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Pioneering restaurateur behind celebrity hangout Antonio's dies at 85

Working as a server at the Warner Bros. commissary in the 1960s, Antonio Gutierrez routinely waited on the tables of Hollywood heavyweights.

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 a restaurant of his own. So when he got the chance, he asked Warner for advice on the matter.

"Don't go into the restaurant business!" 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 spot soon became a hangout for some of the entertainers Gutierrez had once waited on — and its walls were a testament to that patronage, filled nearly to the ceiling with framed photographs of the restaurateur alongside the likes of Sinatra and Coppola.

Read more: 2 Cheers for 2nd Antonio's

But people didn't just come to Antonio's for a potential celebrity sighting. From the beginning, in an L.A. awash in gloppy spectacles of refried beans and orange cheese from the Cal-Mex combo-plate playbook, Antonio's offered items rarely seen on Southland menus — pollo en pipian, chiles en nogada and huachinango a la Veracruzana.

Critics noticed.

"Until the new wave of places such as the Border Grill and Tamayo, Antonio’s was the leading — virtually the only — Mexican place that systematically broke out of the narrow world of enchiladas and tamales," a 1988 Times review of a comparatively short-lived Santa Monica location of the restaurant said.

Gutierrez, who closed the Melrose mainstay in 2022, died at home in Los Angeles on Sept. 15 after battling Parkinson's disease, daughter Irma Rodriguez said. He was 85.

His death and the quiet shuttering of Antonio's are a reminder of what has been lost amid a deluge of restaurant closures spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors. More than 65 notable L.A. establishments shut down in 2023.

Gutierrez's family chose to not publicize his death last fall, opting to grieve in private, Rodriguez said. Now, though, she believes "many would like to know" her father's story.

"He was a man most happy when he took care of people in the restaurant," she said. "That was his biggest pleasure in life, because it was his dream."

Antonio Lopez Gutierrez was born in Monterrey, Mexico, on Oct. 25, 1937. One of 10 children, as a teenager he worked at a local newspaper — where he operated the printing press and later managed it, Rodriguez said. After about three years, she said, Gutierrez had saved enough money to leave General Terán, a municipio just outside Monterrey, for the U.S.

It was the 1950s, and post-war L.A. was booming. Settling here, Gutierrez and his wife, Yolanda — whom he had married around 1960 — had four other children besides Rodriguez: Rebecca, Manuel, Andrea, and Antonio Jr., the last of whom died in 1990 in a car accident.

Gutierrez learned English while working in restaurants, serving as a busboy, dishwasher and waiter, said daughter Rebecca Gutierrez. Among his stops was the famed Wilshire Boulevard haunt Perino's.

Read more: 38 classic Mexican restaurants essential to Los Angeles

But even after securing his choice gig at the Warner Bros. commissary in the 1960s, Gutierrez didn't slow down. After working on the studio lot each day, he would come home, have a bite to eat, take a nap and head to his second job at Chianti Ristorante, a venerable Italian place on Melrose. His time at Chianti was an education, Rebecca said.

"He learned a lot — he learned about wines, how to make a Caesar salad," she said. "And he learned a lot from talking to people."

Antonio's opened in 1970 to short notices in The Times and the Los Angeles Evening Citizen News, the latter of which praised the decor as "warm and extremely intimate, with deep leather booths and authentic Mexican paintings."

Read more: The East L.A. chef who rejected the Mexican combo plate and inspired a food revolution

Gutierrez, who sported a meticulously trimmed mustache, moved with grace through a restaurant of carved wood, painted tiles and curved archways. Early on, he wore a colorful bolero vest and a large tie done up in a bow. Later, at the urging of Rodriguez, he switched to a more conventional suit and tie.

Times columnist Gustavo Arellano, author of “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America," said that menu items such as pollo en pipian spoke to Gutierrez's pride — and confidence.

"If you are opening a Mexican restaurant on Melrose in the 1970s, you are basically standing athwart the past and future of Mexican food in Los Angeles," he said. "You know you have to include the combo plates, which still dominated Mexican restaurants at the time. But you also see that the Angeleno palate is demanding more 'authentic' flavors. The fact that he is doing pipian shows he has so much pride in his food, and that he knows his Westside audience will grow to love it."

Indeed, though Gutierrez was a trailblazer, he still catered to the old-school American palate with comforting combo plates, such as Yolanda's special, which featured an enchilada, a chile relleno and a taco.

By the late 1980s, other Mexican restaurants had caught up with Antonio's. Places such as La Serenata de Garibaldi were helping expand Angelenos' conception of Mexican cooking. Still, customers stuck around at Antonio's.

But the pandemic and Gutierrez's failing health proved insurmountable challenges. The social justice protests of May and June 2020, which came on the heels of L.A. County restaurants reopening for in-person dining just days earlier, roiled the stretch of Melrose that included Antonio's. There was significant property damage amid the mayhem. It got dicey at Antonio's, said Rodriguez, who long worked there.

"My husband and son protected the restaurant for two days straight until the armed guards came," said Rodriguez, whose husband, Guillermo, ran the restaurant with her. "It was crazy."

She said that the pandemic made it "very hard toward the end to keep going." And, she said, "the streets were changing — on Melrose, things got a little chaotic."

Antonio's shuttered in January 2022 with little fanfare. But a story in the Beverly Press said that with the closure, L.A. hadn't just lost a good Mexican restaurant — it also "lost a swath of its graciousness, too."

And that emanated from Gutierrez. Even though he'd slowed down by the 2010s, he still could summon his characteristic charm — and drop a few names.

In a video posted to YouTube in 2013, 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, anytime!" Gutierrez said of the chicken in almond sauce. "But don't discriminate against tacos, that's what we are famous for also. Barbara likes my tacos, too."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.