After 37 years in business, including 35 downtown, the restaurant specializing in Latin and Caribbean cuisine is closing its doors on New Year’s Eve.
Wanda de Paz-Ibañez has vivid memories of her childhood in the central Puerto Rico town of Jayuya. One of those memories was an afternoon ritual involving the pan de agua, or Puerto Rican water bread, her grandfather made in his local bakery.
“Every day after school, at 3 p.m., my mother and my aunts would put all of us in the station wagon and we would go to my grandparents’ house to have café con leche,” she said. “There was the bread and butter that we would dunk into the café con leche. Of course, the butter would float. It was the best!”
Her grandfather’s first name was Emiliano. And although he never set foot in Gainesville, he is the namesake for Emiliano’s Café, which de Paz-Ibañez and her husband, Jorge, started some 37 years ago on University Avenue as Emiliano’s Bakery.
For the past 35 years, the independent restaurant has been based downtown at 7 SE 1st Ave., serving platefuls of ropa vieja, arroz con pollo, piccadillo and countless other Latin and Caribbean-style dishes and desserts to hungry patrons that have included everyone from college students on date nights and older locals to punk rockers in town each fall for The Fest.
Over the years, Emiliano’s has hosted countless graduation dinners, anniversaries, birthday parties, baby showers and gay pride brunches, and has been the chosen site for numerous marriage proposals and other milestone events.
However, on New Year’s Eve, when most everyone else will be saying hello to 2020, Emiliano’s will be saying farewell to downtown Gainesville. And, just to be clear, it’s not because business is suffering.
The reason Emiliano’s Cafe is closing its doors after nearly four decades is because de Paz-Ibañez, or “Miss Wanda” as she is affectionately known to her staff, is retiring.
“I’ve been thinking about it for awhile, maybe three months, but I made the decision over Thanksgiving and I announced it to my staff when I came back,” she said. “I made the decision because I’ve been here 37 years and I’m ready to retire. I’m tired!”
De Paz-Ibañez, 67, has made the one-mile trip from her home in the Duckpond neighborhood to Emiliano’s on almost a daily basis since 1984. In fact, she walked to work for many of those years.
She called her job “an all-consuming enterprise” but has no regrets.
“[The restaurant] has consumed my attention and my time, and it’s been wonderful, but it’s time,” de Paz-Ibañez said. “It was very hard to come to that conclusion and be at peace with it. And that first week after I actually announced it, I second-guessed myself so many times. And then I said, ‘No, I didn’t make this decision without thinking about it for a long time.'”
Emiliano’s Café will not vanish, however, without one final bash. On New Year’s Eve, beginning at 10 p.m., guests can get one last taste of Emiliano’s for $100 per person. Admission includes an open bar, a full buffet and a champagne toast at midnight. Gilberto de Paz, one of Wanda’s seven siblings, will provide the entertainment. (For tickets, visit eventbrite.com.)
The restaurant also is taking reservations for dinner that day from 4-7:30 p.m. and will be open daily until then, including one last Sunday brunch. (For reservations, call 352.375.7381 after 10 a.m.)
Diego Ibañez, Wanda’s son and co-owner of Emiliano’s Café, has mixed emotions about closing his family’s business.
“It’s bittersweet,” he said. “It’s been a great run — 35 years downtown — and we’ve built such a relationship in this community. But at the same time it feels right to step away when we’re on top.”
While his mother is retiring from Emiliano’s, Ibañez will remain busy as a business partner with The Keys Grill & Piano Bar, which opened earlier this year at Celebration Pointe.
“I have opportunities and Miss Wanda has the opportunity to retire, and we get to walk away with Emiliano’s leaving such a great legacy and great memories in this town,” Diego said.
Then he added a disclaimer.
“It doesn’t mean necessarily that the brand is done,” he said. “It just means that it’s done downtown. I have some visions for the future.”
Ibañez would not elaborate except to say a future enterprise would likely include the Emiliano’s name and that “I’m taking the recipe book and the neon sign with me, so …”
As a reminder of the restaurant’s formative years in the early 1980s, the original Emiliano’s Bakery sign hangs prominently on a wall inside the intimate dining room.
