Restaurant serves people

Ada Villatoro. El Golfo restaurant. 8739 Flower Avenue, Silver Spring. Photo by Mike Sheils.

BY MIKE SHEILS

Silver Spring restaurant El Golfo doesn’t just serve food. It serves people.

Aiding local artists, organizations, schools, candidates, churches, non-profits, and neighbors, El Golfo has developed a network of fans, and a reputation that makes owner Ada Villatoro proud.

Family tradition

Owner Ada Villatoro grew up on an El Salvadorian farm where her parents taught their 11 children the importance of service to others.

They shared the family farmland with those in need, providing access to fresh vegetables and other foods.

“My mother would always give the best of what she had to people,” Villatoro said. “If she had something that was not good, she would not give it away.”

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Thomas View, bassist, The Greater U Street Jazz Collective. Photo by Mike Sheils.

That spirit of giving stayed with Villatoro when she moved to the United States in 1985.

She lived with her father and three siblings in Washington, and got her first taste of the restaurant industry when she accompanied her father to his workplace.

“I never worked anywhere else but restaurants,” said Villatoro. “I loved it.”

Nearly 20 years later, after seeing her brother’s success in ownership, in 2004, Ada invested in his restaurant, El Golfo, where she worked. The next year, her brother sold the remainder of his share.

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El Golfo restaurant. 8739 Flower Avenue, Silver Spring. Photo by Mike Sheils.

Even before becoming an owner, Ada welcomed local organizations at El Golfo, as then PTA President Richelle Meer first approached the restaurant in the early 2000s to help raise funds for Eastern Middle School.

“I’ve known her forever,” said Meer, now Executive Director at Silver Spring Day School. “She’s so entrenched in wanting to serve the community. She’s a real grassroots leader.”

While Meer initially coordinated fundraisers for her son’s middle school at El Golfo, it was not long before she did the same for Silver Spring Day School, a practice that continues today.

Villatoro joined the Long Branch Business League around 2005, but had to step away from 2008 to 2010, to ensure that El Golfo survived economic downturn.

That’s when she increased efforts to contact local non-profits about fundraising at the restaurant, located at 8739 Flower Avenue.

Fundraising gone viral

“I couldn’t sleep at night, thinking how could we give back?” she said. “How could we reach out to our community? And that’s the idea that came to mind.”

News of the opportunity went viral, with non-profits, schools, and churches calling to book fundraising nights.

“In the beginning, we were losing money,” said Villatoro. “But I thought if we keep doing this, it’s going to be worth it.”

Many fundraiser patrons became regular customers, she said.

Jumping with art

“Jump Start with the Arts” is the latest fundraiser that Silver Spring Day School is involved with at El Golfo, presented in partnership with arts outreach non-profit, Class Act Arts.

A monthly music series geared towards pre-school children, the first season’s success has led to plans for a second, to launch in September, said Busy Graham, founder of Class Act Arts.

At “Jump Start” events, El Golfo donates 20% of food and drink sales to the organizations. A $5 entry charge grants adults a free drink or dessert, with door proceeds going to the performers.

“Ada has contributed so much to the cultural landscape in our community,” said Graham. “By opening her space to non-profits, she’s making a big difference.”

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The Greater U Street Jazz Collective plays Wednesday evenings at El Golfo. Photo by Mike Sheils.

El Golfo hosts other musical acts as well, including the Greater U Street Jazz Collective, who have played Wednesday evenings for about four years.

Bassist Thomas View credits the restaurant for creating an affordable environment for jazz fans to experience live music.

“What we do doesn’t work unless you have a good restaurant, good food, parking, and attentive staff – and there has to be some level of understanding and appreciation of culture,” View said. “And we feel that at El Golfo.”

In League with business

In addition to jazz, El Golfo has showcased blues, country, rock blues, and now a latin dance night on Fridays, “Danza Latina,” an idea Villatoro credits to the Long Branch Business League.

Over the years, Villatoro’s worn numerous hats for the League, serving as president previously, and currently as vice president.

In March, along with other League leadership, she received a 2014 Impact Silver Spring Momentum Award for “creating social, economic, and civic momentum.”

Recently, the League partnered with the Montgomery Housing Project, helping change the face of the streetscape via decorative flowers and murals, such as the larger-than-life toucan which graces the side of El Golfo.

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Photo by Mike Sheils.

Aside from music and fundraisers, the Latin American family restaurant welcomes a variety of meetings and political kick-off parties.

Local politician Sheila Hixson coordinates meetings at El Golfo for the 20th District Democratic Breakfast Club.

“Ada blends the whole neighborhood together at El Golfo,” said Hixson, a state delegate representing Montgomery County District 20. “She’s the epitome of a leader, and she treats everyone as fairly as she treats our group.”

Another El Golfo?

Looking to the future, Villatoro hopes for continued success, and possibly a second El Golfo.

Embracing the community was the key factor in surviving the bad economy, she said.

“It feels good when people come to El Golfo to host their events, and it’s also part of the business,” she said. “When we give, we get back.”