Local eatery says goodbye

Old Town Restaurant closes its doors
By: Nathan Donato-Weinstein The Press-Tribune
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Boyd Whitman, Ray Kinney and Kurt Schmidt hardly skipped a beat when asked what to order at Old Town Restaurant: Try the chile relleno, they advised. And they should know. The trio of SureWest employees has been coming to the restaurant, at 119 Church St., for nearly three decades. Last week around lunchtime, they showed up one final time to get their fill of the place. The restaurant closed at 7 p.m. Friday. It was time for Isabel Bravo, the 73-year-old owner, to retire. Her husband of 45 years is 83 and in the hospital. And she’s ready to move on; a sale of the building is pending. “I’m not going to miss the job itself, it’s the people that have become my friends,” she said one day by phone last week. The restaurant got its start almost 28 years ago, when Bravo leased a pizza business at the site. She and then-chef Oscar Mezza quickly began preparing the food she was raised on – or “Mexican food like Mama used to do,” she recalled in an interview last Tuesday. Before long, it grew a following and took its place next to Roseville’s other landmark family-owned Mexican restaurants: Eva’s, on Vernon Street, and Carmelita’s, on Riverside Avenue. “What made us a success is I fix food according to the old-fashioned way,” she said. “There wasn’t anything out of the freezer.” “It’s simply good food – nothing too fancy,” Kinney said inside the dimly lit restaurant on Friday, which looks much like it did when it opened in the early 1980s. Signs throughout the restaurant identified items that were for sale: beer signs, lighting, other mementos. There was also a veritable treasure trove from Roseville’s past: old Chamber of Commerce walking guides, plans for buildings that have come and gone, newspaper clippings and photo collages. “It will be sorely missed,” said Jack Wallace, another longtime customer who came to lunch on Friday. (He ordered a tostada; wife Marge got – what else? – the relleno.) “A big piece of Old Town is going away.” Isabel Bravo has been an integral part of that Old Town for decades. Long before the district’s current buzz – upscale new bars, lofts, and restaurants are making it hip again, following millions of dollars in city reinvestment funds – she was Old Town’s promoter-in-chief. The Strawberry Festival – before it moved to the Placer County Fairgrounds – was her idea to draw people into the district’s streets. “She was a big proponent of Old Town in trying to get upgrades here,” Wallace, a longtime community activist, said. After retirement, Bravo doesn’t plan to sit around. “I want to study carpentry,” she said. “Something where I can learn how to use heavy table saws. I love working with wood but I don’t want arts and crafts stuff.” Bravo, who until Friday still arrived at the restaurant at 8 a.m. to make all the salsa by hand – including the so-called “killer salsa” (“make sure you have water by you,” said one patron) – was asked if she wouldn’t mind sharing a few recipes. “I don’t have recipes,” she said. “I’ve been giving classes. I’ve had people come over early in the morning to learn how to make Mexican food. But I have none written down.” Soon, the restaurant’s simple yet confident sign, “Best Mexican food in town,” will be just another memory, and like Bravo’s chile rellenos, a part of Roseville’s history.