Emiliano’s Bakery opened in 1982 in the West University Avenue storefront that Reggae Shack now occupies. Wanda and Jorge had just moved back to Gainesville from California, where they both were pursuing doctorate degrees at UC Santa Barbara — Jorge’s in linguistics and Wanda’s in reading and language development and bilingual educational skills. Not to mention they were already the parents of 7-year-old Diego and 6-month-old daughter Rebeca.
“Neither one stopped the other from making the decision of packing our kids, packing our apartment and showing up [in Gainesville] at my parents with the intention of opening a bakery,” Wanda said. “How? We had no idea. We had no money. We had no experience. …
“You can imagine my parents’ reaction when we showed up and said ‘We’re going to open a bakery!'”
Jorge had spent one month as an apprentice at a bakery in Santa Barbara, but it was Wanda’s grandfather and an uncle’s influence as bakers in Puerto Rico that guided them toward their dream of a “down-to-earth bakery” long before the artisanal bread trend took hold.
Among other baked goods, Emiliano’s specialized in the pan de agua of Wanda’s youth and guava pastries from a recipe passed down from her uncle.
“People came to work here and contributed ideas that we incorporated — some were well received, some not,” she said. “We kept evolving and adapting to our guests.”
Not everyone understood the bakery’s higher mission.
“One of my favorite stories when we first opened was when someone poked their head in the door and asked, ‘Do you have any glazed donuts?’ And I would say, ‘I’m so sorry, sir, we don’t serve donuts.’ And he would go, ‘This is not a real bakery!” and he would not come in,” de Paz-Ibañez said. “We got a lot of that.”
Was the bakery successful?
“You know what?” Wanda said. “I have had that question asked of me many times over the years and this was my answer: Many times I think we were basically bankrupt but didn’t know it. We were so stubborn. Where many people would have thrown in the towel — we didn’t even pay ourselves — we just did it.”
And then, in 1984, Wanda and Jorge made the bold decision to move their business downtown, which was not the lively place then that it is today.
“It started as a café and the restaurant sort of evolved from that,” she said. “When we moved downtown, it was romanticism. Downtown was so quiet and everyone said we were completely crazy. There was nothing at that point. Everything was leaving downtown for the Oaks Mall. All the stores were closing.”
The only other eateries downtown back then were the Sovereign Restaurant on Southeast 2nd Avenue (now MOJO Hogtown Bar-B-Que) and the Café Expresso at University and Main. Emiliano’s Café opened in a storefront that had been vacant for 15 years. (It soon expanded next door to the current space.)
The building is now more than 100 years old, as are many others on a historic city block that once faced the old Alachua County Courthouse square. Wanda and Jorge had to “fight a good fight” to get the city to approve a sidewalk patio for dining, the first of its kind downtown, and then another drawn-out battle to serve alcohol on that patio.
In its early years, Emiliano’s Café was mostly a family affair. Wanda’s parents moved the family from Puerto Rico to the U.S. in 1978. They chose Gainesville so their five younger children could live at home while studying at the University of Florida.
“I think all of my siblings, at one point or another in our history, have been part of Emiliano’s in one capacity or another,” she said.
Wanda’s sister, Alida, and their mother, Aracelis de Paz, became partners of Emiliano’s Café when they moved downtown after being instrumental in helping establish the business.
“Ali was our chef and creative culinary force until 1997, and returned in 2006,” Wanda said. “Our mother Aracelis was the original ‘mother love’ in our kitchen, the source of our most traditional recipes and, after retiring, kept being the inspiration that keeps us aspiring for better!”
Alida de Paz left Emiliano’s in 2011 to open her own restaurants, first in Costa Rica and most recently in Puerto Rico.
“Emiliano’s was and will always be my sanctuary,” Ali wrote in a recent Facebook post, “where I first learned and understood the amazing gift that as a family we have been given to be able to feed people, provide a home and support so many for 37 years. … Where so many of us got our first taste of kitchen work and many moved on to great careers in this crazy industry. Where most of my brothers, cousins, nephews and nieces came to work while in school.
“I am forever grateful for the journey that my favorite sister in the world Wanda and her visionary husband Jorge took me [on], with all of its curves, ups and downs, reincarnations and accomplishments.”
Another person who has worked behind the scenes at Emiliano’s for more than 20 years is Sonia Otero. Wanda calls her “the soul of our kitchen.” Otero, who is married to Wanda’s first cousin Carlos, began working at Emiliano’s in 1991, shortly after arriving from Puerto Rico.
