Lafayette, CA

El Charro's magic remains mysterious

Clay Kallam

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The new El Charro tries to make it work in Walnut Creek.Clay Kallam

There’s more to a restaurant than the food and service.

At first glance, in these foodie times, that seems almost heretical. “What else is there?” the connoisseur asks. “If a spot doesn’t have both, why would anyone go there?”

But then think again. Aren’t there places you like to go – maybe even love to go – where the food is just OK and the service is sometimes spotty? But you still go back. Again and again.

The old El Charro in Lafayette was one of those places. It helped if you grew up in the area, as I did, and you were familiar with the low ceilings, cramped bar and well, not-too-special food. Yes, the margaritas were good, the tortilla chips crispy and the blue cheese butter a one-of-a-kind. But tasty margaritas aren’t hard to find, and good chips even easier.

But somehow, El Charro worked. You couldn’t get a table at the peak dinner rush because people just wanted to be there. The enchiladas? Fine. The chile relleno? Not really chile relleno. The tacos? Good enough. But the overall experience, the sense that everyone fit, everyone belonged and a fun night out was about to begin? A winner every time.

And even in affluent Lamorinda, where one might expect the clientele to demand a little more, El Charro’s charm overcame all obstacles. Those greasy refried beans? Gotta love ‘em. Takeout burritos? Wrap ‘em up.

But of course time caught up to that rickety old building on Mt. Diablo Boulevard and that dangerous maze of a parking lot. I don’t know, but it didn’t seem to me that much had been done to it since it opened in 1947 – after all, it looked pretty much the same, and the décor (such as it was) never varied. So when El Charro abruptly closed for good on Jan. 1, 2021, it seemed like an era had ended. It was like a distant relative who everyone loved had died. There was a small hole in the life of Lamorinda.

So when the announcement came that some of El Charro’s recipes would return, in Walnut Creek this time, at a new restaurant to be called El Charro 1947, there were faint glimmers of hope that reincarnation was possible. Blue cheese butter? Sure. Familiar menus? Even better.

Still, there was trepidation. The Walnut Creek site had housed Mexican restaurants before, most recently Maria Maria. But the building was charmless, and the businesses never connected in the way that El Charro and other local favorites do. Could the spirit of El Charro somehow infuse a new space? Could good food and service make up whatever was lacking?

Sadly, the answers are no and no. The new El Charro Mexican Dining, as it’s called, proudly proclaims “Established 1947,” but its resemblance to the Lafayette landmark is zero. It’s just another suburban Mexican restaurant, crowded now because we all hoped the magic would rekindle, but in the long run, survival will be an uphill battle.

After all, Lafayette has its own upscale Mexican spot in the very good Rancho Cantina, and if you want real Mexican food, just take the Monument Avenue exit, turn right and stop at any of the taquerias along the way. On top of that, Walnut Creek is replete with quality restaurants, from its own neighborhood faves, Benvenuti and the Walnut Creek Yacht Club, to tasty newcomers like La Fontaine.

And just pasting a name on a sign doesn’t really mean anything unless there’s some kind of connection, some threads that tie the new to the old. Those threads, that connection, are simply not there at the new El Charro – which is sad for a number of reasons.

It’s sad for the new owners, who tried and failed to revive an institution, and it’s sad for Walnut Creek, which could use a go-to Mexican spot. But most of all it’s sad for all of us who loved the old El Charro, despite its flaws, and returned again and again to sip the margaritas, scarf down the blue-cheese butter and enjoy the experience – an experience that unfortunately the new El Charro can’t come close to replicating.

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Clay Kallam is a lifelong East Bay resident who spent several decades in local journalism -- and still writes for Diablo Magazine (among others). Over the years, he has covered just about every aspect of life in the Bay Area, from rock-and-roll to the arts to political coverage to food to sports. On the food front, he does not claim to be a critic, but rather someone who enjoys a good meal, a well-made drink and a nice red wine. As for sports, he has written for national publications (including Sports Illustrated and Slam) and covers girls' basketball across the nation for MaxPreps. He is a high school coach and a serious fan of the local teams -- and savored every minute of the Giants' and Warriors' championships. He graduated from Acalanes, UC Santa Barbara (ancient history) and Cal (philosophy). He lives in Walnut Creek with his wife Maggi, who takes many of the food photos. He appreciates his readers and is always happy to talk about anything he's written. His food experiences can be found at #dishdining on Instagram, and emails can be sent to claykallam@gmail.com.

Walnut Creek, CA
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