The Austin Chronicle

Hostess With the Mostess

By Clay Smith, February 8, 2002, Food

When Tom Gilliland was a student at the University of Texas School of Law in the late Sixties, he ate five days a week at Tower Drugstore, near where Posse East is now. Mercedes Ramos worked behind the counter there, along with her sisters Francis, Anna, Mary, Mary Lou, and Millie. The abundance of Ramos sisters serving him his meals may help explain why, when Gilliland ran into Mercedes in a grocery store several years later, he didn't call her by the right name. He asked her if she'd like to come and work for him at Fonda San Miguel, a new restaurant he was starting up. "He said, 'Millie?'" Ramos recalls. "And I said, 'No, I'm not Millie, I'm Mercedes.' And he said, 'Oh, that's right, Mercedes. What would you think about coming to work for me?'" Her answer was no. "We've been friends too long," she told him. "You know sometimes when you work with people closely you don't always agree on everything?"

Then she brought her family to eat at Fonda and changed her mind. That meal turned out to be among the most crucial for the struggling restaurant. Although Fonda San Miguel may be the institution among culinary institutions in Austin, Mercedes, in her 25 total years as hostess at the restaurant, has become her own institution. Behind the podium that's nearly as tall as she is, she doles out your waiting time as if it were an entirely unexpected million-dollar inheritance. When she tells you you have two hours to wait, why does it seem like you've just been sweetly kissed on the cheek? She could tell you you look funny and smell strange and you'd beg her to say it again.

"When they come in, if I'm running 10 minutes behind or 15 minutes behind, I say, 'I'm truly sorry.' If you're honest, they'll be happy," she says. "You can't tell them a lie because they'll read right through you."

Mercedes has taken a particular liking to the word "Honey"; she calls people "Honey" about as often as other people use the word "the."

"If she doesn't remember your name, it's 'Honey,'" Gilliland says. "But she also calls people she knows 'Honey,' so you never know. I can't get away with that, I can't call people 'Honey.'" But most people she remembers.

"The way she treated the customer, you feel like you're in a hacienda somewhere in Mexico," says Ahmad Modoni, the co-owner of Manuel's who speaks about Mercedes in the past tense since it's been 20 years since he worked there, though Fonda regulars say his words still apply now. "When you go to some of these places [in Mexico], there's a gentleman or a woman right there and they treat you like you are in their home. That was her home and she was inviting you to come in. It was very inviting, and she could take care of you like a mother. From the time she was supposed to be there until she left, she kept everybody in line, she made sure all the customers are taken care of and the restaurant is in good shape. So, to me, she really had a lot to do with the success of that restaurant."

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