Roseann Joseph-Ciani swung El Patio’s door open at 11 a.m. last Friday, greeting the day’s first customers with a warm familiarity. Within 15 minutes, guests occupied every table at the small restaurant.
Her brother, David Joseph, chatted with the regulars, who talked back and forth between tables. The scene had the feeling of a family reunion — fitting for a restaurant run by members of the Joseph family for the past 60 years.
Paul Joseph opened El Patio in January 1954. Joseph got his start in the restaurant business at P.J. Café. The restaurant sat adjacent to his boyhood home, where he grew up with 13 brothers and sisters on the lot now occupied by the Four Seasons Hotel.
He moved uptown to run the Schoonerville, a restaurant where you could get a porterhouse for $1.50, in the early 1950s. After a couple of years, he took over ownership of the restaurant and changed the name to El Patio.
Despite his Lebanese heritage, Joseph created a menu comprised of dishes such as enchiladas and tacos, making El Patio one of the few Tex-Mex restaurants in town. Some of Schoonerville’s burgers and steaks stayed on the initial menu, but they eventually faded away. The menu has changed little since.
In the early years the restaurant served as a late-night home to rambunctious college students. El Patio would remain quiet through much of the day, with activity picking up about 11 p.m. After the college girls headed back to their dormitories to make curfew, the drunken fraternity boys would descend on El Patio.
Fights might spill into the parking lot, with a server or two sometimes entering the fray, but eventually tempers would settle. The action would return to the dining room, where Paul Joseph presided with a measured authority grounded in sympathy and compassion. Days later, the hangovers subsided and the guilt still lingering, the frat boys would return to El Patio to apologize to its understanding patriarch.
“Dad was a father for all these college kids,” David Joseph said. “They’d come back in and life would be great like nothing ever happened.”
Many of those ne’er-do-well college boys became doctors, lawyers and captains of industry. The names are withheld here to protect the innocent, but I’m sure they’d happily own up to their youthful indiscretions.
The proliferation of cheap college students led Paul Joseph to institute one of El Patio’s decades-long trademarks. The students would come in and eat free tortilla chips and salsa, spending hardly any money and making a mess. So Paul Joseph started putting saltines on the table to control costs. The packages of crackers (which are actually quite good with salsa) remained an El Patio fixture until the mid-’90s, when David Joseph’s saltines vendor enacted an exorbitant price increase. The tortilla chips returned, but you can still get saltines if you ask for them.
The seven-days-a-week, late-night activity continued until the early ’70s. It was about that time a young David Joseph, the baby in a family of six kids, formed his first memories at the restaurant. By the age of 11 he was picking up summer shifts. He’s been there for the 39 years since.
During the ’70s and ’80s, El Patio became a meeting place for a loyal crew of regulars. That group included legendary University of Texas Longhorns coach Darrell Royal, who would eat at the restaurant about once a week. Coach’s picture adorns the wood-paneled walls of the restaurant with the red-and-white checkerboard floor, along with other Longhorn notables and famous faces such as Lady Bird Johnson and the great Walter Cronkite (the only celebrity by whom David Joseph was ever star-struck).
“God bless Coach. He was one in a trillion,” David Joseph said. “He never turned down an autograph, never turned down a picture. If he was in mid-stroke of a bite, he would stop and give an autograph.”
Coach Royal regularly brought in Longhorn greats such as Roosevelt Leaks, Jerry Gray and Earl Campbell. The Joseph family formed a friendship with the Tyler Rose, even being invited to Campbell’s wedding. Bringing things full circle last week, David Joseph read that former Longhorn and El Patio customer Les Koenning had been named to Charlie Strong’s coaching staff. Ten minutes later the new wide receivers coach walked into the restaurant, just like old times.
The big names and famous faces may turn the most heads at El Patio, but the restaurant has been equally built by the support of Austin residents who don’t make headlines.
“I could have Walter Cronkite sitting right next to a construction worker, and however I treat Walter Cronkite is how I’m going to treat the construction worker,” David Joseph said.
The restaurant has some customers that date back to PJ Café, with some families staking claim to six generations of El Patio faithful. David Joseph points to his dad’s graciousness and humility as the driving forces in creating the sense of family at the restaurant.
That familial bond extends to El Patio’s employees, several of whom have worked at the restaurant for more than 30 years. El Patio cook Daniel Santana has worked at the restaurant for 38 years, and his uncle, Benny Rodriguez, worked at the restaurant for 48 years. The new guy showed up about six years ago.
Paul Joseph died in 1995, working until just a few days before his death. More than 1,000 people attended the funeral service at St. Louis Catholic Church, with lines stretching almost to the street. David Joseph has run the restaurant ever since with his mother, Mary Ann, and sisters Michelle Joseph, Renne Joseph-Downer and Roseann Joseph-Ciani.
“After dad died, I realized I needed to fill his shoes,” David Joseph said. “Well, there’s no such thing. You can never fill somebody else’s shoes. You gotta make your own shoes. Nobody will ever reproduce what my dad did.”
As they continue the legacy their father started 60 years ago, the Joseph siblings look to the example set by both of their parents.
“They were all about showing love, being respectful, being gracious, and literally treating everyone as though they are family,” Roseann Joseph-Ciani said.
2938 Guadalupe St. 512-476-5955, ElPatioAustin.com
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Saturday.