Thirty-seven years ago two brothers from Northern Mexico, Armando and Leonardo Lopez, opened their first nightclub in a former dance studio at 831 South La Brea Avenue. They named their establishment Leonardo’s and built a large clientele of working-class Mexican and Latin Americans seeking the live music, dancing, and food of their homeland.
The Lopez brothers answered a demand that led them to expand to 12 Leonardo’s nightclubs from Downtown L.A. to Oxnard to Lancaster. Several years ago the brothers went their seperate ways and Armando took ownership of the flagship La Brea Avenue club while Leonardo took possession of property across the street to develop a retail center. And this is where Armando’s daughter, Maria Lopez, enters the picture.
A graduate of Cal State Northridge with a major in International Business, Maria had a plan to realize the full potential of the popular nightspot. She wanted to preserve its existing customer base while expanding its appeal to the residents of the Miracle Mile. But first she had a major obstacle to overcome. “We’ve always been a family business,” she explained. “All of my brothers and cousins grew up working here, but the girls not so much. It was a very Mexican business; the men ran it. I was the first to challenge that.”
Her father’s traditional ways were no match for Maria’s intelligence, charm, and energy. Seven years ago she became actively involved in the business. When asked if her father is easy to work with, Maria replied: “It’s a hard balance between the old school and the new school. But I think he trusts me now. I’ve proven myself.”
Maria’s first innovation was the creation of Candela Taco Bar & Lounge, “The intention behind Candela was to build a bridge between our Miracle Mile neighborhood and our traditional Mexican-American nightclub business.” The restaurant’s success launched an expansion into catering and hosting a wide array of functions for local businesses and organizations.
What used to be a predominantly Mexican-American nightclub that was only open on weekend evenings is now a dynamic, seven-days-a-week enterprise that has attracted a broad range of customers. This reinvention of the business inspired the name change from Leonardo’s to Candela – although the weekend nightclub is still commonly referred to as Leonardo’s or the La Brea nightclub.
Candela Taco Bar & Lounge has earned high marks for the quality of the food, full liquor service, and its home-like feel. The popularity of $1 taco Wednesdays compelled Maria to open the restaurant at 11:30 AM on Wednesdays; the rest of the week the restaurant operates from 4 PM to midnight.
“I was raised to appreciate that customer loyalty is the most important thing in this business,” she emphasized. “It’s such a fine line between growing a business and honoring our long-time patrons.” This continuing customer loyalty is very evident given the popularity of “Tango Tuesdays” and the many hundreds of nightclub patrons dancing every weekend to the live music of popular Mexican and Latin American performers.
Maria grew up in Encino – a regular commute that her father still makes – but the daily demands of managing the restaurant inspired Maria to move to the Miracle Mile a year ago. “It’s changed my life in so many aspects,” she states. “I relate to my customers better because I’m a local now. I frequent other restaurants. It’s very much a neighborhood vibe around here.”
In turns out that Maria was a trailblazer for another woman in her family: her mother, Consuelo Lopez. “We were very fortunate to have a stay-at-home mom when we were growing up. About four years ago, she was suffering from empty nest syndrome and she came to me and said, ‘Please, let me have a job with you.’ The kitchen is her thing. She’s been an incredible help. We develop new dishes together and she helps a lot with our catering business.”
So, now Armando Lopez finds himself working side-by-side with both his daughter and his wife. But it is a wise man who can change with the times – and a lucky man to have a daughter like Maria, who knows what needs to be changed.
Maria Lopez (center) with her parents, Armando and Consuelo Lopez.
Candela Taco Bar & Lounge
831 S. La Brea Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90036