When Phoenix chef Silvana Salcido Esparza closed Barrio Café Gran Reserva recently, the Valley lost not only a beloved restaurant, but also a fascinating slice of local arts and culture.
Esparza did a heartfelt virtual tour of the space on Saturday, April 18, explaining that she’d decided to close “due to zero funding and coronavirus.” She posted the video on her Facebook page, so people could see her take a final walk through the restaurant, from the dining room to a pair of bathrooms.
The chef’s eyes welled up with tears as she stood inside a tiny bathroom with walls completely covered by Angel Diaz artworks done in striking black, white, and gray tones. His interior mural references the Mexican Revolution. “When I got to that art, it just hit me,” she says.
“That room is all about people who were revolutionaries fighting with Pancho Villa,” Esparza explains. “I’m from a place where he’s beloved."
But there was more to it that day because Esparza was also struck in that moment by how much oppression she’s experienced making her way as a chef. The news that bigger restaurants were getting financial help to deal with COVID-19 as she was shuttering Barrio Café Gran Reserva for good didn’t help.
In 2016, she’d commissioned several artists to create work for the intimate restaurant. Local artists made curtains for the space and created stunning gold lettering on the tall windows that overlooked the bustling arts scene during First and Third Friday Grand Avenue art walks.
Tato Caraveo is one of several artists whose works were featured at Barrio Café Gran Reserva. He’s a prolific muralist whose surrealistic art dots the downtown Phoenix landscape, including the Arizona Opera building. Entering Barrio Café Gran Reserva, diners saw Caraveo's paintings of two women — one a mariachi singer, another holding a guitar. "She's been pretty amazing at just keeping all these artists working," he says.
Thomas “Breeze” Marcus, whose elaborate line work references Tohono O’odham basketry, painted the kitchen at Barrio Café Gran Reserva. Lalo Cota painted a small passageway using his iconic style, which includes skeleton figures and large, colorful roses. Pablo Luna painted bright imagery inside another bathroom.
Esparza has already commissioned Caraveo to paint the bar area for Barrio Café on 16th Street, where they met up recently to discuss design ideas. Caraveo painted a new mural on the back of that building earlier this year, incorporating a soft vibe and orange color the chef hopes to incorporate inside the space as well.
She’s hoping public health conditions will make it possible to open the restaurant in June, which will be 18 years after she launched Barrio Café. She’s calling the space Barrio Café 2.0 to signal the fact that she’s changed through the years, like the community that surrounds her.
In the meantime, Esparza is operating a community kitchen to help feed people who’ve taken a financial hit due to COVID-19, as well as local nurses. She learned on April 22, that she’d received a Paycheck Protection Program loan for just over $236,000, which will help her pay employees to stay home during the temporary Barrio Café closure.
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Years ago, Esparza worked with local artists to launch an ongoing mural project called Calle 16, which includes murals by renowned artists from El Moises to El Mac. Their work made that area one of the city’s top mural art destinations. Even now, she’s got new murals up on the wooden panels that cover the front of the building.
Still, the murals inside Barrio Café Gran Reserva had a singular charm, and added a beautiful twist to the Grand Avenue neighborhood whose creatives take pride in funky art and historic preservation.
Beatrice Moore, a Phoenix artist who owns the Bragg’s Pie Factory building that housed Barrio Café Gran Reserva, says she’s planning to leave the space vacant for a while, which means the murals will live on for at least a time. “I almost want to preserve it as it is,” Moore says. “Chef Silvana left some big shoes to fill.”