The timeless interior of El Coyote. Photo: Alison Martino

The ClassicsLos Angeles

The Night That Changed L.A. Forever Also Put El Coyote on the Map

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On a hot August night in 1969, actress Sharon Tate and friends Jay Sebring, Voytek Frykowski, and Abigail Folger sat down for a meal at El Coyote, the old-school Mexican joint with its iconic red neon sign on Beverly Boulevard. Unfortunately, it was their last, their lives tragically cut short by the Manson family just a few hours later. The restaurant suddenly became tied to one of Hollywood’s most infamous stories. To this day you can’t go for a margarita there without someone mentioning it at least once.  

Roughly a half-century later, I found myself dining in the same back corner booth with a small eclectic group of friends. It was another hot August night, just like so long ago. We gathered to memorialize those bright and shining lives, to tell stories about old Hollywood. That night in 1969 changed Los Angeles forever, a terror permanently etched in the minds of those living here at the time. Some might find it macabre, but it was our way of paying tribute to them and honoring this piece of history. 

Jane Fonda, who was standing near us waiting for her to-go order, leaned in and said, “You look like a fun group. Can I join you?” She sat down in our booth, jumped right into our conversation and stayed until the check arrived an hour later. Only at El Coyote can you randomly have drinks with a legend.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all that Jane joined your table,” says manager and co-owner Margie Christoffersen. “Celebrities feel comfortable here.” 

Photo: Alison Martino

Family-owned and operated since 1931, El Coyote is living history. For almost its entire existence, the restaurant and bar have been a destination for actors, musicians, out-of-town visitors, and everyday Angelenos. Really anyone looking for belly-busting combo plates, strong margaritas, vintage decor, and a good dose of Hollywood lore.  

Christofferson’s uncle and aunt, George and Blanche (a.k.a. “Mrs. March”) Salisbury, opened El Coyote on the corner of First Street and La Brea Avenue. Unfortunately George never got to see the restaurant blossom into the hugely successful institution that it is today. He died suddenly after they relocated to its current location in 1952, and Blanche oversaw the business until her death at the age of 88. Christofferson took over in 1991. 

“This place was the love of her life. There’s a lot of her heart and soul here,” Christofferson says of her aunt.

Blanche, a vibrant soul with a quick smile and always well-coiffed fiery red hair, was a consummate hostess. Her staff loved her. She treated them like family, and added little touches to the decor as if it was her home. Cristofferson remembers her putting puka shells on all the picture frames, and designing the decorative mirrors on the back wall that surround the Sharon Tate booth. It’s those festive accents that add so much character to the place: The bright Christmas lights, kitschy chandeliers, and the velvet paintings. I personally love the colorful bottle glass windows in the bar area, and a purple painting of someone who happens to look so much like Leonard Nimoy. No set designer in town could pull off this retro look so seamlessly. 

El Coyote
Photo: Alison Martino

In fact, when Quentin Tarantino filmed scenes at the restaurant for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” which traced the last day of Tate and her friends, nothing had to be changed because it looks almost exactly the same way as it did in 1969. It’s all so over the top, somehow it makes the drinks feel even stronger. 

Both old and new Hollywood oozes from every inch of the place, from the head shots prominently displayed on the walls to stories that have been passed down for generations. John Wayne, who was a regular at both the original and the current location, used to bring studio heads from Paramount Pictures for meals. It’s always attracted the biggest stars from Tony Curtis to Harrison Ford, Christopher Lloyd, Joni Mitchell, and Ryan Gosling. Princess Grace was once spotted at a candle-lit table. I’ve probably sat in every booth in the place since my childhood and always see someone. I’ve passed River Phoenix, Drew Barrymore, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and David Lynch at their tables over the years.

“I think my favorite sighting was Shirley Temple,” says Christoffersen. “She came in right before she died.” 

The staff, some of whom have worked at El Coyote for 30 years, have watched first dates grow into families. Servers — women dressed in ruffled Mexican dresses they either make themselves or pick up on Olvera Street, men dressed in black vests — are loyal and dedicated. Year after year, their unfailingly good attitude and friendly rapport is part of what keeps people coming back. It’s also the excellent carnitas and shredded beef tacos, chunky guacamole, and Cadillac margaritas, all offered at affordable prices.

“My father used to say, ‘everyone deserves a fair meal and a fair drink’,” Christoffersen says with a smile. 

The coronavirus has slowed things down a bit, but El Coyote is still going. The restaurant continues its takeout service, and recently reopened the patio for service. Christofferson is considering setting up more seating in the parking lot. In March of next year, it celebrates 90 years of business, no easy feat in this town (or anywhere for that matter).

And people who just saw “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” still file in for drinks and a bite, many wanting to experience the place that’s as much a piece of pop culture then as it is today.

“It’s just totally comfortable here no matter what,” says a longtime customer, Doreen Ringer Ross. “It just always feels like home.”

El Coyote: 7312 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. elcoyotecafe.com

Alison Martino is a Los Angeles-based television producer, documentarian, columnist, and lifelong resident.

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