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Capitol Hill food+drink | Dad’s dedication and a new generation — 30+ years of El Gallito

Elizabeth Lopez didn’t have to think long about what’s kept El Gallito open for so long.

“My dad’s dedication,” she said.

That dedication has kept the restaurant open since the early 1980s. Refugio Lopez was born in Mexico, but spent most of his life in the United States, living in Texas and Chicago before coming to Seattle in 1978. Lopez thinks it was 1983 or 84, when he opened El Gallito (Spanish for the little rooster). Refugio retired 13 years ago.

He brought the recipes with him from Mexico, Lopez said, and most of them, including classics like the enchilada sauce, haven’t changed since the day the place opened.

Like many small business owners, he involved his children, and Elizabeth and her brother, Ole, have worked at El Gallito since they were in high school. She grew up in the neighborhood, and her mother still lives on Capitol Hill, though Elizabeth has moved to Leschi and her brother to Madison Valley. Lopez said that as she’s gotten older, she’s grown to appreciate the business more, particularly how it can be good to be the boss, and make her own hours.

“We grew up, pretty much, in the restaurant,” she said. “I enjoy it more as an adult than I did as a kid.”

IMG_1130 The recipes aren’t all that’s stayed the same. Lopez notes that many servers and back of house staff, from cooks to dishwashers, are long time employees. In an industry driven by of-the-moment trends (poke anyone?) that often peter out, that continuity may be another factor in the restaurant’s success.

Lopez said that over the years, they’ve added some new menu items to keep up with newer trends. For inspiration, they travel to Mexico often to seek out new dishes and recipes. While those might involve new recipes, keeping the classics just as her father made them has always been part of the plan. She said it didn’t bother him when they added new things, as long as they were keeping the classics the same.

In 2004, when her father was ready to retire, he knew the place would be in good hands, and so he passed ownership on to Elizabeth and Ole. He kept interested in the business, and died in January of this year.

When he died, Lopez said there was a tremendous outpouring from the community. Longtime customers, some of whom she’s known since high school, have been greatly saddened to learn of his death. She says that they still get flowers, even though it’s been a few months, from well-wishers who find out about his passing.

Lopez said she and her brother have plans to make some slight changes in the future. They’d like to add a bar to what is now a side room, and eventually create some outside seating along 20th Ave.

But she doesn’t think it likely that there will be a third generation running the restaurant. She says her daughters, ages 11 and 17, don’t seem interested in taking over the business, with the oldest looking at becoming a doctor. But you never know what will happen when kids grow up.

El Gallito is located at 1700 20th Ave and is open 11:30 AM to 9:30 PM Monday through Friday, 4:00 PM to 9:30 PM on the weekends.

Capitol Hill food+drink notes by jseattle

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5 thoughts on “Capitol Hill food+drink | Dad’s dedication and a new generation — 30+ years of El Gallito

  1. This place is a neighborhood gem! I can’t say enough good things about it. Their chips and salsa is fantastic, and the people are great!

  2. To save someone a bunch of time searching for this great place, it is at 1700 20th Ave., not 20th Ave. East.

  3. This is good- I have been going to this place for 25+ years…it was always nice to see Mr Lopez sitting at ‘his’ regular table, he will be missed- RIP