ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When the life of Mary Ann Gonzales, the owner of the 50-year-old Mary & Tito’s Cafe, was celebrated Monday, the restaurant closed for the day so the staff of 11 cooks and servers could go to the funeral, at which they were asked to sit up front.
“The first few pews are for you,” Gonzales’ daughter told them. “You do not sit in the back. You were her family.”
Gonzales, who died last week at the age of 92, spent nearly half her life spreading love through the dining room of a neighborhood New Mexican restaurant decorated with family photos that prides itself as being for locals, not tourists.
She liked to hang out on a stool at the four-person counter, while her late husband, Tito, and later his team of cooks, handled things in the kitchen, according to family and customers.
Diners remembered her as someone devoted to making them feel special every time they came in.
“She always grabbed your hand and rubbed it,” recalled Norman Harty, who sat at the counter happily eating the huevos rancheros he orders each of the five times he dines there weekly. “You could just feel her spirit … there’s a spirit of niceness.”
“She used to always tell my sister and I, ‘You’re so beautiful. Take good care of yourself,’ ” added Jennifer Guthrie, 24, who visited the 20-table diner-style restaurant on Fourth near Menaul on Tuesday.
Recalled Guthrie’s father, who’d joined her for a lunchtime meal: “She was always so cute. She’d come around and talk and say hi. She didn’t always remember names, but she knew you.”
Whenever anyone paid with a credit card, he said, Gonzales called over another staffer to do the transaction, because she was not interested in computers, calculators or technology, preferring to handle things on paper – sometimes using a magnifying glass to compensate for having poor eyesight due to a detached retina.
“She would always ask staff, ‘How’s the baby?’ She wanted to know how everyone was,” recalled one of her three daughters, Antoinette Knight, 50, who now runs the restaurant with the help of family and kitchen staff, most of whom have been there for two or three decades.
Originally from Santa Fe, Gonzales worked as a court reporter with the Metropolitan District Court when she and her husband relocated to Albuquerque.
When he retired, he thought he’d stay home, but boredom forced him to find something to do. A cooking enthusiast, he decided to open a restaurant. The first one was a four-table diner also on Fourth Street, which Mary Ann Gonzales said she was willing to co-run with him, provided she could be out mingling with the diners rather than making enchiladas and burritos.
When they moved to the larger space down the street, she would set up at the counter with a Journal and a few ledgers and would do payroll and make orders, stopping to check on customers, talking with them about current events she loved to keep up on, and making sure they enjoyed their food.
Fifteen years ago, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, but because she was so mentally sharp, her children decided to convince her doctor to not tell her. So when he prescribed her a medication for the disease, he agreed to say it was for her high blood pressure, which she believed up until she died, Knight said.
In 2010, Mary & Tito’s carne adovada won the America’s Classics Award from the James Beard Foundation. The award is for restaurants that have “timeless appeal and are beloved in their regions for quality food that reflects the character of their community,” according to the foundation’s website. James Beard awards are the highest honor for food and beverage professionals working in North America, and the awards are presented each spring at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in New York City.
Two of her three daughters took the trip to the Big Apple with Gonzales. A baseball fan who loved the Dodgers and sometimes wore a Padres cap, Gonzales packed other adventures into the trip: She went to a baseball game at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, saw the Broadway play “Wicked,” and rode the subway. She was close to 90 years old at the time.
In the last six months, she began to decline, with lapses in memory, her relatives said, but she wanted to be on her favorite stool nonetheless, so her daughter or grandson would pick her up and bring her.
On the Wednesday before she died, she was adamant about coming in. “Take me to the restaurant! I want to go,” her daughter recalled her demanding, at once tearing up and chuckling at the memory.
That was the last day she worked. Come Friday, Sept. 13, she was not into it. “Nope! I’m not going!” she said when offered a ride.
The next day, she slipped into a coma, and she died on Sept. 17.