Work as a server at Warner Bros. Antonio Gutierrez was a commissioner in the 1960s and regularly waited tables for Hollywood stars.
Frank Sinatra. Jane Fonda. Francis Ford Coppola. Barbra Streisand. And Jack Warner, the head of the Burbank studio.
Gutierrez had emigrated from Mexico a decade earlier with the dream of opening his own restaurant. When given the opportunity, he asked Warner for advice on the matter.
“Don’t go into the restaurant industry!” The studio boss told him, one of Gutierrez’s daughters recalled. “You won’t make any money!”
Gutierrez was undeterred: He opened Antonio’s on Melrose Avenue in 1970. The Mexican joint soon became a gathering place for some of the entertainers Gutierrez had once served — and the walls were a testament to that patronage, filled nearly to the ceiling with framed photos of him as the restaurateur alongside the likes of Sinatra and Coppola.
But people didn’t just come to Antonio because of a possible celebrity sighting. From the start, in an LA awash with sloppy jars of refried beans and orange cheese from the Cal-Mex combo plate playbook, Antonio offered dishes rarely found on Southland menus – pollo and pipian, Chiles and Nogada oath huachinango a la Veracruzana.
“Until the new wave of establishments like Border Grill and Tamayo, Antonio’s was the leading – virtually only – Mexican eatery to systematically break out of the narrow world of enchiladas and tamales,” said a 1988 Times review of one comparatively short-lived book The restaurant’s location in Santa Monica was given.
Gutierrez, who exited Melrose’s main business in 2022, died at home in Los Angeles in September. 15 years after battling Parkinson’s disease, said daughter Irma Rodriguez. He was 85.
His death and the quiet closure of Antonio’s are a reminder of what has been lost amid a spate of restaurant closures sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors. More than 65 notable LA establishments closed in 2023.
Gutierrez’s family chose not to make his death public last fall, choosing to grieve privately, Rodriguez said. However, she now believes that “many people would like to know her father’s story.”
“He was happiest when he was taking care of the people in the restaurant,” she said. “That was his greatest joy in life because it was his dream.”
Antonio Lopez Gutierrez was born in Monterrey, Mexico in October. 25, 1937. One of 10 children, he worked as a teenager at a local newspaper – where he operated and later managed the printing press, Rodriguez said. After about three years, she said, Gutierrez saved enough money to leave General Terán, a Community just outside of Monterrey, for the USA
It was the 1950s and postwar LA was booming. Gutierrez and his wife Yolanda, whom he married around 1960, settled here and, in addition to Rodriguez, had four other children: Rebecca, Manuel, Andrea and Antonio Jr., the last of whom died in a car accident in 1990.
Gutierrez learned English while working in restaurants and as a busboy, dishwasher and waiter, said daughter Rebecca Gutierrez. His stops included the famous Wilshire Boulevard hangout, Perino’s.
But even after he secured his dream job at Warner Bros. As commissioner in the 1960s, Gutierrez did not let up. After working each day on the studio lot, he came home, ate something, took a nap and headed to his second job at Chianti Ristorante, a venerable Italian eatery in Melrose. His time in Chianti was an education, Rebecca said.
“He learned a lot — he learned about wines and how to make a Caesar salad,” she said. “And he learned a lot by talking to people.”
Antonio’s opened in 1970 after brief coverage in the Times and the Los Angeles Evening Citizen News, the latter praising the establishment as “warm and extremely intimate, with deep leather booths and authentic Mexican paintings.”
Gutierrez, wearing a carefully trimmed mustache, moved with grace through a restaurant of carved wood, painted tiles and curved archways. Early on she wore a colorful bolero vest and a large tie with a bow. He later changed to a more conventional suit and tie at Rodriguez’s urging.
Times columnist Gustavo Arellano, author of “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America,” said menu items like pollo and pipian expressed Gutierrez’s pride – and confidence.
“If you open a Mexican restaurant in Melrose in the 1970s, you’re essentially facing the past and future of Mexican food in Los Angeles,” he said. “You know you have to include the combination plates that were still prevalent in Mexican restaurants back then. But you also see that the Angeleno palate is craving more “authentic” flavors. The fact that he does pipian “Shows that he takes so much pride in his food and that he knows his Westside audience will love it.”
Although Gutierrez was a trailblazer, he still catered to the old-school American palate with comforting combination dishes like Yolanda’s Special, which included an enchilada, a chili relleno and a taco.
By the late 1980s, other Mexican restaurants had caught up with Antonio’s. Places like La Serenata de Garibaldi helped expand Angelenos’ ideas about Mexican cuisine. Nevertheless, the customers stayed with Antonio.
But the pandemic and Gutierrez’s deteriorating health proved insurmountable challenges. The social justice protests of May and June 2020, which followed LA County’s reopening of restaurants for in-person dining just days earlier, rocked the section of Melrose that included Antonio’s. The chaos caused significant property damage. Things got tricky with Antonio, said Rodriguez, who worked there for a long time.
“My husband and son guarded the restaurant for two days until the armed guards came,” said Rodriguez, whose husband Guillermo ran the restaurant with her. “It was crazy.”
She said the pandemic made it “very difficult to continue towards the end.” And she said: “The streets changed – things got a bit chaotic on Melrose.”
Antonio closed in January 2022 without much fanfare. But an article in the Beverly Press said that with the closure, LA not only lost a good Mexican restaurant, but also “lost some of its friendliness.”
And that was entrusted by Gutierrez. Even though he had slowed down in the 2010s, he could still muster his trademark charm – and drop a few names.
In a 2013 video posted to YouTube, Gutierrez prepared a New York strip steak “the way Mr. Sinatra used to like it,” and pollo almendrado “Barbara Sinatra style.”
“Much better than a taco, any time!” Gutierrez said of the chicken in almond sauce. “But don’t discriminate against tacos, that’s what we’re famous for too. Barbara likes my tacos too.”