Anyone who has ever enjoyed classic Puerto Rican dishes or the decadent tres leche, tembleque or flan desserts at Emiliano’s can thank Otero.
“Sonia cares so much, and I could not survive without her,” Wanda said. “She puts pride and care into the product. It’s so funny to say, but it’s true; she puts love into her food.”
Otero left Emiliano’s in 1995 to start Cafe Tropical in Thornebrook Village with her husband. When they closed the restaurant six years later, Otero returned to Emiliano’s as kitchen manager. She’s been there ever since, overseeing prep work and inventory.
The New Year’s Eve party will be Otero’s final duty there.
“I feel sorry for the restaurant, but I feel happy for Wanda because she gets to retire,” said Otero, who is two weeks younger than her boss and longtime friend.
“It’s hard work, but I enjoy it, with T.L.C. — tender loving care — always!” she said. “I have a lot of good memories here.”
There’s a rumor that Wanda, Sonia and Ali might collaborate on an Emiliano’s cookbook based on years of traditional and original recipes served in the restaurant.
Meanwhile, Jorge Ibañez left Emiliano’s in 2006 for a position at Santa Fe College. He retired earlier in December as program director in the Information Technology Education department. A talented artist, many of Ibañez’s abstract paintings adorn the walls at Emiliano’s.
With his father no longer working at the restaurant, Diego Ibañez took on expanded duties as part of the Emiliano’s management team with his mother.
Diego was 16 when he starting busing tables at Emiliano’s on Saturdays and working the bakery counter. He worked at his family’s restaurant through high school and college before leaving Gainesville.
“I’ve done everything here,” he said. “I worked the bar as a barista, done dishes and waited tables. I came back in 2000 and joined the management team and went from service manager to shift leader to front-of-the-house manager to managing partner. I’ve done it all. It’s something that was instilled in me. Nothing was handed to me. I had to work my way up.”
Starting late next week, Ibañez’s daily routine will change considerably. Emiliano’s will close and he will oversee the dismantling of the kitchen and dining room.
What will Diego miss most about Emiliano’s?
“Coming downtown every day,” he said. “I’ve been coming downtown to work for the last 19 years, but I also grew up in downtown Gainesville. I grew up in this building. That’s going to be kind of a shock come mid-January when I wake up in the morning and I don’t have to come downtown.”
Many people credit the opening of Emiliano’s in 1984 with the eventual revival of downtown Gainesville. But the restaurant’s legacy also includes the hundreds and hundreds of college students who paid their tuition through wages and tips earned while working at Emiliano’s.
“I was joking to someone that we probably have enough lawyers to start our own firm — and a big one at that!” Diego Ibañez said. “We could start an engineering firm and an architecture firm. Chef after chef after chef started their culinary careers here.”
Ibañez started an Emiliano’s Cafe Alumni page on Facebook that currently has more than 300 members. He invites all former Emiliano’s employees to join the Facebook group and share memories on the page.
“It’s wonderful the way we’ve touched so many lives,” Ibañez said. “So many people come back through Gainesville and tell me they were here for school and worked here and then left, started their families and now they have grown kids who are going to school here. They stop by to see the place and they say how Wanda and Jorge influenced their lives. That’s always a good feeling.”
His mother, Wanda de Paz-Ibañez, also expressed gratitude for the many talented people who have worked for and contributed to the success of Emiliano’s throughout its long run.
“I would love taking the credit for Emiliano’s, but believe me, this cannot happen without really an army of people who have been behind us all this time with their support,” she said. “And since the announcement, I have been rewarded with so much expression of love and support from people I haven’t heard from in a long time.”
De Paz-Ibañez just smiles when others remark that she is “throwing away her equity” by leaving Emiliano’s behind.
“My equity has no name — the richness of all of this life that I’ve been part of in a way that I cannot put into words,” she said.
And, as her son Diego implied earlier, Emiliano’s is not going away. He’s vowed to maintain the Emiliano’s website and post updates on social media. Oh, and he’s already promised FEST founder Tony Weinbender to feed punk bands from around the world again next year, even if it means doing a pop-up food stand in Bo Diddley Plaza.
“I tell everyone,” Ibañez said, “that this isn’t ‘Goodbye,’ this is ‘See you later!'”
— Noel Leroux
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