Interview with Camilo Gonzalez: Camilo's California Bistro

Camilo Gonzalez inside his restaurant on Colorado Boulevard

Boulevard Voices is a series of interviews conducted by Occidental College students, assisted by the Keck Grant, for Professor Jan Lin's Los Angeles Field Research course. Each interview highlights an individual who has made an impact in their communities in Northeast L.A.

Subject: Camilo Gonzalez
Organization: Camilo's California Bistro
Boulevard: Colorado Boulevard

Camilo Gonzalez is the owner and head chef of Camilo's California Bistro on Colorado Boulevard. He has run the restaurant with the help of his wife for ten years, and considers himself to be one of the "pioneers" of the vibrant restaurant and retail scene on Colorado. In addition to designing the menu and the décor of the restaurant, Mr. Gonzalez is active in the Eagle Rock community. He follows the activities of the Eagle Rock Association and contributes to Occidental College faculty, students and clubs. He supports movements to beautify the boulevard and to improve the farmer's market to make it more local and food-centric. As a hub of Eagle Rock, Camilo's welcomes members from all parts of the community. After opening 8 restaurants and running eight Camilo's for a decade, Mr. Gonzalez has a unique perspective on the changes, for better or worse, taking place on the boulevards.

When I walk into the restaurant, Mr. Gonzalez is behind the long counter, busily organizing and greeting guests. Some tables are filled with loud chatting pairs and a few children. Art lines the walls, and soft music contrasts with the frantic rushing of the busboys and waiters. Throughout our interview, Mr. Gonzalez excuses himself periodically to take orders, fetch drinks, and check on tables.

So first of all, can you describe your work for me and what it is that you do with the restaurant?

Well, I'm the chef and owner of Camilo's Bistro. I am the one that develops all the new recipes and menu items, and I oversee all the kitchen, and also oversee the front of the house as well. My wife is my partner and she's the one that does all the paperwork, you know, all the public relations and so on.

What's her name?

Amelia Gonzalez. And we've been in this location for ten years -- it's been a successful place since day one. We are one of the pioneers of Colorado Boulevard, one of the first restaurants that offers a kind of California cuisine, upscale food; right after we opened, many people kind of followed the trend, started opening little boutiques, little galleries, restaurants. And it keeps going on and on, so it has been very good for us, for all the businesses, so we own a few restaurants and so on, so it's been good for all of us.

Basically I've been in this industry for 38 years -- this is my seventh restaurant that I own, so it's been quite a long time that I've been doing this, you know. I started back in San Francisco, I went to school out there, and I studied cocktail and restaurant administration, and right before I graduated I opened my first restaurant in San Francisco -- it was an oyster bar and seafood restaurant. And I had it for four years, and from there I moved to Laguna Beach, and then from Laguna -- I was in Laguna for 12 years -- I went to Los Angeles.

What made you want to come and open a restaurant here specifically?

I moved to the area in 1995, and the first thing I saw was this building here, and the lady that had this place, she had a small little coffee place that she sold hot soup and ice cream, on this counter. And on the other side she had sort of an antique store, estate sales and stuff like that, and I always loved the building, and I saw the need to open a nice little place for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And it's only three blocks from my house (laughs).

So what were things like in the neighborhood -- what businesses were around when you first opened the restaurant?

Restaurant-wise, it was fast food -- there was a couple of Mexican restaurants and two Thai restaurants, and then Café Boujolais, which was opening. So we opened right after them, like months. But that was it, you know? And business-wise, it was a lot of places where they sell tires and places where they fix cars.

What have you seen change over time?

Well, the quality of people that lives in this area -- used to be a lot of older people. Now it's more of younger families, professionals. A lot of artists live in the area -- not only in Eagle Rock but also in Highland Park. And Highland Park has been like that for many years anyway. So you see the change -- a lot of young professionals, as I say, they appreciate good things and so on. Just on my block, where I live, was a lot of old Italian families, and now it's mostly young professionals with a lot of little kids, which is nice. A lot of people in the movie industry.

So have you seen your customers change?

Yeah, you know, we get a good mix of everything. I mean if you look around right now, there's some older ladies there is... you know... so we have a really good mix over here. A lot of older people come early and then by 7:30, 8:00 the younger crowd comes out, you know. But definitely, there have been a lot of changes for the good -- it's a good neighborhood.

So how do you see yourself -- apart from the restaurant -- within the Eagle Rock community? What would you say is your role? Are you active in any neighborhood organizations?

We are very active with TERA (The Eagle Rock Assocation), also with the chamber of commerce. And anytime that someone needs something we get involved, especially my wife -- anything that has to do with children or anything like that. In fact, especially with Occidental College, we get so many business from them -- not only from the students and the student's parents when they come and visit, but also the staff, the faculty. We get a lot of them. In fact the faculty, they'll get a ten percent discount as long as they show they're from Occidental. Anytime they ask for help with anything, we always help with gift certificates, or help here or there or whatever. But so yeah it's been like that since we've been living in Eagle Rock.

Camilo Gonzalez in front of his restaurant on Colorado BoulevardSo do you follow things that are going on in the neighborhood?

We do -- sometimes there's a few things we don't agree with, but we're very aware of what's going on, especially right here with what's going on on the boulevard. Especially for the business to do the best for everyone, you know.

Can you give me a few examples?

