In a historical building, with a current staff of 150, Mama Mia restaurant is preparing to reopen, and hopes for success once again. The restaurant’s history started with Adriano’s, a small restaurant located in the Posada La Fuente hotel. The patio was filthy, and some of the hotel’s clients, unable to pay their bills and perhaps harboring stolen goods, would flee through a window on Calle Jesús. The hotel was awful and the restaurant was a failure.
Many years ago, Bertha Vázquez went to France to study and work, and had a room with a fantastic view of Paris. When Bertha returned to Mexico City she met José “Pepe” Luna. She was a painter and he was a writer. Married and the father of two, Pepe divorced, and he and Bertha became a couple.
They came to San Miguel to follow their bohemian dreams of color and music. Pepe and Bertha, who both speak English and French, fell in love with the city and understood what visitors wanted. When they found Adriano’s, badly run by young entrepreneur Omar, they bought the restaurant.
In 1975, the proprietor of Umarán 8 rented out the hotel on the premises to Bertha and Pepe. The hotel was about to be closed down by the state authorities, but they did not care. They let the hotel’s residents go, and concentrated on growing the restaurant.
At the beginning the food was bad. The only worthwhile item on the menu was the pizza. Pepe and Bertha came up with the name Mama Mia. At one point someone from northern Mexico wanted to use the name for a chain of pizzerias. The issue was taken to court and Mama Mia San Miguel won the right to use the name.
The restaurant suffered many ups and downs, motivated, according to Pepe and Bertha, by envy over their success. The governor of Guanajuato closed the restaurant at one point. The owners of the other 80 restaurants in San Miguel also attempted to close down Mama Mia, claiming that illicit activities were taking place there. However, unable to come up with evidence for their accusations, they desisted.
Just before its 45th anniversary this year, Mama Mia had to close its doors for several reasons. The first was the COVID-19 pandemic. The other issues were an increase in rent and certain clauses of the lease, which favored the proprietors and not the operators of the restaurant. This was something that Pepe and Bertha had foreseen, and they had already begun looking for a new location. A spot on Pila Seca was considered, but did not materialize. They settled on a building at Hernández Macías 91.
A building with a complicated history
The building on Hernández Macías dates back to 1890. It has two patios. In the first of these there is a cantera (stone) fountain and several Doric-style columns. Although there has been restoration throughout the building, these areas were not touched because they are protected by Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (The National Institute of Anthropology and History), known as INAH. The same goes for the windows and doors. According to the project’s restoration expert, what has changed is that the building will now be a commercial venue instead of a residential space. She mentioned that the fountain needs to be restored and reinforced, but that INAH will set the conditions for this. There will also be restoration work to preserve the foundation and columns that support the structure. The floor will remain as is.
In order to connect the first patio to the second one, an archway had been created. INAH ordered it taken down and to preserve the original wall; this has been done. Seen from the main door, construction work on the right side extends all the way to the back. Here, according to the expert, the building is being preserved, including the floors. The only modification is the installation of non-slip plastic flooring in some areas, such as the kitchen. The colors on the walls have been preserved.
The building’s history
The representatives for the building, along with the restoration expert, gave us access to the architectural plans and other official documents. They explained them and showed us the permits to install a dome to cover the second patio.
In the garden area, a palm tree has been removed, but other trees remain, including an avocado tree with a hollow trunk. Every tree in the former orchard has been preserved, and the restaurant-bar is adapting its configuration to the garden.
Between the second patio and the garden, there is an area where the previous owners had set up clotheslines. “One of the restorers told me that it had been an assembly area where poetry was recited. We still don’t know what we will do with this space; what we do know, is that we need to protect and preserve it,” said the restorer.
The restoration of the assembly area has started and mortar has been injected according to instructions from INAH. If a storage is built in the back of the building, it “will be with the authorization of INH,” said the expert.
Finally, she stated that the original structure of the building has been respected and has not been modified. She told us that “even the bar is temporary,” since nothing permanent may be added to the building.
Regarding possible noise in the area—which is both residential and commercial—the expert said that in this type of construction, there is no requirement for sound barriers. She also said that there is no authorization for a terrace.
Pepe and Bertha, who at one point had considered giving up Mama Mia, are not giving up on the idea of having a terrace. However, that permit will depend on the local authorities and INAH. Although their staff was cut back due to the pandemic, they are ready and willing to bring them back whenever the restaurant reopens.
What remains before getting a green light for its opening is completing the work and having it approved by INAH. Bertha and Pepe hope that this will happen in June, when they would be celebrating their 45th anniversary. The only difference will be the change in location—instead of in the original building at Umarán, it will be at Hernández Macías.