Jesse Morreale and chef/partner Sean Yontz opened El Diablo, the Mexican restaurant that I review for this week's Westword, just shy of a year ago. And the crowds -- which made it nearly impossible to nab a bar seat that first week of business -- continue to pack the place.
"Enough people eat here in one night to fill the Ogden Theater," says Morreale of the 400-seat restaurant, adding that on Cinco de Mayo, El Diablo served between 3,000 and 5,000 guests. That's a hell of a number.
If you're attracting enough people to boast a two-and-a-half hour wait on a Tuesday, you must be doing something right -- and Morreale credits that something to his outlook on running a restaurant, which diverges from that of most restaurateurs he knows. "I really see what I do as being in the entertainment business," he explains. "I run restaurants like I promote concerts. I entertain people, give them a distraction from regular life and give them an opportunity to go have fun."
That's why he designed El Diablo down to the last square inch, drawing on his previous experience at Mezcal and Tambien, among other spots, to set up the floor for ideal traffic flow and then contracting with local artists for the murals, working with a welder to get the metal work just right and choosing each light and each light's placement. "Each little piece has an artist associated with it," he says. "And that makes one big art piece."
But a theme park-like attention to detail, Morreale was careful not to make El Diablo feel like a theme park. "People expected it to be like restaurant Disneyland," he says. "There was this fear that this was going to be my Water World -- and it's not. As a team of people, we took our collective experience and goals and put them into place."
The partners opened the doors in the middle of last August with a menu they'd scrutinized as much as the space. And it was an immediate hit. "The response and support has been tremendous," Morreale says. "People come back and come back and come back."
And that's helped Morreale achieve his overarching goal at the old First Avenue Hotel, which he purchased three years ago. "For a couple of decades at least, this has been a haven for drug addicts, bums and homeless people," he notes. "By generating business in the property, we've solved that problem for sure." They've also employed well over a hundred people and created a community gathering spot that packs in both families with young children and drinking hipsters -- albeit usually at different times of the day and night. (El Diablo is not only open for breakfast, but it sells food until 4 a.m. -- two hours past last call -- at its walk-up window.)
Because of the detailed vision and plan they outlined from the start, Yontz and Morreale haven't had to change much. "We knew what we were doing from the beginning on this one," says Morreale
They have, however, tweaked the menu a bit based on feedback and added a back patio -- and Morreale has big plans for that space. "I've gotten as far as holding a few events and putting in some astroturf," he says. "I have a big ambitious plan for back there, but as good at this as we are, as successful as we've been, it's not been easy. We face challenges of doing business in America, and finding the bandwidth to expand the program is difficult. I put at the forefront taking care of my people, protecting their livelihoods and their family's livelihoods."
And then there are his plans for the hotel, too. "I'm very happy to have been able to get this restaurant open as an anchor to restoring this property," says Morreale. "This was the first phase -- to solve the problem on this corner. We can check that off. Now it's how to move it up and finish. But it will take some time to figure out how to get it done."
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As that work progresses, Morreale doesn't plan to make big changes at El Diablo so much as concentrate on ensuring that every guest's experience is consistent. Because, he says, one thing he's learned in his time in the restaurant business is this: "If it ain't broke..."
And judging from the butts that fill El Diablo's 400 seats, this place definitely ain't broke.