Jose Alonso had mixed emotions Tuesday night.
The El Torito Grill head chef was happy to still have a job, but sad to see that a big part of his life was shutting down, as it was the Newport Beach location's last day of operation after 26 years at the location.
Alonso started working at the El Torito at Fashion Island 23 years ago, when he cleaned the restaurant. Two weeks after he was hired, he said he was promoted to prepare for the cooks. After three years of prep, he moved to a spot on the line, where he worked for another three years until he became the second chef. Five years later, he became head chef.
"I love this place," said Alonso, who will transfer to the El Torito in Brea. "I feel very bad. I started here. I moved to work at another place, but this is my heart. I started here. It's not fair, but it's a part of life and nothing I can do."
Real Mex, which owns El Torito, could not come to terms with the Irvine Co. and shut down with one last party, a festive Taco Tuesday night, put on by Diamond Productions and Stefano Albano, the Real Mex vice president of operations.
The Irvine Co. declined to reveal lease details, but released a statement from spokeswoman Erin Freeman.
"El Torito Grill's lease is expiring," she said in the prepared statement. "We are taking the opportunity to explore redevelopment of the site, including potential retail or dining. We are in the early stages of evaluating our options and do not have anything to announce at this time. For those who enjoy El Torito Grill, there is another location a few miles away in Irvine near John Wayne Airport."
Albano, also vice president of the Newport Beach Restaurant Assn., said Newport Beach has been good to El Torito and that there have been talks of a reopening elsewhere in the city.
"It's sad because this is the first [El Torito Grill] that we opened," Albano said, referring to the restaurant that has Latin cuisine and more food as opposed to the regular El Torito. "A lot of great memories, that's why all these people are here tonight. But I'm looking forward to opening another one in Newport Beach soon … It's been amazing the support we received that they didn't want us to close. But we'll be back soon."
Two hundred people attended the party on the patio that featured live music and dancing. Inside the restaurant, at the bar, the place was packed.
Larry Cano, the founder of the El Torito chain, attended, as did Orange County Treasurer Shari Freidenrich. Peggy Tanous, a former member of"The Real Housewives of Orange County,"showed up with her husband, Micah. Kirk Dawson of Fletcher Jones Motorcars and John McMonigle, a renowned real estate agent, were among others in attendance.
Taco Tuesday seemed a fitting close, as that was one of the promotional nights that made the restaurant so popular.
Back in the early 1990s, Steele Platt remembers when the restaurant was the place to be for the $1 tacos and drink specials.
Platt, who lives in Crystal Cove, knows the restaurant business well. He was the founder and chairman of Yard House, which was recently bought by Darden Restaurants Inc. for a reported $585 million.
"Everything has a lifespan," Platt said with a bottle of Corona in his hand. "It's hard for something to stick around. This was a great place with great atmosphere. A lot of people would come for the Taco Tuesday."