(Editor's note: This guest essay is from independent journalist Steven Tavares, who fondly recalls the restaurant that so many San Leandrans loved.)
As a 16-year-old working at Banchero’s, I was invariably posed two questions by friends and family: do they reuse the soup and can you get the recipe for their garlic bread. The answers were no and maybe.
struck me in exactly the way I envisioned it, with instant and irretrievable longing.
I’m not going to lie, when I heard the news today, I nearly started balling at Starbucks. I not only worked at the restaurant, first as a dishwasher and later, as a busboy, but I grew up there.
The notion of Banchero’s to me, goes back, to before my father probably had any vision of my future existence.
In 1961, as an 17-year-old immigrant from Portugal, my father lived with his uncle down the street from Banchero’s. His earliest experiences in America included dining at the restaurant every Sunday afternoon.
My dad likes to describe the feisty and playful nature of John Banchero, Sr., the current owner's father. Once, when his aunt asked for the minestrone soup recipe, the precocious Italian listed each ingredient using industrial sized measurements.
I can remember as a little boy hiding under the table as we waiting for our dinner-ending scoop of ice cream (there were only three flavors: spumoni, orange sherbet and vanilla).
It was a place where waitresses loved to work so much that they seemingly never quit. It wasn’t uncommon to see the same group of women hustling around the restaurant for decades at a time.
You don’t receive that kind of loyalty without a good boss. Although a bit gruff and a whirlwind of movement, John Banchero, Jr. was a tough, but fair man. Once I was promoted to busboy, John taught me the exact method of quickly setting the table for the next group of patrons already heading down the aisle.
I thought I got the hang of it, but apparently not. One day I got a tap on the shoulder. It was John telling me at a rapid clip, “Steve, you gotta go faster. This is the Major Leagues.”
During one shift, an elderly lady actually died as she left the restaurant. I recalled thinking, ‘Older people love this place, but how long can this place stay open if their customers are literally dying to eat there?’
Of course, nothing lasts forever. I wouldn’t be lying to you when I say I knew the end of Banchero’s was near. During my last visit around Mother’s Day this year, I noticed the very things that light up so many wonderful thoughts in my memory, now reminded me how they no longer fit in with the world around us.
The relish plate contained the same number of black olives, anchovies, pickles and deli meat squares, all laid out on the same, dented silver platters where they had rested for decades, seemed lifeless.
The once bustling lobby packed with hungry patrons every Friday night, was empty. Some people long for life as it was in “Mad Men,” but that’s just a television drama shot on a Hollywood sound stage. My last meal at Banchero’s felt like that—forced and staged.
However, it wasn’t about Banchero’s, it was about me.
I know the real reason for my sadness over Banchero's closing is not necessarily missing out on its comfort foods, but the loss of precious continuity in our lives.
For over 50 years my family frequented, Banchero's during many good times. It bridged the gap from me, to my father, to his beloved uncle who brought him to America and away from abject poverty so long ago.
From color television to cell phones to the Internet, everything about life outside of that small restaurant on Mission Boulevard changed radically. Yet everything inside stayed the same.
If I could talk to my sister, who away passed in 2002, she would have no idea what an iPad is, but she would know that meatballs come with an order of spaghetti at Banchero’s.
Something bigger than food was lost this week and an opportunity for new traditions was gained.
(Steven Tavares is the founder of EastBayCITIZEN, the East Bay's independent political watchdog.)