A man leaned back in the corner booth looking out at the patio, the sleeves of his blue dress-shirt rolled and pushed up to his elbows.
He was in the middle of a conversation, but that didn’t stop person after person from stopping for a handshake, hug and a warm hello.
It would be easy to mistake Diego Ibanez for a local celebrity rather than the owner of Emiliano’s Café — but to many, he is that, too. In the past three decades, the Latin-fusion restaurant with its iconic blue-and-white-striped awnings has become an institution downtown. In fact, it will celebrate 30 years of business downtown in November.
Since his parents first opened Emiliano’s — originally as a bakery — a revolving door of family support and innovative business strategies has kept the restaurant afloat.
As a child, Ibanez recalls looking up at the counter of the original University Avenue shop watching his father, Jorge, roll a six-inch-thick block of butter into flaky pastry dough.
The image is a testament to how far the restaurant has evolved. Originally opened in 1982 in the space now occupied by Reggae Shack Café, Jorge and Wanda de Paz-Ibanez set out to bake Latin pastries and artisanal breads. Demand grew until they were selling baked goods at several local grocery stores and delivering hundreds of cinnamon rolls to Alachua General Hospital three times a week.
They decided it was time to move to a new location, and so in 1984, Emiliano’s took root at its current spot downtown. With the move came a new direction: Emiliano’s became a full-service Latin-inspired café.
The move required more than an ounce of faith. At the time, Gainesville’s downtown was “kind of a ghost town,” Ibanez now says with a laugh. It was devoid of the nostalgic brick streets, welcoming outdoor patios and healthy foot traffic that now characterize the area. When Emiliano’s moved, it slid into a block that was home to a furniture store, a bookstore, a slightly seedy seafood restaurant — businesses that have since closed — and lots of property for rent.
“A lot of people told my parents that they were crazy for moving downtown,” he said. “It was about them being dreamers.”
But thankfully it was a dream that came true. The area blossomed, as did sales at Emiliano’s.
Eventually, Ibanez’ parents wanted to throttle back their roles in the business, so in 2006, Ibanez took the reins. Under his direction, the restaurant ramped up catering, added a full liquor bar and incorporated live music. Those are strategies that helped the restaurant weather the recession, he said.
Although Ibanez left Gainesville for a stint after college, he still gravitated toward the restaurant industry. When he taught English in Spain, he landed a job at an Irish pub. When he lived on Long Island, he waited tables at a high-end bistro and constantly approached the owners with new ideas for innovating daily operations.
“I couldn’t stay away,” he said.
So it was a natural transition when he came back in 2000 to be closer to family and to invest his time in the family restaurant.
He’s seen a parade of colorful characters during his years at Emiliano’s.
“That to me has been one of the most interesting things – the people who worked here and seeing where they are now,” Ibanez said.
He’s written a plethora of reference letters for former employees seeking entrance to The Florida Bar.
“We have no shortage of attorneys at Emiliano’s,” he said, chuckling.
Ibanez said he doesn’t get starstruck, and that’s a good thing, because Emiliano’s has seen its share of celebrities waltz through the front doors.
One time, Ibanez said he served a woman with big, curly hair sitting out on the patio. He thought she looked familiar but couldn’t place her face. Later, a waiter asked him excitedly, “So, what’s Joan Osborne like?” Turns out, her band was playing at a nearby venue, and she stopped by to grab a bite to eat.
The restaurant has also served Nightline anchor Ted Koppell, actor River Phoenix, the band They Might Be Giants, and actors from Doc Hollywood while scenes were being filmed in Gainesville.
One afternoon, acclaimed governor Lawton Chiles made a stop at the restaurant and brought in a small army of bodyguards and assistants.
“When you looked in, it almost looked like it was busy, but it was all staff,” Ibanez said. “They were taking up tables but not eating.”
Looking ahead, Ibanez says he hopes to build a seasonal menu using more local products. He also says he hopes to fill the void for the 40s and 50s crowd looking for a place to grab a drink or a bite to eat after shows.
“Even though downtown has evolved to being less student-driven, there’s still a lack of places to go after the Hippodrome,” he said.
He’s also looking at opening a second location and launching product spinoffs that could be served at other restaurants.
And as Emiliano’s continues to grow, perhaps it will be a barometer for the growth of the area at large, as it has been for the last three decades.
“We truly have seen downtown grow around us,” he said. “It’s exciting.”