to someone else,” she says. “I work six days a week now. Increasingly I’m trying to make more time for myself, to at least exercise and enjoy spending time with Blanca.”
She looks forward to when she’ll be able to truly take pleasure in the fruits of her labor, traveling and relaxing. “I’ve put a lot into this business, but I don’t know that I want to still be doing this years and years in the future.”
For now though, it’s long days manning the wheel. Asked if the challenge of having to start over bothers her, de la Llata shrugs it off. “We’re still the same El Sol that people love, the same beautiful restaurant,” she says, “even better. That’s the message we want to get out to people.”