Right now they're trying to turn the boulevard into a slower paced, lower traffic [street]. They're trying to add more parking -- make it a little more of an attractive boulevard. But the problem is that many people have tried to do that -- and it would be a great idea -- but they can't do it because of the freeway. Once something happens [on the freeway], this is one of the emergency streets. Like when they close the freeway there for any accident, this is where people get off. So -- I don't see it happening.

I've heard about some of that. Like they want to do little parks, parklets.

It's a great idea. I would love to see that -- it brings a little bit more foot traffic and so on, it creates a little more of an old town feeling. But I don't think it's going to happen because of that, you know.

But you would support it if it did?

Oh yeah, I have always supported, always, every time. I mean especially TERA is very involved with this.

What's TERA?

It's The Eagle Rock Association. They're really involved with the designs of the buildings, like you know if you want to change the front of your building you have to go to them. They are very active on that. Any new places that have been built in Eagle Rock, they really get involved in the design. They don't want these humongous buildings -- they're big in a lot of fast food places - they think a lot of people think there's enough of them.

Could you talk a little more about how the community has changed in the past years and what your thoughts are about that? Has it been -- I know you said a little bit about it but has it been good for business?

It has been good for business. You have to realize that the younger generation, they tend to spend more money than the elderly people. They have more income to experiment -- disposable income. Also we notice the difference in crime. Less crime than before, less graffiti. When I moved to this neighborhood 17 years ago, there was a lot of crime. They would break into your car almost every week. Small crimes, but you know, it would happen. And then the graffiti, it was horrible, especially in the summer, on the boulevard, it was pretty bad. Now you still see a little bit, I mean if you can see on my windows people are still scratching those things. But it's less now than before, so that's a plus.

Some people and businesses think that all the new places opening up might be displacing some of the older, more local businesses. And there's been a little bit of tension about that. What do you think about that?

You know, I disagree with that, because from what I can see, on the boulevard over here, people have a little more choice of different places -- I'm talking about restaurants, you know? Instead of them deciding to go to Pasadena, they stay here because it's closer to their house and also they have different choices where they can go. And also what I've noticed is that, on the nice days, you can see people walking around. They walk over here because they have so many good things over here, or go down to Eagle Rock, and there's all those stores there -- so there's a lot more foot traffic than before. Before you hardly saw anyone walking with the strollers or just walking around, so now you see that more and more.

People say there's gentrification taking place. Some of the old places, like the auto places and the tire places, maybe those places couldn't afford to stick around.

That, yeah, I can see that, yeah. I mean, that's the nature of developing -- you see that in every neighborhood. But for the better, to make the neighborhood better, it's definitely -- it's positive. It's not big corporations that are coming into the neighborhood, which is great, you know? That would be a different story, like the Cheesecake Factory decides to open up on the corner, or stuff like that. Like when they opened up Starbucks, that was a big deal. It was a big thing because on the corner, we have Swork, which has been there longer than Starbucks... I think they opened like a year later than we opened. And that was kind of a slap in the face, opening a Starbucks right there. But thank God that the neighborhood has supported Swork. You go in there an there's a lot of people. A lot of the local people -- younger people go there, but the local people that live in this neighborhood, a lot of the artists -- they go there. Which is nice to see.

The only thing that I would love to see, and we've been trying -- the whole area's been trying to -- is get rid of the, not get rid of, but to move the so-called farmer's market that we have, which is not even a farmer's market, it's more like a flea market. It's just -- have you ever been to South Pasadena's? It's wonderful. They have really nice people with homemade breads, people that make their own cheese, you know, things like that. This one over here is -- you know, they bring all these fast food places there, and sell all kinds of -- it's just like going to a flea market. And it doesn't go with the neighborhood at all. And the people that you see there -- I'd say about 80% of the people -- they're not even from Eagle Rock. And then it happens on Friday -- which is such a busy night for this whole area -- it's taken most of the parking lot. All the parking spaces and everything.

For us, and for the other businesses, everybody can park there, so now we have to have someone there all the time to make sure that they're not parking over there. So that's the only thing negative that I have to say about our neighborhood. And there's other places that you can move that, with more space, and then change it, you know?

With the art that you have here, do local artists just approach you and just say I'm going to put my art in here, or do you reach out to any local artists?

No, they just come to us -- we have our waiting list, so we try to accommodate. The only thing that I don't do is art with a political message, you know, stuff like that. But otherwise, everybody's welcome. Some of the artists have done quite well over here -- they sell a lot of things. They have good art and it's affordable, especially in December, they usually buy a lot of things. We have that wall over there, we have those guitars, they're like metal. That lady, she's been here for nine years -- Jenny. And she has sold so much stuff, it's amazing.

So just to wrap up, what to you hope to see on Colorado Boulevard in the future and also for your restaurant, what are you plans for the future?

For the boulevard I would like to see a lot more trees, a lot more flowers in the center. They have tried many times to do it, but the city hasn't been able to take care of it. That would be a very nice attraction too. Also maybe the light poles, to try to get them something like that in Highland Park -- they have some beautiful street light poles on Figueroa. And they're only like nine years old. So more the vintage looking, you know, I would love to see that over here, just to add a little more character to the boulevard. So that would be a nice thing for our customers to really get involved.

Our restaurant, you know there's a few things I have in mind -- we're going to be changing our menu, we're going to be changing our décor as well. My wife and I, we're still kind of working on it. But we're going to be doing a little changes here and there -- and hopefully be able to stay here another ten years.

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