The crowds have crashed through the front door in continuous waves since late July, after the announcement that family-owned El Patio on Guadalupe Street would close Aug. 9 after 65 years in business. Coming at 11 a.m.? Expect a wait. 3 p.m.? Ditto.

Signs posted on the door apologize for the lack of take-out: The staff has had its hands full hugging and serving longtime customers, many of whom say they can’t imagine another restaurant filling the void in their lives that the closure will leave.

The final few weeks may have been busier than the ones immediately before them, with some people traveling from out of state to say goodbye, but they have looked similar to the previous decades — David Joseph and sisters Roseann Joseph-Ciani, Renee Joseph Downer and Michelle Joseph greet customers and work the floor. The family’s matriarch, Mary Ann Joseph, has been spending a few hours behind the counter each day, giving longtime customers a final chance to pay their respects and offer their thanks to the woman who served as “the backbone for the restaurant,” according to owner-general manager David, who added that he made the decision to close so he could spend more time with family and begin the second chapter of his life.

“It has been amazing. Not in my wildest dreams had I ever thought that we would have, maybe a day or two, but not this long of support and love. My dad is smiling ear to ear up in heaven,” David Joseph said. “They’re coming from everywhere. A lot of grown men who are shedding real tears of happiness and sadness. I’m speechless, that’s all I can say. My whole family is just so happy we were able to make an impact on the city in the way that we have.”

Amid the hustle and clamor of the final days of an Austin institution, I chatted with a few longtime regulars about what El Patio and the Joseph family have meant to them and the city of Austin.

» Listen below: Hear more tributes to El Patio on this week's episode of "I Love You So Much," the Austin 360 podcast

'Margaritas till they close'

Nancy Nehring’s family has a deep connection to the Tex-Mex icon. Her parents held their rehearsal dinner at El Patio in 1959, and she has been a loyal patron her entire life. Longhorn diehard Nehring and friend Angie Moore used to forge their mothers’ signatures on doctors’ notes, skip school at Lanier High School in the late '70s and have lunch at El Patio. They returned the week before closing for a final plate, some hugs and a couple of margaritas.

El Patio always served as a source of family bonding for Nehring. Her grandmother, who lived to be 98 years old, had three sisters. They were all widowed by their 50s and moved in with one another. They marked each of their birthdays at El Patio.

“We would come in here and get the little short, frosted glasses of beer. She was 98 and would take one sip and go, ‘I can feel it! I can feel it!’” Nehring said.

American-Statesman: What do you think makes this place so special?

Nancy Nehring: It’s the whole family thing. They’ve known me, and I’ve been friends with their kids since I was little. It’s an Austin original, and I’m heartbroken. Seriously.

What’s your order?

I used to get a No. 2 with queso instead of the tamale, but they don’t have the tamale anymore. It was always Benny; Benny was our waiter, for my entire life, until he retired.

What were your early memories of coming here?

That would be Paul Sr., who always met you at the door, always. I had a 3-year-old who would not eat Mexican food, so Paul would take him into the kitchen and let him make his own plate, which was a “girrled cheese” sandwich — not a grilled cheese sandwich, but a “girrled cheese” sandwich.

Is it emotional to see part of your childhood and your whole life in Austin close?

I’ve watched Austin change so much in the last 40 and 50 years, but when this came about in the last couple of weeks, I was heartbroken. This is it.

A lot of places have closed in the last five to 10 years. Have any of them left the impact that this place has?

No. Because this was always family. They knew you when you came in. And you could go and sit down, and Benny, who had been our waiter for years … you wouldn’t even have to order. The food was coming out to the table and he knew what you wanted.

What do you do to fill the void?

Well, we just come here and drink margaritas till they close.

'The ending of the truth'

Otis and Lola Bell know what it means for a restaurant to serve as a meeting place for family and community. The couple ran Nubian Queen Lola’s Soul Food in East Austin for years, regularly feeding the city’s homeless population. They stopped in to pay tribute to the restaurant that native Austinite Otis has been visiting since 1968.

American-Statesman: What brought you here the first time?

Otis Bell: Believe it or not, we were out this way and somebody stole the car, with all the clothes and stuff in it. And it was cold and we were walking and it was getting late and I told my friend, "Man, that place is open; I’m going in there to get me something to eat, and at least I can get warm for a little bit." So we came up in here, and the food was fantabulous. I’ve been coming ever since.

Do you have the same order every time you come here?

Otis Bell: Practically.

What do you like?

Otis Bell: I like the beef enchiladas.

What about you, Lola?

Lola Bell: I love, love, love them chicken enchiladas.

Do you remember the first time you came here?

Lola Bell: Oh, I remember the first time. I was working for Dr. Alice Cook in back in 1980-something, and Eugenia Richardson would come and get us food here every Wednesday, I think it was. And that’s what drew me to it. It was so good. And it’s still so good.

Y’all made your name by creating a space for the community and making yourselves members of the community. How do you feel about the way this family has integrated themselves into the community and tried to make their customers feel like family?

Lola Bell: Well, not only did they make us feel like family, I actually rented from a (Joseph) family member Nubian Queen Lola’s building. So not only did they help people, they brought life to my life, and I appreciate them for everything. The opportunity to feed a community — I used their space for that.

Did you find in the late '60s and early '70s that businesses were as accommodating to the African American community as El Patio, or did it feel like they were different in some way?

Otis Bell: I was here, and it was like family. He used to play with me all the time because I was born on Sabine. So I was on Sixth Street all day long. I remember when Johnny Joseph had his business down there, the Triple J Bar. I was up and down Sixth Street and Red River all day long. And he used to say, "How they treatin' you?" I said, "Oh, I’m doin’ fine." And he said, "Well, if they ain’t treatin’ you right, let me know and I’ll come chargin’ like a bull." They’ve been good people all my life.

Lola Bell: Me and my daughters came here to have dinner one day, and the mama is so sweet. She was just laughing. She’s got jokes, too. My daughter fell clean out the chair, laughing that hard. So, if that don’t make you feel like family, come on now.

A lot of places have been closing in the last five to 10 years, and Austin is changing. Does this feel like a specifically hard loss?

Otis Bell: When you’re losing your favorite eating places, it’s kinda tough. A lot of the mom and pop establishments and small businesses, they’re going out of business or leaving.

Lola Bell: You just can’t get this love no more. This is probably the ending of the truth. I know I was the truth, and I’m gone (Nubian Queen Lola's closed in 2017). For El Patio to leave … this is the ending of the truth. For real. Everything else, I don’t know what it’s going to be.

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